Design, politics and lessons for Lexington

March 31, 2010

When he was mayor of Owensboro 20 years ago, one of David Adkisson’s goals was to improve the design and look of his community. Adkisson said he quickly discovered that unless he exercised strong leadership, two people had much more influence than he did.

One was the district engineer for Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, because he controlled Owensboro’s main roads. The other was the chief executive of the local electric utility, because he controlled power lines, poles and towers.

“The mayor is perhaps a weak third,” said Adkisson, who is now president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

Adkisson now lives in Lexington, where those observations ring just as true, especially when you consider the Newtown Pike Extension project, foot-dragging on two-way streets downtown and those ugly new power poles on Euclid and Woodland avenues.

Design isn’t just about making cities look better; it’s about making them function better. And it’s too important to be left to chance and engineering. That was the message of a symposium Saturday at the Downtown Public Library that focused on the intersection of architecture, urban design and politics.

The symposium was sponsored by the University of Kentucky College of Design. As usual, The college’s dean, Michael Speaks, brought in some world-class talent to fuel the discussion.

Henk Ovink is director of national spatial planning and research, design and strategy for the Dutch Ministry of Environment and one of the most important planners in the Netherlands. Aaron Betsky, director of the Cincinnati Art Museum and author of a dozen books, has an extensive background in international design and architecture.

Casey Jones is a leading architect and urban planner who was appointed last August as director of the U.S. General Services Administration’s Design Excellence Program. He is a key player in America’s biggest real estate development organization, which oversees 400 million square feet of federal office space in 2,000 communities.

Jones talked about how, before World War II, the federal government’s philosophy was that public buildings should be well-designed structures that inspired citizens. After 1949, when oversight of federal buildings moved from the Treasury Department to the GSA, the emphasis shifted to cost and schedule. The result was mediocre architecture that often detracted from communities.

The GSA created the Design Excellence Program in 1994 to try to make new government buildings more functional, more “aspirational” and more environmentally friendly. The program brings innovation and new talent representing “the finest contemporary American architectural thought” to federal construction projects.

Some of the most interesting discussion occurred during a panel that the presenters had with three Kentuckians: Adkisson; Paul Kaplan of the Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet, which has set some of the nation’s most ambitious standards for environmentally friendly design of new state buildings; and Holly Wiedemann, whose Lexington-based AU Associates restores old buildings for affordable housing.

Betsky said America must break its costly addiction to sprawl and the ethic that “land is something to be developed” and become more creative about reusing old urban areas.

He and Wiedemann said that, too often, development is an adversarial process of conflict on the back end rather than brainstorming on the front-end and collaboration among all stakeholders throughout the process. Economics is always an issue, they said, but good design doesn’t have to be more expensive, especially when long-term value is considered.

Betsky and Jones said design professionals must be more proactive about showing citizens, businesses and government leaders design possibilities they would never have imagined. Public architecture competitions are one good way to do that, Jones noted.

All of the panelists said well-designed development depends on citizens demanding excellence and government officials providing leadership. And, as Adkisson noted, political leaders making the case that excellent design is good for economic development.

It was similar to the message that Joseph Riley, the nine-term mayor of Charleston, S.C., delivered a month ago: Successful cities plan well and demand excellence.

It’s a message that Lexington needs to embrace. Because so much about Lexington has always been good, there’s often no urgency about trying to do better, little interest in innovation beyond the status quo.

“Lexington has the blessing and curse of being a wonderful place to live,” Adkisson said. “The curse is that it stifles aspiration.”


To create high-tech economy, focus on the brains

March 29, 2010

April is technology month in Lexington. Local promoters plan to spotlight the high-tech people and companies already here in the hope of attracting more.

Digital technology has given smart people more flexibility about where they live and work. That’s an opportunity for Lexington, a beautiful city with a great quality of life.

The big question is, how can Lexington make the most of that opportunity?

One way to succeed is to identify success and figure out how to replicate it. So I went to see Alan Hawse, vice president of information technology at Cypress Semiconductor, one of the world’s leading designers and manufacturers of the silicon chips at the heart of almost every electronic device.

Cypress is based in San Jose, Calif. Hawse works in Lexington, along with about 40 other Cypress employees who do high-level research and development. The Lexington design center is one of five Cypress has in the United States. Four others are in India, Ireland and Belgium.

Why is this little piece of the Silicon Valley now at Main Street and Mill in Lexington? Because of Hawse.

