High-priced economic development ‘experts’ no substitute for local knowledge, vision, leadership

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.

That is how Charles Dickens might have started a report about Lexington’s potential for economic development, just as he began his classic novel A Tale of Two Cities.

That is how I might have started such a report, too, if I were the consultant being paid $150,000 by the city and Commerce Lexington. If you are going to recycle language, you might as well borrow from the best.

Last year, after then-Vice Mayor Jim Gray and others complained that the city’s strategic plan for economic development had not been updated in years, Commerce Lexington and the city hired AngelouEconomics of Austin, Texas, to conduct a local market study and develop a plan.

Commerce Lexington scheduled a public unveiling of Angelou’s final report for March 18, but that has been postponed. Instead, now-Mayor Gray has summoned the head of the consulting firm, Angelos Angelou, to meet with him Monday morning. Angelou has some explaining to do.

That is because Ben Self, a Lexington technology entrepreneur, read a final draft of AngelouEconomics’ report and discovered that large passages had been cut-and-pasted from previous reports done for other cities. He detailed examples in a post Thursday morning on the blog of ProgressLex, a new grass-roots civic group.

Since the report appears to be half recycled, Self wrote, AngelouEconomics should refund half its $150,000 cost. Angelou Economics staffers initially defended the report, but by Thursday night, Angelou had fallen on his sword.

Angelou apologized for the lapse, which he said was the result of a staffer’s personal problems. But, he said, “There is no excuse or rationalization of what has happened.” Angelou asked for two or three weeks to rewrite the report personally to make sure it addresses Lexington’s specific conditions and needs.

Angelou must now scramble to try to restore his firm’s credibility. But there is a bigger lesson here for Lexington.

This should be a wake-up call about the way Lexington deals with economic development, just as the CentrePointe fiasco was a wake-up call about the way Lexington handles downtown development.

The business world is awash in consultants. Some provide valuable services. But others are little more than a crutch for leaders who are afraid to lead and are willing to pay so-called experts big money to say what everyone already knows. Too often, hiring a consultant is a way of creating the illusion of action while avoiding real work and responsibility.

I am no economic development expert, so I will leave it to others to assess AngelouEconomics’ final work and decide whether taxpayers are owed a refund. But the “recycled” draft report didn’t tell me much about Lexington and its challenges and opportunities that I didn’t already know.

I didn’t find the report’s recommendations any better than those of two economic development transition teams Gray commissioned after he was elected mayor. Those were researched and written by local business people; they cost taxpayers nothing.

The point here is that consultants can sometimes provide good information, analysis, perspective and advice. But they are no substitute for leadership. If Lexington’s leaders trust consultants from Texas more than their own judgment, we are in trouble.

The previous mayor, Jim Newberry, basically outsourced the city’s economic development function to Commerce Lexington, which gets about a half-million dollars a year in public money to do the work. It may have been a smart move then, because Newberry, a lawyer, didn’t have an economic development background.

But it makes less sense now. Gray has worked on economic development for decades, both in civic roles and as an executive with his family’s construction company, which specializes in building industrial plants. Commerce Lexington can play a valuable supporting role, but the mayor and the Urban County Council should lead.

These are, indeed, the best and worst of times for Lexington. Business conditions have been tough lately, but it is obvious that Central Kentucky has enormous potential to succeed in the 21st-century economy.

Lexington must harness its own brainpower to develop smart economic development strategies, and then make them happen. We need more wisdom and less foolishness.

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