Ireland can learn a lot from the state of Kentucky, which is aiming to place itself back at the crossroads of America’s great trade routes.
According to Hunter S Thompson, who was one of Kentucky’s finest writers and definitely its most outrageous, the Kentucky Derby is ‘‘decadent and depraved’’. Here in Louisville, on the eve of the big day, it’s hard to argue with the Prince of Gonzo.
The old city, home to Muhammad Ali, closes down from Thursday to Sunday as the whole racing world seems to descend on this spot on the Ohio river. It’s a weekend of gambling, horses, southern belles, good ol’ southern boys and, of course, bourbon. Loads of bourbon.
After falling behind for decades, Louisville, which was once the ninth largest city in the US, is re-emerging as a city of economic significance. Most impressive in this renaissance are the strong links between government and the city’s business leaders. One of the most refreshing aspects of Louisville is the willingness of business leaders here, unlike in Dublin, to speak out and offer a vision for the city. As one said tome: ‘‘The ambition of the city is far too important to be left to planners alone.”
The aim here in Kentucky is to put this city back where it used to be: at the crossroads of the great trade routes between the United States and Canada and the south.
Equally impressive is the appreciation that the world has changed and that the state of Kentucky is in competition, not just with the states around it, but with countries such as Ireland for the attentions of investors, for corporate headquarters, and for capital and labour.
The business community – actively through philanthropic donations and passively behind the scenes – are at the vanguard of this initiative.
There is a long way to go. Kentucky still lags behind in educational attainment, but the way the city elders have invested in reclaiming and landscaping the parks close to the great river, which separates Kentucky from Indiana, redeveloping the downtown and trying to attract investment based on ‘quality of life’ is notable.
Kentucky rose to prominence on abundant natural resources and minimal taxation and this is what the business community is hoping will see them through again. The famed ‘bluegrass’ state sits on a huge limestone plateau. The limestone is just under the soil and the roots of the grass suck in calcium from the rock giving it its famous ‘bluish’ tinge in the spring and summer.
This calcium also made Kentucky perfect for raising horses as it strengthened their bones. The state, particularly the rolling hills between Louisville and Lexington, is dotted with some of the best stud farms in the world.
The Ashford Stud, owned by Coolmore, is particularly impressive and is home to former Derby winners Thunder Gulch and Pegasus.
The other thing Kentucky is famous for is, of course, bourbon whiskey. According to local lore, after the American War of Independence, which was financed largely by France, the new republic had enormous war debts to the French crown.
Many of the patriots — who were drawn in huge numbers from Ulster Scots settlers – fought the English on the very premise of unfair taxes. They were hardly going to accept new taxes from the new government in Washington, so they headed west.
Given that they were trying to escape taxes which were in part going to pay France, it is ironic that they settled in a huge tract of land called Bourbon County, which was owned by the then disintegrating French royal family. Here they started making ‘Bourbon’ and shipping it down the Ohio river to the Mississippi and out to the Caribbean at New Orleans.
Ever since, horses and bourbon have become synonymous with Kentucky. When you are out on the rolling plains of western Kentucky, you notice the same mortarless stone walls we have in Connemara. These are testament to the massive immigration of Irish Catholics in the years after the famine.
They are called ‘slave walls’, but they weren’t built by black slaves. They were built by our ancestors who mixed with black slaves at the bottom of the pile, leading to significant levels of intermarriage.
One product of this was the great Cassius Clay, whose great grandfather Abe Grady left Ennis, Co Clare, during the Famine and married Ali’s great grandmother in Kentucky.
Connections like these – the long familial ties between Ireland and America – were exactly what Bertie Ahern underlined in his Congress and Senate address this week. In Kentucky, it didn’t quite make the headlines, as Barack Obama’s travails with Pastor Wright dominated. However, Bertie’s speech – particularly the sentiments on the Irish diaspora -was widely reported.
These days, the business community of Kentucky has identified countries like Ireland as potential competitors and partners. While both places are now totally different and Ireland is considerably richer, the redevelopment of Louisville is driven by economics.
People here realise that capital is mobile and, more importantly, that people are mobile. They are looking at us and asking whether they can emulate our record in attracting foreign investment. If they don’t have the people, they can import them from the hugely populated states around Kentucky. They have learned from places like Denver, which has reinvented itself over the past few years, that cities are the locomotive for innovation and that they can be reinvented.
Most fundamentally, they realise that, in the future, great cities will determine the standard of living of the inhabitants and that the first thing to do is not to tolerate mediocrity.
Are we in Ireland addressing this challenge? Have we decided that collectively we will make Dublin one of the great cities of the world? And, crucially, why have many of our business leaders been silent on the issue?
Dublin has so much going for it: history, a young population and a tolerance of foreigners. This energy could be galvanised to create a most creative city. Such a city would be a magnet for capital and people because both would be bashing down the doors to come to here.
Think about cities as competing parties. People want to go to the best party. In Kentucky over the Derby weekend, all the talk is not so much about horses as parties – who has an invitation to what party and where everyone is going next.
The people with the reputation for the best parties get the best guests, the tickets for these are most expensive and therefore, these are the parties that can afford the finest food, drink, views of the track and entertainment.
People want to be seen there. It’s a self-reinforcing mechanism. We should think of our capital in the same way. If we can create a vibe in the city where people and capital queue to get in, then we will ride out this slowdown and emerge in better shape at the far side. We’ve all got to do our bit. In the words of Hunter S Thompson: let’s party!