Hawse, 41, was born and raised in Lexington, attended public schools and studied electrical engineering at the University of Kentucky and Georgia Tech. He joined Cypress in 1991 and worked in the Silicon Valley for five years.

But when it came time to start a family, Hawse and his wife, Jill, who is from Georgetown, wanted to live here. Cypress didn’t want to see a talented employee move on, so it moved with him.

Things have worked out well for both Hawse and his employer. “Cypress loves Lexington because we’ve been able to hire a lot of super-intelligent people who like to live here and do good work,” he said.

Like Hawse, many of the Cypress employees in Lexington are native Kentuckians or UK graduates. “Every time there’s a story written about me,” he said, “I get calls from mothers with kids in the Silicon Valley.”

Hawse, a former Herald-Leader contributing columnist, said the first thing he would do to build Lexington’s high-tech economy would be to compile a list of Kentucky natives and UK grads who are technology industry standouts elsewhere. Call them. Fly out to see them. Ask them whether they have any interest in coming back. If so, ask them what it would take to get them here.

“Lexington has many, many of the good things about big cities and almost none of the drawbacks,” Hawse said. Natural beauty. Good schools. Universities. Little crime. No traffic. Lots of cultural amenities. “I would work at selling those things; play to your strengths and away from your weaknesses,” he said.

“I would promote an intellectual framework that would allow high-tech people everywhere to visualize themselves being here,” Hawse said. “Sometimes, all you have to do is give people a map. Maps have lots of roads on them. They don’t tell you where to go, but they show you where you can go.”

But that’s only a start. Lexington must become known as a place where technology people and companies can grow and succeed. That means more tolerance and diversity, fewer good old boy networks.

Most important of all, Hawse said, it means education. Kentucky must create educational excellence, from preschool to graduate school. Rigorous math and science education must begin in elementary school, and the “gem” students must be nurtured.

Creating educational excellence also means better coordination and pooling of Kentucky’s limited resources. Less overhead. Less bureaucracy. “Here’s a radical idea,” Hawse said. “What if we merged UK and (the University of Louisville)? What about that?”

The problem with traditional economic development strategies, Hawse thinks, is that they are political exercises built around trying to hit home runs — landing the big plant, attracting the big company.

But long-term success, he thinks, comes from steady, continuous improvement. Improving education. Connecting smart people and companies. Creating an entrepreneurial climate that encourages business development and personal success.

“It’s all about the brains and the skills they acquire,” Hawse said. “It’s all about developing the brains, keeping them here and bringing them back here. And bringing new ones here. The brains make it possible.”


I hope BUILD’s style doesn’t hamper further success

March 24, 2010

The gymnasium was packed. The crowd was excited. It’s March, but this wasn’t a basketball game.

Nearly 1,400 people filled Imani Baptist Church’s gymnasium Monday night to work toward more affordable housing, more access to health care for uninsured people and more effective strategies for dealing with youth crime, drug abuse and school behavioral problems.

It was the annual “action assembly” of BUILD — Building a United Interfaith Lexington by Direct Action — an interdenominational coalition of 17 Christian churches that for seven years has done impressive work to help solve some of Lexington’s biggest social problems.

In previous years, BUILD has spurred the city to create a drug treatment program for women in jail and to improve code enforcement in trailer parks. The organization has prompted school officials to reduce middle school suspension rates by using more effective strategies with troubled students. And it has worked with the county health department and other providers to find ways to treat more uninsured patients.

At Monday night’s assembly, BUILD announced that it has brokered an agreement to begin a pilot project in Lexington’s family courts. The project will use a proven mediation process called “family group conferencing” to try to rehabilitate young people ages 11 to 17 who are using alcohol or drugs.

The biggest issue at Monday night’s assembly — as it was last year — was BUILD’s effort to create a city-supported affordable-housing trust fund.

BUILD cites studies showing that homelessness in Lexington has risen 38 percent since last year and that more than 35 percent of renting households pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent.

At BUILD’s urging, Mayor Jim Newberry appointed a 47-member commission in May 2008 to study the issue. The commission recommended a trust fund, an effective strategy used by 600 local governments nationwide.

The commission said that, with an annual revenue stream of $3 million to $5 million, a trust fund could leverage federal money and conventional loans to build 336 affordable homes each year or renovate 1,400 existing ones. It said the effort would create 448 jobs the first year and 176 every year afterward.

The commission recommended that initial funding come from a 1 percentage point increase in the local 6 percent tax on insurance premiums. That would add a little more than $7 to the average annual cost of a home insurance or auto insurance policy. Over time, the commission said, the investment would more than pay for itself in other local tax revenue and increased economic activity.

