No money, but Bloomberg Challenge was valuable experience

Lexington didn’t finish in the money in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, which gave $9 million to five cities to help them work on big ideas to improve urban life in America.

But Mayor Jim Gray isn’t too disappointed. More than 300 cities applied, and Lexington finished in the top 20, despite having little track record of applying for major foundation grants.

Gray said he and his staff learned a lot about how to do that. They also raised Lexington’s national profile in ways that could pay off in the future with the philanthropic arm of New York’s billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and similar foundations that fund city initiatives.

“I think there will be other bites at the apple,” Gray said in an interview last week. “We have an opportunity to leverage the visibility we got in making top 20.

“This process was a test case for how Lexington can dial up marketing to private foundations,” he added. “We have plenty of room to grow in this model. But what the Bloomberg Challenge showed is that we have the ability to compete.”

Bloomberg officials announced the five winning cities March 12. Providence, R.I., won the $5 million first prize, while Philadelphia, Houston, Chicago and Santa Monica, Calif., were each awarded $1 million.

Lexington applied for funding to speed up creation of CitizenLex.org, an online portal and system within government to collect citizens’ ideas for improving city life, gather the right people in and out of government around them, and track their accomplishments.

The idea for CitizenLex came from the Bloomberg competition process itself. Gray asked citizens to submit ideas for what Lexington should propose to Bloomberg, and he got more than 420 written submissions. So many of the ideas were good, the mayor said, that he wanted to figure out a way to make many of them happen rather than focusing on just one.

Gray and Lexington have yet to receive any detailed feedback from Bloomberg officials about how its application compared to those of the winners.

Many of the winning proposals were more concrete than Lexington’s. But, aside from Providence, none of the winning ideas struck me as being that revolutionary. Except for Santa Monica, all of the winning cities were much bigger than Lexington. Many were cities that, unlike Lexington, have been losing population and experiencing economic decline.

Providence’s idea is a high-tech plan to improve vocabulary and language skills among young low-income children. Research has shown that children from families receiving welfare have smaller vocabularies than their more-affluent peers, contributing to diminished academic performance and job opportunities.

Houston proposed a single-container recycling system, which Lexington already has. Chicago wants to better use city data to track trends. Philadelphia proposed a streamlined system for allowing local companies to bid for city contracts. Santa Monica, the smallest and wealthiest winning city, proposed a project to measure citizens’ overall well-being.

Lexington made a good impression on Bloomberg officials, Gray said, especially because of its high level of citizen engagement in the competition. That could bode well for future grants. The world of megabucks philanthropies devoted to city issues is small, he added, and they pay close attention to what each other are doing.

Gray still plans to push forward on CitizenLex, as funding is available. City officials also are working on pilot projects for many of the good ideas citizens submitted, such as bike trails and LED street lights.

Lexington has applied for a grant for CitizenLex from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The foundation has donated millions to Lexington over the years, because the Herald-Leader was once owned by Knight Newspapers. Grant winners are to be announced in July.

“We’re on their radar now,” Gray said. “People know about Lexington.”

Losing Michael Speaks

MSpeaksFew University of Kentucky deans have had more impact on Lexington in a short time than Michael Speaks, dean of the College of Design for the past five years. He announced last week he is leaving to take a similar post at Syracuse University.

Speaks, a brilliant and ambitious man, had his share of admirers and detractors within the university. Beyond campus, he played a big role in making good architecture and design a topic of conversation among average Lexingtonians.

The Mississippi native arrived here as the CentrePointe controversy erupted. His contacts helped attract international talent to improve CentrePointe’s design and develop world-class plans for the proposed Arena, Arts and Entertainment District and Town Branch Commons.

Speaks will be missed. Whomever succeeds him must keep the conversation going.