I was honored to be invited to be the morning plenary speaker at the Kentucky-Tennessee Water Environment Association tenth annual meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. I was glad to attend and have the opportunity for my first visit to Louisville. A few observations:
1. Louisville – The “City of Opportunities” is a happening place. There is a compact downtown along the Ohio River with walkable streets, lots of restaurants and nightlife, and a fantastic set of parks along the River. On this particular weekend there was a huge several day concert with multiple sound stages right on the water which attracted a dynamic crowd of mostly younger folks. As I walked the River, I saw lots of bikers, runners, and families with strollers. Plus there is the oldest still-serving steamboat along the River along with an impressive row of museums. I liked the architecture of the buildings and re-use of the older manufacturing sites. The city is big enough to have a wide range of amenities, but not so big that I could not navigate my wanderings just by orienting to a few major landmarks.
2. Transportation – I could not help but note that the biggest difference to DC is the lack of a Metro system, which apparently can’t be supported without more population. Plus, there are huge roads right along much of the waterfront, which is the only blemish on an otherwise impressive use of the water. There is a bus system and a trolley too – but I simply did not find it as easy to get around to see a wider range of what Louisville has to offer. I don’t personally much like the “Downtown Live” complex near the convention center, which duplicates similar centers in other cities. The restaurants and entertainment seems too much like Disney and not enough like Louisville, and unfortunately, encourages many visitors not to explore the other parts of the city.
3. Leadership – I was able to hear a short speech from the Mayor, and have gotten to know Greg Heitzman, the Director of the water and wastewater systems in Louisville. Both are impressive, and emphasize my sense that this city has solid, stable leadership; is driving cost effective improvements to service; and that they are working together to build a strong future for the city itself. Louisville is a competitor with other cities that are seeking a modern economic future in part based on a vibrant downtown, a diverse youth culture, and lots of good food and entertainment — and a great waterfront.
4. Region – For the conference participants, I am impressed by the skill and creativity of the folks I met. One gentleman stood out for me – who described himself to me as just a farm boy running a rural water and wastewater authority using common sense. His common sense though was business dynamite in my view: competing for water customers, deploying social media, considering new markets, implementing best-in-class business practices – with quite a bit of wisdom, class and charm. Parallel to my sense of the expertise in Louisville and other cities in the region – I came to offer my suggestions but left with some new understanding and ideas. This area is on the rise.
5. Challenges – Given the general excellence of what I witnessed, I am also mindful of the challenge caused by the movement described to me as “CAVE” (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) which has been loosely associated with the Tea Party movement. Many of my compatriots in this region are wedged between activists and politicians who do not want to invest even one more penny into infrastructure (or much of anything else), but also demand better service and improvements on the other. I am sympathetic of course to folks who have lost jobs and are facing real hardship and therefore have a problem paying increased bills. But expecting everything to get better, or even stay the same, in a context of aging structures without an appropriate investment is dishonest and self-defeating.
Mostly though I was impressed again by the quality of the people in the water industry and in this particular instance, how appealing I found Louisville. I am a believer and hope to get back sometime soon!