Newberry rejected the idea, and instead proposed contributing $250,000, to be matched by private donations. BUILD called that inadequate. Vice Mayor Jim Gray formed a task force to study revenue sources for a trust fund, but it hasn’t reported its findings.

BUILD activists are impatient, the city budget is tight, and this election year is a tough time for politicians to even consider a tax increase — any tax increase.

BUILD invited Newberry and all 15 Urban County Council members to attend Monday night’s session. There, they would be formally asked if they would pledge to identify a dedicated city funding source of $3 million to $5 million a year and commit to the first reading of an ordinance approving it.

Newberry, Gray and Councilman Chuck Ellinger were the only ones who appeared.

The Rev. Richard Gaines of Consolidated Baptist Church asked each of the three for support. Newberry replied, as he did last year, “Not at this time.” Gray and Ellinger tried to explain that they were waiting for the task force’s report and the city budget process, but what BUILD wanted was “yes” or “no,” not an explanation.

“I think it’s too complicated for a yes or no answer,” Ellinger said afterward.

There’s a lot to admire about BUILD’s process, and its goals and accomplishments. The organization identifies big, tough problems through listening sessions with member congregations. It then appoints committees to investigate them thoroughly. It finds proven strategies and proposes realistic solutions, with firm deadlines and accountability. BUILD activists are well-organized and polite, but firm.

Still, I fear that BUILD’s confrontational style might eventually do it more harm than good.

I can certainly sympathize with the desire to get straight answers from politicians — I’ve spent much of my career trying to do it.

But among our sound-bite society’s many issues is the tendency to oversimplify complex problems and solutions, and turn every gray area into black or white.

It’s a delicate balance. I hope, given the important work that BUILD is doing, that its leaders are able to maintain it.


Lexington so far avoiding worst of airline turbulence

March 22, 2010

When I covered the airline industry for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, it was in turmoil: airlines were losing millions, workers were losing their jobs or suffering pay cuts and fares were less predictable than the weather.

Twenty years later, not much has changed. If anything, things have gotten worse.

The latest sign of turmoil came last week, when Delta Air Lines announced it would rearrange its hub at Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport. Delta will close one of its two concourses – it operated three until 2008 – and lay off 840 workers May 1. However, Delta plans to hire 100 workers for other jobs there.

Delta’s shift from 50 gates to 28 is largely an effort to operate more efficiently after previous flight cutbacks in Cincinnati. Delta didn’t announce further cuts to its summer flight schedule, but the fall schedule is anyone’s guess.

Since a merger with Northwest Airlines gave Delta hubs in Detroit and Memphis, it has shifted a lot of Cincinnati traffic there, and to its main hub in Atlanta. That trend is likely to continue, giving Central Kentucky passengers fewer options as they compare schedules among the Cincinnati, Louisville and Lexington airports.

Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport has weathered the turbulence well. Lexington will see a 15 percent increase in available airline seats this year over last, said Brian Ellestad, the airport’s marketing director.

Although there are two fewer flights most days to Cincinnati, Delta has added one to Atlanta and two to Detroit, plus increased capacity to Memphis through larger aircraft. American Airlines on April 6 will restore a daily flight to Chicago that was cut in September 2008. Last month, Air Tran Airways began flights to Orlando and Tampa Bay on alternating days.

The airline industry development that has helped Lexington the most in recent years has been regional jets – smaller aircraft that are almost as fast and comfortable as big jets, but which make frequent service to smaller cities economical.

It seems illogical that huge, heavy aircraft can fly – and that airlines can lose millions of dollars year after year and still stay in business. The laws of physics explain flight; airline economics is a testament to cash flow and rolling debt.

Things were a lot simpler before airline deregulation in 1978; airlines operated like regulated utilities. It was a stable system with well-paid employees, profitable airlines – and high fares for passengers.

The competition sparked by deregulation has been mostly good for passengers: more flights and cheaper fares. But it has been boom and bust for the industry – mostly bust. The world’s airlines are expected to lose $5.6 billion this year, and that’s a big improvement over 2009, when they lost $11 billion, and 2008, when they went $17 billion into the red.

Airline economics, an executive once explained to me, is all about “butts in seats.”  Since the 1980s airlines have used sophisticated computer programs to sell as many seats as possible for as much money as possible. But because there’s nothing more perishable than an unfilled airplane seat, some are sold incredibly cheap.

