Like many people in Lexington who never went on the annual trips Commerce Lexington has been taking to other cities for 73 years, I used to think they were booster junkets of little value.
Last week’s trip to San Antonio was my fifth in a row, and it reminded me of how wrong I had been.
There is no better way to get to know other people than to travel with them. The personal relationships developed on these trips are invaluable, especially as Lexington’s leadership grows more diverse. Progress requires teamwork, and it is easier to work with people you know.
This is also networking with a focus. Each year’s program is designed to get everyone looking at the other city’s strengths and weaknesses through the lens of Lexington. What can we learn to improve our own community and economy?
The shortcoming of these trips is that there is often too little follow-up to capture the learning and turn it into action, although Commerce Lexington is starting to put more emphasis on that.
While there is always something to be learned from these other cities, they are hardly perfect. They do some things better than Lexington does; Lexington does other things better than they do. San Antonio was no different.
Like other cities in low-tax, “business-friendly” states that Commerce Lexington has visited in recent years, San Antonio has experienced strong population and job growth, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the prosperity trickles down. Lexington has higher per-capita income ($28,345 versus $21,812) and college attainment (39 percent versus 23.7 percent) than San Antonio, and a lower poverty rate (17.4 percent versus 18.9 percent).
San Antonio showed the value of creating infrastructure downtown that will attract people and private investment.
San Antonio seemed especially adept at capitalizing on its assets. Nowhere was that more true than at the River Walk, an oasis that has given sprawling San Antonio a beautiful focal point for activity and economic development.
As part of Lexington’s recent Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force process, master planner Gary Bates proposed resurfacing Town Branch Creek, which has been buried under downtown streets for a century, to create a water feature and public commons through downtown.
Many Lexingtonians have doubted that is practical, or even possible. San Antonio changed that perception. River Walk is a totally manufactured amenity that apparently has no more natural water flow than Town Branch Creek.
River Walk, the central section of which was developed by a WPA project in the 1930s, has been so successful at attracting private investment around it that San Antonio has spent $350 million during the past decade to expand it.
Those extensions are creating 13 more miles of linear park linking museums and entertainment districts to the north and the historic Spanish missions to the south.
Since the north section opened in 2009, it has attracted $256 million in private investment.
After seeing what San Antonio started with and what it has now, the Commerce Lexington visitors realized Bates’ idea isn’t so crazy Lexington needs to commission a design and engineering study soon to assess Town Branch’s development potential and what it might cost.
San Antonio showed the benefits of a downtown improvement district, where property owners vote to pay an annual assessment for extra landscaping, upkeep and security. Lexington has talked about creating one for years and might get the effort going later this year.
Lexington could learn a few things from San Antonio about building more parking facilities downtown and providing good signage so drivers can find them. Many of San Antonio’s formerly ugly surface parking lots have been redeveloped as buildings or turned into attractive pocket parks.
San Antonio offered some good lessons in adaptive reuse of old buildings, both downtown and at the successful Pearl Brewery development, which showed the Commerce Lexington group what the Lexington Distillery District could become.
The biggest lessons for San Antonio were not the projects themselves but how civic leaders created them. Those lessons were about public-private partnerships, risk-taking and leadership. I will write more about that in Monday’s column.