In late-September, 35 community leaders travelled to Louisville, Kentucky as part of the Leadership Expedition to Accelerate Progress (LEAP).In late-September, 35 community leaders travelled to Louisville, Kentucky as part of the Leadership Expedition to Accelerate Progress (LEAP).  The trip, hosted by Sarasota Tomorrow in partnership with the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County, serves as an opportunity for area leadership to learn more about the successes of peer and aspirational communities that might be emulated locally.  As in year’s past, the Sarasota delegation included: elected officials, City/County staff, local for-profit and non-profit CEOs, key education leadership, and other key civic and business stakeholders. 


In the sixth iteration of the inter-city best practice visit concept, Louisville was selected for the strides made in education & workforce development, waterfront reimagining, targeted cluster incubation and acceleration, place making, and tourism branding.   The visit began with a presentation from Kent Oyler, President of Greater Louisville, Inc (GLI).  GLI serves as the metro-area Chamber for the 15-county/2-state region anchored by Louisville itself.  The GLI regional model serves as an outstanding example of purposeful collaboration and asset leverage.  The regionalism was again on display during a presentation from Michael Gritton, Executive Director of the regional workforce board Kentuciana Works.  The organization, whose name is a blend of Kentucky and Indiana, serves a seven-county region across the two states.  Presenting alongside Mr. Gritton, during a panel on education & workforce initiatives was Mary Gwen Wheeler, Executive Director of 55,000 Degrees.  This organization, launched through a commitment of numerous area stakeholders, seeks to add 55,000 additional degrees to the Louisville metro-area.  Driven by a desire to elevate the area to the top tier of peer communities in terms of educational attainment, area government, educational, and business leaders committed to adding 40,000 more bachelor’s degrees and 15,000 additional associate’s degrees by 2020 such that half of the population would attain a post-secondary degree.  Redevelopment was also an overarching concept that surfaced numerous times throughout the visit.  Sitting on the banks of the Ohio River, stretches of Louisville’s waterfront long-stood as a collection area for industrial waste.  The late-1980’s gave rise to the area’s Waterfront Development Corporation, which set out to coordinate and implement strategies to revitalize the city’s waterfront.  The travel group also heard from Gill Holland, the chief redeveloper and investor in NuLu, an abbreviated form of New Louisville.  NuLu is the product of a multi-million dollar redevelopment of what was formerly one of Louisville’s most dangerous and blighted areas.  Today, the area is known for its walkability, art galleries, unique retail options, and upscale eateries. The delegation heard from representatives ar XLerate Health, the Institute for Sustainable Health and Optimal Aging, Innovate LTC, to name a few.  Some members of the group elected to take a tour of FirstBuild, a partnership between General Electric and Local Motors that encourages a community of creators and early adopters to suggest and create the next generation of appliance designs, features, and types. Much can be said about the successes that Louisville enjoys in the key areas of focus that carried the city to the top of the list for the 2015 trip.     




As a workforce development practitioner I am always looking for new innovative ideas and practices to bring to our region.  The trip was full of informative ways the city is tackling talent management and retention. It was apparent from the very first presentations that are positioned in the right location to attract companies without much effort because of their geographical location. Another eye opener was the number of jobs available for local talent.  With that they said, they still struggle to find the skill workers the companies are looking for, calling for actions from many organizations to rally and to work together as a community to develop workforce development strategies to address the issue.  There was definitely a sense of true collaboration among the workforce board, funders collaborative, EDC, Chamber, educators, employers and other organizations with the same mission to address the talent shortage.  Government leaders are also making bold decisions to fund workforce development and educational strategies because they acknowledge that traditional funding sources are not enough to resolve the talent deficiency companies are facing.  My biggest take-away from the trip, how nice everyone was and the desire to build a community together and not as one entity. 


What most jumped out at me about Louisville was the seeming effectiveness of their regional strategy. They had one Metro Chamber of Commerce, one Regional Economic Development Council and a single strong mayor (whom everyone seemed to like).   The people we met were all singing off the same page.  They were looking to attract employers to the area, looking to support entrepreneurship and looking to attract people to move to the region. They were all mindful of workforce issues, and worked hard to retain young people and attract immigrant families. They were shameless and worked every angle. And each person we met spoke in terms of the whole region. They were proud of their parks, of their food and of their recreational opportunities, and they sought to link areas by bicycle and footpaths.  By contrast, we seem to talk about Sarasota as if Bradenton (or Longboat Key or Venice) does not exist, and vice versa.  And that obscures the reality that however nice the Louisville region, our region has fewer deficits and much more in aggregate than they.      


This is not the same industrial Louisville I remember growing up as a young adult in Kentucky. Louisville is a vibrant city with young entrepreneurs, a cultural mecca with a strong business base. My most compelling impression from the Louisville trip centered on its widely accepted regional economic cluster strategy. Everywhere we went and everyone we met, from young entrepreneurs to public officials, these leaders knew their strengths, which concentrate on five economic clusters in the region—aging care/lifelong wellness, business services, logistics and e-commerce, advanced manufacturing and innovative food and beverage businesses. The Louisville region has formed an identity that is attracting and retaining youth while diversifying its economy and inviting national acclamation.