Airlines are capital intensive, because of the high cost of aircraft; labor intensive, because of the need for highly trained employees good at customer service; and fuel intensive.

Big swings in oil prices like we’ve seen in recent years often determine whether airlines have a good year or a horrible year.  And high-fare business travel, the airlines’ bread and butter, suffers every time the economy slumps and advances in digital communication make it easier to skip a business trip.

What might the future hold for Central Kentucky travelers?  To paraphrase Bette Davis, fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.


Think global, act local with food choices

March 20, 2010

Do you ever worry about where your next meal is coming from? Maybe you should.

I don’t mean how you will pay for it, although that seems to be a concern for more and more people these days.

I mean literally where it’s coming from, what’s in it and whether the food and the methods used to produce it are good for your body, your community and your environment.

Those issues brought more than 100 people to Crestwood Christian Church last Thursday and Friday for the Bluegrass Food Security Summit. Organized by community activist and local dynamo Jim Embry, the summit was a place for farmers, educators, social workers, government bureaucrats and even clergy to talk about how to make this region better-fed and more environmentally sustainable.

The scientific and economic revolution that reshaped American agriculture after World War II did a lot of good, and a lot of bad. Many family farms were replaced by industrial agriculture that could produce more food cheaper and more efficiently. But cheap food has had other costs.

Pesticides and herbicides have contaminated soil and water. Overuse of antibiotics in animals has led to drug-resistant infections in people. Industrially processed food and fast-food culture have caused a decline in nutrition among many segments of the population.

Cheaply produced meat, vegetables and fruits are trucked great distances to market — something that will be less possible as oil supplies diminish and prices rise.

Controlled-feeding animal operations — such as the hog and chicken farms that plague many parts of rural Kentucky — produce huge amounts of waste that pollute groundwater and create an unbearable stench for miles around.

Things are changing, though, as more people seek healthier and tastier foods. Kentucky is making more progress than many states, thanks to wise investment of tobacco settlement money in agricultural diversification. And the family farm is being re-invented in many parts of the state, thanks to groups like the Community Farm Alliance, which is celebrating its 25th year.

Kentucky has seen tremendous growth recently in organic and naturally produced meat and produce, much of it on small, family-owned farms that sell through farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) plans. The University of Kentucky now even has an organic farm and CSA operation — and a degree program in sustainable agriculture.

Co-op groceries that focus on fresh, locally produced food are becoming more popular. Lexington’s Good Foods Co-op on Southland Drive now has nearly 5,200 owners.

There also has been a lot of emphasis on starting school and neighborhood gardens, a focus of such organizations as Seedleaf (www.seedleaf.org) and Embry’s Sustainable Communities Network (www.sustainlex.org).

In Lexington, gardens have been created in many neighborhoods, at Bryan Station High School, the Chrysalis House program for women with substance-abuse problems, the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program and Employment Solutions, a company that provides vocational training to unemployed people.

Outside Lexington, many organizations are working to promote local food alternatives and environmental stewardship. One notable example is Sustainable Berea (www.sustainableberea.org), which offers workshops in gardening and related skills and helps people in the Madison County community plant berry bushes and fruit trees.

“It’s an issue of stewardship,” the Rev. Kory Wilcoxson, senior pastor at Crestwood Christian, said at the summit’s opening session. “When you read the Bible, the world was started in a garden.”

Many of Lexington’s community gardens have a strong emphasis on participation by children and youth, and there were many of them at the summit’s opening dinner and program Thursday evening. Embry believes that children are the key to steering society back to the local food and sustainability ethics that were the norm in America until the late 20th century.

“The great work of this century is to restore the sacredness of the earth and its connections to ourselves,” Embry said. “It means we have to find new ways of doing things. We don’t want our children to inherit the problems we created.”


Farewell to Fess Parker, our Daniel Boone

March 19, 2010

Like most male baby boomers, I’m feeling sad and a little old because of the death of Fess Parker on Thursday at the age of 85.

Older boomers remember him most for his portrayal of Tennessee frontiersman Davy Crockett in the 1950s Walt Disney TV shows and movie. Kentucky boys my age, though, knew him best as Daniel Boone.

From 1964 to 1970, Parker starred as Boone in what was then one of NBC’s highest-rated TV shows. Boone was, according to the theme song, “The rippin’est, roarin’est, fightin’est man the frontier ever knew.”

After rising to stardom in buckskin, Parker, like Boone, went into real estate, but with much more success. Parker also started making wine, although I imagine Boone would have preferred corn liquor. (Boone never wore a coonskin cap, by the way.)

