Keep your city weird, and other good advice

Here we are in the city named for Stephen F. Austin, the “father of Texas” and Transylvania University alumnus (class of 1810).

Commerce Lexington chartered two large jets for the 275 people making its 69th annual Leadership Visit. When those jets touched down at Austin’s new airport, we were taken to Austin Music Hall to hear from local leaders about this city’s successes and failures and how they might apply to Central Kentucky.

The music hall itself is a symbol of one of those successes. A former warehouse and chili factory, it was reopened seven months ago after essentially being rebuilt as a privately developed concert venue.

It’s not a fancy building — concrete floors, exposed beams and air ducts — and that is by design. Owner Tim O’Connor said the “dressed down” decor offers ultimate flexibility for whatever the function and whomever is appearing on stage — whether it’s Bill Gates, Barrack Obama or B.B. King. All have “performed” there.

It’s also an environmentally friendly building, with such things as automatic light switches and computer-controlled climate systems. The water-chilled air conditioning system uses no freon, and it worked quite well today as the afternoon temperature hit 100 degrees.

“The most important thing a developer can do is know the community and the needs of people in that community,” O’Connor said.

Austin’s transformation began in 1983 when it was chosen as the site for Microelectronics & Computer Technology Corp., a research consortium financed by a dozen technology companies. The consortium and the companies spun off from it made Austin a high-tech center.

But all that technology focus hasn’t made the city nerdy. Just the opposite. Austin has developed a live music scene and funky culture that attracts creative young people. Austin now has the youngest net in-migration of any city in America.

Growth has always been a constant in Austin. The metro area’s population has doubled every 20 years for the past 115 years. There are currently about 775,000 residents in the city and 1.6 million in the metro area.

Former Mayor Lee Cook said the keys to Austin’s success have been its willingness to take risks and focus on quality of life. Austin invested in water and sewer improvements, even during economic downturns, and made environmental protection a priority. Leaders have worked to improve schools and integrate the University of Texas and other local universities into the local economy.

But Austin still struggles with transportation and sprawl. Highway traffic is bad, although the city’s first limited light rail system will open later this year.

“Growth is the opportunity, and it is the challenge,” said current Mayor Will Wynn, who has a name any politician would envy.

Wynn came into office in 2003 from the commercial real estate industry, and he had a strong background in environmental protection and historic preservation. He stressed the need for quality, high-density, mixed-use urbane development that makes wise use of land and adds vitality to the city.

In just the past few years, the number of people living in downtown Austin has grown from 500 to 5,800. And another 7,000 or so will be joining them once 4,000 downtown housing units now under construction are finished.

A former mayor who now represents Austin in the state Senate, Kirk Watson, said cities like Austin and Lexington could be positioned well to succeed in the new economy.

Strong economies were once about being an empire, then a superpower, Watson said. Now, with digital technology, they’re about being a successful region. Wealth was once about having land, then industrial capacity. Now, it’s about having intellectual capacity and creative people.

So, Watson said, the places that will be winners in the 21st Century global economy will be those cities and surrounding regions that can attract the brightest people and the companies that want to hire them. “Places that never before could be economic powers can be now,” he said.

He cited these factors for Austin’s success: Improving education, attracting high-tech companies, preserving the local environment and investing in the arts and culture as a way to improve the quality of life and attract smart, dynamic people.

Watson noted that the city’s most popular bumper sticker says, “Keep Austin Weird.”

He noted that innovative companies such as Dell Computer and Whole Foods were started in Austin by people with “weird” ideas. “To attract and cultivate that creative mindset, you have to allow those weird ideas … that often become visionary 10 years later,” he said.

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to “Keep your city weird, and other good advice”

  1.   jered Says:

    i think Lexington already has in the works bumber stickers that say “keep lexington old and proper”.

  2.   RickD Says:

    I, unfortunately, moved to the Lex area from Austin seven years ago. Lexington is no Austin. Lexingtonians might want to have the businesses of Austin they just don’t want to have the kind of people that create those businesses.

    You will have a hard time naming ten technology companies in Lexington. This won’t change any time soon.

    Actions like the animosity to partner benefits and the constitutional ban on same-sex marriages indicate the animosity of Kentuckians to the metrosexuals who would lead Lexington forward into the future. Kentucky instead will continue to head straight to the bottom. It leads the nation in toothlessness, cancer, heart disease, poor education, rattlesnake handling, dry counties, attempts to post the ten commandments in court houses, and plenty of other bad statistics. You won’t find the creation museum in Austin, they already put it in Kentucky.

    The basic fact is that culture matters. The Kentucky culture is backwards and likes it that way.

    BTW, while you’re in Austin have some Texas BBQ. Visit the Iron Works BBQ, which is walking distance from the convention center and, if you can, visit the Salt Lick BBQ, which is out of town. Visit Chuy’s for Mexican food. Google Chuy and Bush for a bit of Bush history.

  3.   lolliloo Says:

    “You will have a hard time naming ten technology companies in Lexington.”

    Rick D. I accept your challenge…

    #1. Topasol
    #2. Scout Diagnostics
    #3. ParaTech
    #4. Oraceuticals
    #5. Neathery Technologies
    #6. Naprogenix
    #7. Mersive Technologies
    #8. Lumenware
    #9. ECM Biosciences
    #10. customKYnetics

  4.   C Says:

    Yeah lolliloo, those roll right off the tongue don’t they? Practically household names. Like he said, you’d have a hard time naming 10 companies.

    Though Rick listed many things that describe Kentucky as a whole, they don’t all apply to Lexington. There can be a culture change here, its not impossible.

