Austin shows us what to strive for

What kind of city should Lexington become?

That’s the big question each year when Commerce Lexington gathers local leaders and takes them to another city in search of ideas.

“Lexington is at a pivotal point — economically, culturally and physically,” Mayor Jim Newberry told the 275 people on this year’s trip as they gathered last Wednesday in Austin Music Hall in the capital city of Texas.

Everyone agreed. They also knew that economic success in the 21st century will belong to those cities and regions that embrace knowledge and technology.

So what was there to learn in Austin? Lexington is a prettier place and has much better weather. Yet, Austin is booming and seems wired for a bright future.

That’s because, over the past three decades, Austin has made smart, strategic decisions about creating an economic and social climate where technology companies flourish and the people who work for them can enjoy a high quality of life. Spinoffs from that climate include a rich live music scene.

Austin has worked hard to preserve its history, protect its environment and embrace creativity.

Creative people can be different — sometimes very different.

Austin’s unofficial motto is “Keep Austin Weird.” The motto might as well be official, because every government and business leader who spoke to the visitors from Lexington touted the notion.

“We have created, maybe you think, a monster,” said Pike Powers, an attorney and former Austin Chamber of Commerce chairman. “But what keeps us on the map is our young people, our creative people. They are the draw for technology companies and bright researchers.”

Some Lexington leaders joked that we should print T-shirts saying, “Make Lexington Weird.”

Others, who know our city better, pointed out that buttoned-down Lexington has always had a weird streak. Many people just don’t want to admit it, much less embrace it.

Someone offered a better T-shirt motto: “Lexington: Show Your True Colors.”

What does embracing creativity really mean? For one thing, it means tolerance.

“The ‘Keep Austin Weird’ thing has become a rallying point for championing diversity, for truly embracing that which is different,” said Ed Bailey, vice president of brand development for Austin City Limits, the successful Public Broadcasting System music show. “In Cleveland, where I come from, that’s not really valued. Here, it is.”

It also means encouraging citizens to become involved in decision-making.

“In Austin, civic engagement is a contact sport,” said Robena Jackson, a consultant who was once the Austin chamber’s “vice president for quality of life.”

Austin residents won’t allow a few elites to make big decisions about their city behind closed doors. There are dozens of groups, such as the Austin Area Research Organization, where issues are studied and debated.

The Austin City Council meets each Thursday, and the marathon sessions can last up to 15 hours. All who want to speak can have their say; no three-minute limits like in Lexington. Oh, and the meeting takes a break at 5:30 p.m. so everyone can listen to a local musician.

“People in Austin demand a voice,” Jackson said. “And leaders in Austin know they have to listen to them to get things done.”

Austin is often seen as a liberal island in conservative Texas. But Austin’s current mayor and two former ones said local government doesn’t try to be the solution to problems so much as a facilitator. Government seeks to help entrepreneurs succeed, not get in their way.

Locally owned businesses are valued. Entrepreneurship is celebrated. The city, state and University of Texas work closely together to develop the economy. Progress is tracked, results are measured. There’s a bias toward action.

Austin leaders were quick to say that their city is far from perfect. Housing is too expensive, air quality is often poor, traffic can be a mess. But they said leaders haven’t been afraid to try things and fail, and they’ve learned from their mistakes.

“We made a lot of this up on the fly,” Powers said. “Sometimes things work wonderfully for us, and sometimes we fall flat on our face.”

Creativity. Tolerance. Entrepreneurship. Early and meaningful public involvement in decision-making.

Some people in Lexington already believe in those ideas. What if many more did?

Lexington might come to see controversy as an opportunity for discussion, rather than an embarrassment to avoid. We might take more risks. We might try to be great instead of just good enough, knowing full well that somebody will always complain if things don’t turn out perfectly. Or even if they do.

That’s what I learned in Austin.