Through modern, adult eyes, the Daniel Boone series seems corny, historically inaccurate and more than a little racist. At the time, though, it was high adventure. I had my own coon-skin cap and toy long rifle, and I insisted on carrying a new Daniel Boone lunchbox on my first day of first grade at Maxwell School.

When my family moved out to what was then the country in 1966, I thought it was pretty cool that we could look out the back window and see an early 1800s house that once belonged to relatives of Boone’s wife, Rebecca Bryan. (It’s now the Firebrook subdivision clubhouse.)

The Daniel Boone TV show helped interest me in Kentucky history, which I’ve come to discover was much more colorful and exciting than the plots those TV writers came up with.

The TV show was filmed in the mountains out West. Still, it was something my friends and I could relate to, because it was supposed to be taking place in Kentucky, not far from where we lived. Fess Parker made our little corner of flyover country famous, even if TV viewers got an image of a long-ago Kentucky wilderness covered in aspen trees and Ponderosa pines.

RIP, Fess Parker.


Fáilte provides taste of home to Lexington’s Irish

March 17, 2010

Everybody’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, but what about the other 364 days a year?

Irish people are Irish. And when they live an ocean away from home, they miss a lot of things, especially when they’re hungry: rashers, black and white puddings, Irish beans, biscuits, special chocolates and a whole lot more.

For many of the several hundred Irish immigrants living in Central Kentucky, that means a trip to Fáilte Irish Imports shop, where owner Liza Hendley Betz can provide them with the tastes of home.

Betz left her native Dublin in 1996 to follow a boyfriend to Lexington. That relationship didn’t last, but she fell in love with Kentucky. It’s a lot like Ireland: horses, green fields and stone fences. Sure, there’s no sea coast, but the weather is a lot better. The food, however, is just not the same.

While working at McCarthy’s Irish Bar, Betz decided there was a business opportunity in importing Irish food, especially the meats and other products that expats couldn’t legally bring back on the plane when they traveled home.

In December 2001, she opened Fáilte (pronounced FALL cha) Irish Imports on South Limestone. Fáilte — which means “welcome” in the traditional Irish language — moved earlier this month to South Upper Street, two doors down from McCarthy’s.

One reason for the move was the Limestone reconstruction project, which has closed the street since July.

“Every time you opened the door, there was dust and gravel,” she said. “We had a bad Christmas, and with St. Patrick’s Day coming up, I knew I had to do something.”

Betz also saw advantages to moving into the circa-1860 building with McCarthy’s, which is renovating the space on the other side of her shop to serve Irish food. “McCarthy’s is a better location because that’s where a lot of my customers go,” she said.

To broaden the shop’s appeal, Betz has added all kinds of Irish products and souvenirs, including tweed caps, Celtic jewelry, Guinness T-shirts and Belleek china. “We get a lot of people coming in talking about their Irish ancestors,” she said.

Still, Irish food and soft drinks account for more than half of her sales. Betz stocks brown bread mix, Bewley’s and Barry’s teas, and Chef and HP steak sauces, which many Irish use like ketchup.

“I sell a lot of Irish beans; they’re totally different from American beans,” probably because they are canned without sugar and meat, she said. The most popular items are Irish rashers (bacon), sausages, mince meat pies and “puddings” — black, made with animal blood, and white, made without blood.

“It’s a lifeline,” said Catherina McDonnell, another Dublin native, who has lived in Lexington since 1988. “It’s a great resource for the community; you can go in there and get the things you miss from home.”

Avena Kiely Joyce, a native of County Waterford, who has owned Harvey’s Bar for five of her 10 years in Lexington, can’t live without her Irish chocolate. “There’s just some difference in the chocolate from Ireland and what you get here,” she said.

“I like to have an Irish breakfast every Sunday, and her shop is the only place you can get everything for it,” Joyce said. The fresh eggs are local, but everything else comes from Ireland: rashers, sausages, black and white pudding, and even Brennans white bread, which Fáilte sells in frozen loaves. “That’s the toast I grew up with.”

Betz cherishes her Irish heritage, but she’s developing deep Kentucky roots. In December 2006, she married Michael Betz, who is finishing a horse veterinary residency in Ocala, Fla., and will soon be moving back to Lexington. His father, Bill Betz, was one of the breeders of last year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Mine That Bird.

Other Lexington groceries — even some of the supermarkets — are catching on, Betz said. They are beginning to stock some Irish foods, especially cheeses and tins of biscuits that Americans would call cookies.