  5.   Amy Says:

    If what RickD says is true, let’s focus on possible solutions! Put your energy towards coming up with creative ways to bridge cultural gaps. Use the arts, which reminds people of their humanity and opens the door to cultural sharing and dialogue that addresses diversity. I think RickD is underestimating Lexingtonians – let’s show him our minds are open!

  6.   lolliloo Says:

    Yes Amy! Thank you for your eloquence.

    C, I realized when I posted my list of ten tech companies that some would probably say “Yes, but who’s ever heard of those?” . Why must a business be well known to have validity in this argument? (btw I grabbed those ten companies from one quick “google” if I’d really put my mind to it, I could have listed hundreds) Why don’t the people who own those businesses deserve some respect and recognition?
    My point is merely this….Certain types of general comments about the lack of “this and that” in Lexington are offensive to people like myself who are living here, working here, owning businesses here and trying so hard to make it a better place to live for now and the future. Trust me RickD…that IS happening and I invite you to join in the fun. Get in touch with me and I’ll introduce you to some fantastic locally owned restaurants and businesses and I’ll show you where to find the ethnic restaurants that you say we’re missing. It’s all here and frankly I don’t understand how you aren’t seeing it. When my family gets ready to eat out, the problem is NEVER finding a restaurant…it’s choosing a restaurant and the chain restaurants are not on our list.
    I do think it’s wonderful that our city leaders went to Austin for inspiration, but certain comparisons are unfair when they have 775,000 people in the city and 1.6 million in the metro area. Lexington will never/should never have that. We simply don’t have the natural resources. Some people have chosen to settle here because Lexington is a small city. Bigger is not always better.
    My opinion of our town and State is obviously higher than that of many people, but make no mistake…I do see many faults. Many of those faults are not just within our own State Lines, but are problems all across the U.S. I personally believe though that we should all (no matter what State we live in) focus on keeping we have that is good, figure out what we need to change, roll up our sleeves and get to work.

  7.   Amy Says:

    It’s all about “best practices”. What can we learn from Austin, TX? We’re not saying “Let’s mirror Austin!” It was a great spot for the Leadership Visit, especially when considering their efforts in East Austin and our hope for Third Street. See: The George Washington Carver Musuem and Cultural Center is a great example of the care people took in preserving history and culture in the midst of revitalization.

    If you want to compare Lexington to a place similar in size, check out Wellington, New Zealand. They have more cafes per capita than New York City, free museums and they’re eco-friendly! It is also the headquarters for Peter Jackson’s film company, which created the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

    While you’re researching…google “World of Wearable Art”. There’s a show every year in Wellington and the museum is located in nearby Nelson, which gives you an idea of how these efforts can be regional and/or statewide.

  8.   RickD Says:

    Well lolliloo, it’s too late for me. I’ve been here 7 years and couldn’t find a local job writing software. My wife lost her job at the University so we’re moving on. We moved here for her job at the University and there are no other opportunities here for us.

    Software companies in Lex include Lexmark, Exstream and not much else. Hundreds? Please.

    I’ll be happy to see your top ten list of “fantastic locally owned restaurants.” I’ll start you off:

    Holly HIll Inn: not exactly Lex but my favorite restaurant in the area
    Furlongs, recently re-opened and still pretty good
    Jean Farris, very good

    How about ten more, and I’d prefer none that have hot brown on the menu.

    I was disappointed to find out recently that Hezekaia had given up their yakitori menu. C’est la vie.

  9.   lolliloo Says:

    I’m sorry things didn’t work out for you here, RickD. I’m one of those people who believes things work out the way they’re supposed to and it doesn’t sound like you’ve been very happy here….truly wishing you the best wherever you end up…hopefully Austin because it sounds like you REALLY enjoy it)
    As for the companies…you said “tech” companies. Admittedly, I can’t name companies that specialize in software…but again this is a much smaller city than Austin…expecting the same sort of job opportunities is kind of unfair. Don’t you think? Not that I’m saying it’s not something that needs to be worked on, because it is…always will be…
    My list of locally owned restaurants for you to check out before you go….(not necessarily in order of my favorites…just as they roll off my head)
    A La Lucie
    Mia’s (I hear they are working out some kinks from their move to Annabelles..have patience with the service…food is still really good)
    La Deauville
    Good Foods Coop Cafe
    Winchells (there is a Hot Brown on the menu, but if you want good Kentucky food…)
    Le Bistro
    (these are mostly higher end restaurants for lunch try Charlies Seafood Fish Sandwich…good eatin!also…I can name more if you want….and I would include Midway…it’s only 14 miles away…I’d consider it a “metro area”…for a real treat…take your sweet wife to stay at 21C in Louisville…have dinner there at Proof…then go to Lynn’s Paradise Cafe for brunch)
    Al’s Bar (also a great place to hear some Bluegrass….Kentucky Music…)

    For ethnic fare….
    Curry House (There are several really tasty Indian restaurants in town, but this is my latest favorite)
    Marikka’s for German
    Mulligans for Irish
    Oasis for Mediterranean
    Tropikal Mix for Columbian
    Koreana for Korean
    Siam for Thai
    Bellinis for Italian
    Istanbul Place for Turkish
    Natasha’s Cafe
    Fusion Cafe for Vienamese (I heard a rumor that this had closed, but I don’t know that for sure….apparently a GREAT place to get an Avocado shake!)
    Panda Garden for Chinese
    Several of the Mexican Groceries have really wonderful taco stands….and there are countless little “hole in the wall” Mexican restaurants that I haven’t tried, but are supposedly very good and authentic….not “Americanized” Mexican

    Happy Eating!