The second fascinating impression is that there was no single prominent leader spearheading this economic renaissance. At best, Louisville’s leadership consisted of loosely organized and wide-ranging networks of business leaders, university officials, young entrepreneurs and government officials. Whether it was the young entrepreneurs at Copper and Kings in Butchertown or Michael Gritton, the innovative workforce leader of KentuckianaWorks, these leaders were inclusive, creative and willing to take risks to advance their Louisville’s mission of growing an exciting start-up community. Leadership was a function of what people did rather than what they said they were going to do. My final impression of Louisville was the long-term outlook to achieve success. The region has an innovative city-county government that took years to form, but works with a cohesive focus on economic development. They have revived their downtown with a steady, patient approach to preservation of buildings and neighborhoods while promoting economic revitalization. I was thankful to be a part of this intercity expedition. I am now focused on how Gulf Coast Community Foundation can continue to move our Gulf Coast region forward in its quest to become an innovative start-up community.   


I left Louisville feeling challenged to develop and sustain that city’s passion for success and innovation in our work in Sarasota County.

The private, higher education and public sectors have invested considerably in growing business activity in the area of Lifelong Wellness and Aging Care. This proactive effort began about 10 years ago, and while they admit that it has been harder and more challenging than expected, it is impressive to see the progress they are making in positioning Louisville as a global leader in Lifelong Wellness and Aging Care. The lessons for me were their collective focus around supporting existing businesses and persistently developing sustained, aligned support from private, philanthropic and public sector leadership. Getting broad local sectors on the same page was a consistent theme in Louisville’s successes.

Louisville has a well-established network of incubators, accelerators and other support for entrepreneurs. Among other things, they actively recruit entrepreneurs to their community to take advantage of these resources. Again, across all sectors — public, private and philanthropic — there is strong agreement that a robust ecosystem supporting entrepreneurs is critical for developing a sustainable, 21st century economy.

First Build is the product innovation center for GE Appliance, which is headquartered in Louisville and is one of its largest employers. It is unique in the country and represents the cutting edge of how large companies are investing to increase the pace and success of product innovation. It was impressive to experience first-hand how they engage customers, distributors and suppliers globally using all social media platforms, how they have developed a fast track prototyping and market-testing program, how they used crowdfunding to support innovation and how they are pushing innovation into the marketplace at a fraction of the time that it historically took them. 



In the successes we encountered in Louisville, the change was measured in years and sometimes painful.  In the challenges, we discovered a regional effort that accepted the risk of failure in order to make progress.  We learned about a city with quirks and how the locals were on a quest to “Keep Louisville Weird”. This became evident in an Art Museum bathroom, which also served as an art exhibit called “Voyeurism.”  Weird - for sure. 

Looking past Louisville’s idiosyncrasies, I saw a lot of economic nurturing of innovation. We heard about their health care industry and how Humana and its spinoffs were economic drivers of their health care cluster.  They used “Accelerators,” to advance development of established health care-related companies.  They celebrated innovation initiatives with a festival called Ideafest.   They cultivated innovation by teaching adults coding in a program called Code Louisville.  The private sector also encouraged community innovation.  GE led the way with open invention lab space at FirstBuild.  We learned about how “The Bourbon Trail” emerged as a tourism destination that was complimented by their culinary talents.  They embraced the bourbon tag and held education classes about bourbon for their service sector, from servers to managers.  Ironically, while embracing bourbon and food in tourism, they battled these very assets and their health effects on Louisville citizens.  

We learned about a 15-year effort for to build an 85-acre waterfront park on the Ohio River that was deemed passive.  Later it had evolved into having three restaurants, a marina, barge parking and multifamily development in order to pay for the park maintenance.Louisville embraced its unique assets and has identified its barriers to quality of life. The city took risks and made necessary adjustments along the way when things did not go as planned.  In order to be innovative, Louisville was bold and not afraid to fail.  Sarasota can learn a lot from that. 


The LEAP journey to Louisville achieved the goal of preparing delegates to keep moving Sarasota’s business climate and economic environment into a sustainable and dynamic realm.  Key factors in Louisville’s success is how their business, government, civic and academic leaders followed the A B Cs – Alignment, Box-scores and Communication.

Alignment. The government, business, education and philanthropic organizations were aligned around a small set of common goals and target industry segments where resources were focused.  In Sarasota, we can to do more to link education and -certification programs with current job needs, as well as target new technology sectors (software programmers) and build on our extensive lifecare sector.

Box-scores. Many innovative organizations had scorecards, which were used to measure progress toward meeting their goals/objectives.  The scorecards were prepared in their initial planning, then updated at regular intervals and then communicated the positive or negative progress and lessons learned along the way.  In order to achieve innovation there also had to be a culture of allowed/encouraged risk-taking with a few targeted fail-fast projects.  

Communication. Several of the organizations spoke of the need to “over communicate” on the alignment topics, the goals of the organizations or events, and the expected/accomplished outcomes.