“But I have a lot more variety, and I’m a one-stop shop,” she said.

Besides, in her new location, Betz hopes Fáilte will become even more closely tied to the Irish community.

Now, on the first Thursday of each month, when Lexington Celtic Association members gather at McCarthy’s for traditional dancing with the band Liam’s Fancy, they can grab some groceries on the way home.


Young entrepreneurs don’t let economy stop them

March 8, 2010

Oh, to be young, ambitious and just starting your own business — in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Nobody ever said being an entrepreneur would be easy.

While many of their classmates hunt for jobs — or give up and go to graduate school — Seth Hill and Michael Rumpke last week launched a grocery shopping and delivery business they call Lose Your List.

It wasn’t a casual endeavor. The 24-year-olds said they spent months planning logistics, developing marketing strategies, writing a business plan, creating a Web site, designing a logo and having it painted on Hill’s SUV and embroidered on their green gingham shirts.

And while they were preparing for orders — they got four their first week — they were thinking ahead. They want to create relationships with groceries and partnerships with local farmers to supply produce. And they’re planning for a time when orders are so numerous they must buy vehicles, hire college students to shop and deliver and, if they’re really lucky, franchise their concept in other cities.

For now, though, Hill and Rumpke are just looking for enough customers willing to go to their Web site (www.loseyourlist.com), submit a grocery list and pay them at least $15 to do the shopping and deliver the goods. They figure they’ll need 100 to 150 orders a week to keep themselves in groceries.

Rumpke, a University of New Orleans graduate, and Hill, a University of Kentucky senior on break from his studies, said they were raised on business and entrepreneurship. They always believed they’d work for themselves.

Rumpke’s mother, Linda, a former banker, is Lexington’s commissioner of finance and administration. His father, Rob, is president of the regional planning group Bluegrass Tomorrow. Hill’s parents, Jenny and Chuck, started Interior Yardage, a specialty fabric company on Southland Drive.

“I grew up watching them grow the business from our basement to flea markets to a company with (significant) sales,” Hill said. “Entrepreneurship was all I knew. My parents are my heroes, so it seemed like the thing to do.”

Rumpke and Hill see a good business opportunity in performing a necessary, time-consuming chore that many people hate. “It’s a business model that’s working in other areas,” Hill said. “We didn’t see why it wouldn’t work here.”

They said they researched the concept thoroughly and talked to dozens of people, including a lawyer, a banker and a small business development consultant. The approximately $3,000 in startup money came from their personal savings because they want to avoid taking on debt. “Everything we could do on our own we tried to do to keep costs down,” Hill said. “We also have gotten help from friends.”

Their biggest expense, they said, will be newspaper and online advertising. They also envision an ambitious social-media marketing strategy, from daily health tips on Twitter to a blog with information like that from a Harvard Business School study on the high-cost of impulse buying for people who do their own shopping.

One of the young entrepreneurs’ first deliveries was to a friend, Tara Wilkerson, a single mother. “I work 13-hour days at two jobs and have a 2-year-old,” she said. “I like not having one more chore to do.”

Hill and Rumpke hope to find more people like Wilkerson, whatever their reasons for wanting someone else to do their grocery shopping.

“At the end of the day, it’s just getting orders and delivering groceries,” Hill said. “If we’re really good at it, and manage our business well, other things will take care of themselves.”


Charleston mayor’s ideas right for Lexington, too

March 6, 2010

Joe Riley is an evangelist for historic preservation, good urban design and proven strategies for making cities more livable and economically successful.

He founded the national Mayors’ Institute for City Design. The Joseph P. Riley Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Studies at the College of Charleston is named for him. But Riley’s best credential is his day job: since 1975, for an unprecedented nine terms, he has been the mayor of Charleston, S.C.

People who know Charleston often remark on what a great city it is — the beautiful waterfront, the Spoleto arts festival and the colorfully painted historic homes. Those old enough to remember what the city used to be like talk about how much it has improved.

During Riley’s tenure, Charleston’s annual tourist trade has increased from 1.7 million to 4.4 million visitors. At the same time, the city has often made lists of the best places to live and do business.

Riley was in Lexington last Wednesday to speak to an overflow crowd at the Downtown Public Library. Many civic leaders were there, as well as all four candidates for mayor.

With a rapid-fire PowerPoint presentation that lasted for more than an hour, Riley flashed slide after slide showing Charleston’s transformation from the time when “our downtown almost died.”

