Regional collaboration: Economic development, population spurred by unified government

The following article first appeared in The Gazette (Eastern Iowa) on January 20, 2013.  The full, online version can be seen here:

Ask H. Foster Pettit about the benefits of adopting unified city-county government and he quickly points to what he calls “one-stop shopping” in economic development.

“When companies come to town looking at locating in a community, they don’t have to go to three, four or five people to get permissions,” said Pettit, the last mayor of Lexington, Ky., and the first mayor of Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government. “It’s important to have one place to go and get an answer swiftly.

“We were able to combine the political and financial interests of the community in one direction. When you have one set of elected officials, everyone is looking to them for decisions and leadership.

“You also get a community spirit where everyone is working together,” he said during a telephone interview. “It doesn’t mean you’re going to be smarter or wiser, but you will be focused on a common goal.”

In 1974, the governments of the city of Lexington and Fayette County combined to create Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government. Pettit was a driving force in promoting the merger and is a recognized national expert on unified government.

Unified government in the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City Corridor has been discussed at various times, most recently by Pat Baird, former president and CEO of AEGON USA (nowTransamerica).

Baird, who facilitated a November meeting of  Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance and theIowa City Area Development Group investors, said unified regional government models should be explored. The backers met to discuss issues involving the two economic-development groups working better together.

Baird, in mentioning unified governments, specifically cited Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government, which was formed in January 2003 with some assistance from Foster Pettit.

“Jerry Abramson, who was the first mayor of Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government, is a good friend and our current lieutenant governor,” Pettit noted. “Jerry and the leadership in Louisville employed me after I was no longer Lexington’s mayor to help them get the enabling legislation (for unified city-county government) through the Kentucky Legislature.”

Lexington and Fayette County had a combined population of about 175,000 when unified government was approved by the voters. Today, the population is about 302,000, with 32 percent of the growth occurring in the 1970s after the merger.

Pettit said having a “critical mass” of people has enabled Lexington to attract,Affiliated Computer ServicesLexmark International, Hewlett PackardTempur-PedicToyota,TraneUnited Parcel Service and other big, well-known employers.

Jumping competition at the 2010 FEI World Equestrian Games was held in the outdoor arena at Kentucky Horse Park. (Courtesy photo)

“Without unified government, I also don’t think we would have landed the NCAA Mens Final Four Basketball Tournamentin the early 1980s or the World Equestrian Games in October 2010,” Pettit added. “We also host theRolex Kentucky Three Day Event at Kentucky Horse Park, which is one of the top three annual equestrian eventing competitions in the world.”

Abramson, who spent four days last year as a guest of the Argus Foundation in Sarasota, Fla., told city, county and business leaders there that “metropolitanism is where this country is.”

Abramson said America’s cities, counties and state governments are 19th century organizations trying to solve 21st-century problems. He said the consolidation of Louisville and Jefferson County governments saved taxpayers millions of dollars and made local government more efficient.

More important, according to Abramson, it brought a metropolitan area of 750,000 together to move in one direction rather than have city and county governments fighting at cross purposes.

Louisville overnight became one of the nation’s top 20 cities. The city’s population surged from 256,000 residents to 694,000 residents, and $9.61 million in tax savings was recognized when all consolidations were completed.

While noting the tax savings, Abramson said consolidation was primarily sold to voters for economic development.

Since the merger, Louisville was able to attract the corporate headquarters of Yum Brands, owner of the KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell , and UPS’s Worldport, a worldwide air hub with a facility the size of 90 football fields that employs 20,000 people handling 84 packages a second, or 416,000 per hour.

While a merged city-county government has played a major role in attracting and retaining businesses, co-location of all entities involved with economic development also is beneficial, according to Mark Turner, senior vice president of Commerce Lexington Now, formerly the Greater Lexington Chamber of Commerce.

“We have Commerce Lexington Now, the University of Kentucky, the Small Business Development Center and the Innovation and Commercialization Center all located in the same building,” Turner said. “Any company in the community looking to expand or considering locating a facility in Lexington can come to one place and get all their questions answered.

“Before 2006, we would have to send them to four or five different places. We recently had an existing employer, Neogen Corp.,  looking for a second location and we were able to provide them with the information they needed to select Lexington for their expansion, which will create 75 new jobs over the next several years.

“In September, the law firm of Bingham McCutchen announced that it will open a new Global Services Center in Lexington and hire 250 people. Those projects might not have happened before we streamlined our economic development process.”

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