Why the Commerce Lexington trip is worth it

Many of the record 275 people who went on Commerce Lexington‘s 69th annual Leadership Visit go year, after year after year. They get ideas for improving Lexington. They make and develop contacts for improving their businesses and careers. And they get a lot of work done.

This week’s trip to Austin, Texas, was the sixth Commerce Lexington trip for Barry Brauch, the CFO of American Founders Bank. He said there’s often an expectation that the group will come back with some big idea that quickly transform Lexington, but it just doesn’t happen that way. What happens is small ideas are planted, germinate and bloom sometimes years later with a distinct Lexington twist.

“It’s like making a mosaic that, over time, gives a picture of what Lexington can be,” Brauch said as the group headed back to Lexington on Friday afternoon.

The best way for people to get to know each other is to travel together. There’s a lot of value in gathering together the mayor, all 15 Urban County Council members, the school superintendent, many of the city’s top bankers and business leaders, a local legislator and the speaker of the state House of Representatives, who lives in Bowling Green and may not otherwise spend a lot of time thinking about what’s good for Lexington and how what happens in Lexington is good for Kentucky.

“I can’t imagine, without this trip, how much more fragmented Lexington would be,” Brauch said. “Some people think Lexington is divided. I think they’ve just never lived somewhere that’s really divided.”

For business people, who often are focused on minding their own business, it’s a time to step back and think about what’s good for the entire city. “You feel plugged in, and when things come up back home later, you know how it fits into the overall things people are trying to accomplish,” Brauch said.

Brauch cited a small example: When artists, performers and creative entrepreneurs come seeking loans, bankers often look askance. They don’t understand the business models, and they worry when the collateral is more intellectual than concrete. But politicians and bankers in Austin explained to that such loans, when done carefully and intentionally, are good for business and good for a city.

Linda Gorton, an Urban County Council member, says these trips teach Lexington leaders as much what to avoid as to emulate. For example, last year’s trip showed that Boulder, Colo., has become such an expensive place to live that many police officers, firefighters, teachers and service workers must live in neighboring towns. “We sure don’t want that to happen in Lexington,” she said.

Lexington leaders whose success often depends on collaborating with other Lexington leaders found the trip invaluable. Fire Chief Robert Hendricks was able to discuss several issues, such as home sprinklers, with a variety of interested parties.

“In order to get a meeting with some of these people in Lexington, it can normally take a month,” said Stu Silberman, the Fayette County Schools superintendent. “Here, you can get those people together in 15 minutes and get the meeting done quickly.”

Susan Rayer, director of career development at Transylvania University, lined up internships for four students. “And that was all done before dinner last night,” she said on the second day of the three-day trip.

“For me, this trip is worth its weight in gold. I’ve gotten so much done,” said Wanda Bertram, executive director of LexLinc, a non-profit that helps poor neighborhoods solve problems. “We didn’t have the money in the budget, but my board chair said, ‘You’re going on this trip.’”

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