The pictures showed dozens of dilapidated buildings restored to elegance and commercial success; modest but well-designed public housing so attractive that expensive condos were later built across the street; neighborhoods and commercial streets rescued from neglect by city leaders who demanded and got high-quality private development; an elegant public park on what was once a waterfront eyesore.

“A big challenge was this vacant lot right in the middle of downtown,” Riley said at one point, prompting the crowd to erupt in laughter. “Oh, you have one of those, too?”

A key factor in Charleston’s success has been historic preservation. “We work hard to keep the bulldozers out,” he said.

Historic preservation hasn’t been so much about preserving the past — “we’re not a movie set or a theme park,” Riley said — but about creating an authentic, irreplaceable and human-scaled environment where people naturally want to be. The city also insists that new development be well-designed, well-built and, well, worthy of being in Charleston.

That means having effective laws and regulations, but also the kind of professional architectural review processes Lexington lacks. Such a process helps ensure that new development is appropriate, well-designed and in the best interests of the entire city and not just an individual developer or property owner.

“Try not to plop things down,” Riley said of new development. “Make it work. Make it fit.”

Excellence is often achieved with that last 5 percent of effort, the mayor noted. He repeatedly gave examples of using his political skills to make sure old buildings were saved, money was found to restore them and proposed new construction added to rather than detracted from the rest of the city. Riley said he once called then-President Bill Clinton to insist that a new federal building respect Charleston’s downtown esthetic.

“There’s never an excuse to build anything that doesn’t add to the beauty of a city,” Riley said, acknowledging that “the political land mines are all over the place.”

Successful cities put a lot of emphasis on beautiful public space that attracts people. “The things of value are increasingly the things we own together,” he said. “When you build a great public realm, the private money and development will follow.”

Riley’s strong leadership is controversial; he has always had a re-election opponent, and last time he had three. But Riley’s approach has clearly worked for Charleston and most of its citizens. He was re-elected for an eighth time in 2007 with 64 percent of the vote.

City-building is a complicated stew, but the principles Riley outlined are simple: vision, leadership, and a commitment to long-term value for the entire city rather than just short-term profit for individuals.

When Lexington has followed those principles, it has enjoyed some of its greatest success: creating the Urban Services Boundary in 1958; restricting rural lot sizes in 1964 and 1999; starting the Purchase of Development Rights program in 2000; and creating historic districts over the past 50 years (often, though, after significant damage was already done.)

Lexington has failed when it ignored those principles and allowed tacky, vinyl-box housing, commercial sprawl, haphazard architecture and, since the 1950s, the destruction of classic downtown buildings to make way for parking lots, drab concrete boxes and ego-driven glass towers.

“Our success as a culture, economic and otherwise, will depend on our cities,” Riley said. “We must treat them as precious heirlooms that we inherit and hold in trust for future generations.”


Now What, Lexington? Figure it out April 17

March 2, 2010

Want to explore the latest ideas for making cities successful? Plan to attend the Creative Cities Summit in Lexington, April 7-9.

Want to discuss how those ideas could be applied to Lexington? Mark April 17 on your calendar.

That’s when a companion session called Now What, Lexington? will be held at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.

Unlike the Creative Cities Summit, there are no big-name speakers and no admission charge. Everyone is welcome to attend — or to lead a session, if they wish, on any topic that interests others enough to participate.

Now What, Lexington? isn’t a conference; it’s an “un-conference,” said Ben Self, a Lexington technology entrepreneur who is helping to organize the event. To sign up, go to www.nowwhatlexington.org.

“Our goal is to take the excitement, ideas and momentum from the Creative Cities Summit and spark some action from it,” Self said.

There is no agenda for Now What, Lexington?, just five or six rooms available for breakout discussions during seven 45-minute blocks between 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. The only request of session leaders is that the groups discuss action steps, not just ideas.

For example, Self wants to lead a discussion on what citizens and neighborhoods could do to self-organize and take up some of the slack of cuts — and possible future cuts — in city government services.

Now What, Lexington? is being organized by a new group called ProgressLex, which hopes to advocate for a variety of urban Lexington issues the way The Fayette Alliance does for land-use issues, said the group’s chairman, Dan Rowland, a University of Kentucky history professor.

Rowland said Lexington has many organizations that do good work, and ProgressLex hopes to bring them together to be more effective. He envisions a bipartisan online community of as many as 30,000 people focusing on issues ranging from good urban design and historic preservation to ­social justice and government transparency.

He said Now What, Lexington? seemed like the perfect launch event for ProgressLex, because it is focused on putting new ideas into action to improve Lexington’s quality of life.

