Lexington leaders head for Austin, Texas

Legend has it that when many Kentuckians went west in search of a better life more than a century ago, they wrote “GTT” on their cabin doors – Gone to Texas.

About 275 of Lexington’s movers and shakers left similar messages on their voice mail Wednesday.

They’ve gone to Austin, Texas, for Commerce Lexington’s 69th annual Leadership Visit. Unlike their ancestors, though, they’ll return Friday night with lots of ideas for making life better in Kentucky.

Commerce Lexington’s annual trip is one of the nation’s oldest and largest of its kind. Past trips have been to such cities as Nashville; Providence, R.I.; Raleigh, N.C.; Boulder, Colo.; and Portland, Ore. And they have produced a variety of ideas for Lexington, ranging from the Fayette Education Foundation to city recycling programs.

This year’s attendees include Mayor Jim Newberry and all 15 members of the Urban County Council, as well as community leaders in business, education and the arts.

These trips are an invaluable chance for the people who run Lexington to see what is working and not working in other cities, to pick up new ideas, to discuss them and to network with each other, said Commerce Lexington President Robert Quick.

“It’s easy for us to look at any community we go to … and just think they’ve always had their act together,” he said. “A lot of these areas started 25, 30, 50 years ago, and the key is that they built the right infrastructure for change.”

Quick said that no matter where the trip goes, there’s always an interesting realization: “We have a lot more going for us than we give ourselves credit for, but we can’t see it because we’re so involved in our day-to-day lives.”

This year’s group of 275 is the largest ever. The three-day trip was sold out late last year, and 38 people on the waiting list had to stay home. Quick said special emphasis was put on including young professionals; there are 57 leaders on the trip younger than 30.

Austin was chosen for this year’s trip because since the early 1980s it has transformed itself into a diverse, energetic city that attracts high-tech businesses and young professionals. Austin’s live-music scene is a model for ambitious efforts to improve our city’s entertainment infrastructure – one of the keys to making Lexington an exciting place for both residents and visitors. Plus, Austin has had some success in regional planning and cooperation, a big issue in the Bluegrass.

The Lexington delegation will hear from Austin Mayor Will Wynn and other local officials. Group meetings will be at the Austin Music Hall, a state-of-the-art performance venue that was recently doubled in size.

Attendees will get to sample Austin night life Wednesday. On Thursday afternoon, groups can tour Austin’s city hall, airport and revitalization efforts downtown and in an historic African-American neighborhood.

“We learn a lot from other communities’ successes, and from their failures,” Quick said.

“Seeds get planted, even though it may take us years to follow through. By having everyone at the table – the policy-makers and the people at the street level – you have a group that can come back and get things done.”