Phil Holoubek, a downtown developer who is one of the main organizers of the Creative Cities Summit, said Now What, Lexington? is a perfect companion event. That’s because the summit is aimed toward ideas for cities generally — and attracting attention to Lexington as a place where good ideas are discussed. Now What, Lexington? could help get some of those ideas put into action.

“We really need both types of events to move ­Lexington forward,” ­Holoubek said.

This two-step approach — gathering ideas, then discussing an action plan for Lexington — offers a good model for Commerce Lexington’s annual Leadership Visit.

Each May, more than 200 local business and civic leaders spend three days together in another city, networking and gathering ideas to bring home to Lexington. This year’s trip, to Pittsburgh, promises to be one of the most useful of these visits, because it is being taken with Greater Louisville Inc.

Kentucky’s two largest cities need a closer working relationship, and this is a good step in that direction.

Although past ­Commerce Lexington trips have eventually led to some action in Lexington, a frequent criticism is that more could be done. In a letter to the editor recently, former Urban County Council member Dick DeCamp suggested that Commerce Lexington’s trips be scaled back to every two or three years, with time in between devoted to meetings focused on applying ideas already gathered.

That’s a sensible approach. At the least, Commerce Lexington could take a cue from the Creative Cities Summit and Now What, Lexington? and schedule public follow-up sessions after the Pittsburgh trip. Those sessions would be good places to discuss how ideas generated in Pittsburgh — and relationships made with Louisvillians — could be put to good use.

Speaking of ideas: One of America’s most successful mayors — Joseph P. Riley Jr. of Charleston, S.C. — speaks Wednesday at 6 p.m. in the Downtown Public Library. Riley, Charleston’s mayor since 1975, has been a key player in growing the city’s economy while preserving its historic buildings and decreasing crime. The free program is sponsored by The Fayette Alliance and UK’s Gaines Center for the Humanities.


Crusade against regulation is common nonsense

March 1, 2010

Conservative politicians love to rail against government regulation of business, and voters lap it up.

After all, nobody likes being told what to do. This is a free country, isn’t it?

Almost any small business owner can point to examples of what he or she considers to be excessive government regulation, and many of those complaints are valid.

But to say that they show government regulation is bad is like saying the earth is flat because it looks that way from your window.

During the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush, the nation went from a strong economy and federal budget surplus to a deep recession and huge deficit. Much of that was the result of big tax cuts and two wars waged on credit.

The financial crisis that severely damaged our economy was largely the result of a lack of government regulation of investment banks and mortgage lenders. That included the repeal of regulations enacted during the Great Depression to prevent it from happening again.

Congress is now trying to re-regulate the financial services industry to prevent future crises. Still, conservative politicians are whipping up anxious voters by railing against government regulation. Go figure.

One especially troubling example comes from Bill Johnson, a Todd County businessman seeking the GOP nomination to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky. I heard Johnson and eight of the other 10 Senate candidates speak last month at the annual meeting of county judge-executives.

Johnson declared that several federal agencies should be abolished, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior. And he said it with a straight face.

The Interior Department, created in 1849, does a variety of things from overseeing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey to managing federal land, including the national parks. It also regulates surface mining, which may be what has Johnson steamed.

Congress created the EPA in 1970 at the urging of Republican President Richard Nixon because businesses and cities were poisoning the air and turning the nation’s lakes and rivers into sewers.

So, if we abolish the Interior Department, do we open more government land, including national parks, to oil drilling and coal mining? More logging and development? Or do we simply sell off federal lands to private interests and let them do as they please?

If we abolish the EPA, do we let mines, refineries, factories and cities pollute at will? Or do we rely on states for environmental regulation, which is often weak?

When the first white settlers came to Kentucky, they found a land that had been inhabited by Native Americans for thousands of years, yet remained an almost virgin wilderness. Less than 250 years later, Kentucky is covered with sprawling development, scarred by poorly reclaimed surface mines and challenged by air and water pollution. Without government regulation — indeed, better regulation than we’ve had up to now — what will Kentucky be like in another 250 years? Or 2,500 years?

American free enterprise is a wonderful thing. But business needs good government regulation to save it — and the rest of us — from greed, exploitation and excess. That’s especially true now that corporate vision rarely extends beyond the next year’s earnings forecasts and executive bonus plans.

Like most Americans, I don’t want government to be either too big or too small. I just want government that works in the best interests of the nation as a whole, for my grandchildren and their grandchildren’s grandchildren. In the long run, that’s also good for business.