Madison trip shows importance of attitudes

May 24, 2009

We learned a lot about Madison, but we also learned a lot about Lexington, each other and maybe ourselves.

About 260 Central Kentuckians spent three days last week on Commerce Lexington’s 70th annual Leadership Visit. Like many others I spoke with, I left Wisconsin’s capital city thinking the same thing I did last May when we left Austin, Texas.

Metro Lexington is a more beautiful place, with better year-round weather, than either of those cities. So why do they rank higher on national surveys of quality of life and economic vitality?

It’s not about the place so much as the attitudes of the people who live there.

Rebecca Ryan, a Madison-based consultant hired by Commerce Lexington to speak, succinctly described the challenge for any city that wants to succeed in the future: “How do we build a place that the next generation will be homesick for?”

Madison, like Austin, is a national magnet for next-generation talent. Lexington, by comparison, attracts less of it — and often has trouble keeping home-grown talent.

Lexington is a great place, and it is doing a lot of things right. As many people pointed out, it has made enormous progress, especially in the past few years.

But this is the real question: Are the cities Lexington competes with for talent making more progress?

Lexingtonians like to avoid controversy, and they can be polite to a fault. But those who went to Madison had some frank discussions about the civic traits that often can get in the way of progress in Lexington.

Like other Kentuckians, we are quick to criticize, find fault and run ourselves down. We often don’t recognize the good things about Lexington, or take personal responsibility for helping to solve problems. We like to talk and study but are slow to act. We don’t like change. We listen to outsiders, but ignore innovative people among us.

We don’t integrate our universities into the rest of the community as well as Madison and Austin do. We don’t value education — or educated people — as much as those cities do. We won’t embrace and celebrate our creative entrepreneurs as much as those cities do.

For example, while the Commerce Lexington group was in Madison, Alltech had 1,200 people from more than 70 countries in Lexington for a symposium on sustainable agriculture. Alltech is one of Kentucky’s most innovative companies, yet the only things most people here know about it are that it makes Kentucky Ale and is sponsoring the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

Next year’s Commerce Lexington trip will be a first: a visit to Pittsburgh in conjunction with Greater Louisville Inc. The trip’s focus will be regional cooperation.

While everyone agreed that is a great idea, many also thought another approach is needed.

“It’s time to take a trip to Lexington to see all the things that we are doing,” said Urban County Councilman Jay McChord.

He also said different segments of the community should mix it up more: “We should create salad bowls, rather than salad bars where everything is kept separate.”

Some suggested retreats to regional assets such as Berea and Centre colleges, or a meeting in Lexington to follow up on ideas from past city visits and measure progress. Others suggested that Commerce Lexington promote local speaking opportunities for Lexington’s brightest minds in business and academia.

During the visit, Madison leaders spoke about their city’s environmental leadership and emerging technology companies. They talked about strong neighborhoods and citizen engagement. They discussed the value people there place on education and high-level academic research that will create the jobs of the future.

“This community is focused on solving problems,” said Police Chief Noble Wray.

One message came through loud and clear: It’s not about the place so much as the attitudes of the people who live there.

Lexington must do more to leverage its “social capital.” All of it.

Cities such as Madison and Austin are more open to people who are different. They value diversity and strive for inclusion. They are, the consultant Ryan said, places where “what’s your idea is more important than who’s your daddy.”

It was a point that had many of the Lexingtonians shaking their heads in agreement — especially the 20- and 30-somethings who kept saying, in so many words: Give us more reasons to stay in Lexington. Please.

Despite significant improvement in recent years, Lexington remains divided by race and class. Too many aspects of community life are as starkly black or white as the plank fences that surround our horse farms.

For example, many Lexingtonians do not welcome Latinos, even though the local economy would collapse without them. Gays and lesbians often feel shunned. Young people of all races complain they are not valued — or listened to.

How many white people attend the annual Roots & Heritage Festival? How many blacks and whites attend Festival Latino?

Dr. Michael Karpf, who came from Los Angeles in 2003 to become the University of Kentucky’s executive vice president for health affairs, said Lexington is more diverse than many people realize, but it doesn’t celebrate its diversity.

Karpf spends as much time as anyone trying to attract top talent to Lexington. He said the city must work harder to overcome stereotypes many outsiders have about Kentucky.

“We’ve got a bad history when it comes to diversity,” Mayor Jim Newberry said in his speech at the end of the trip. “It’s better. But I full well appreciate the fact we’ve got a lot of work that remains to be done.”

It is valuable to look to other successful cities for ideas and inspiration. But if Lexingtonians really want to compete for top talent, we also must look in the mirror.

Next trip: To Pittsburgh, with Louisville group

May 20, 2009

Commerce Lexington will partner with Greater Louisville Inc. to do a joint leadership visit next year to Pittsburgh, officials announced Wednesday at the end of the trip to Madison.

They said it would be a big step toward greater regional cooperation between Kentucky’s two largest cities.

It will be the first time in the 70-year history of Lexington’s leadership visit that the city has done a joint trip with Louisville.

Pittsburgh is a great destination for such a visit, because the city has a great recent history of regional cooperation, with 30 counties in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio working closely together on common issues, Commerce Lexington officials said.

“If they can do that, we certainly ought to bridge the divide between Louisville and Lexington,” said Kim Menke of Toyota. “As we come up with things that are good for the commonwealth we can speak with one voice.”

Menke, who will be Commerce Lexington’s 2010 chair, made the announcement along with this year’s chair, Woodford Webb.

The Madison trip attracted 260 people from central Kentucky. Greater Louisville Inc.’s annual leadership visit has about 125 people attendees, so next year’s trip could have a big group. Menke said UK and the University of Louisville will be important partners with the two chambers of commerce in making the trip succeed.

After the announcement was made, Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson made some remarks via video.

“Not only can we learn about Pittsburgh, but more importantly we can learn from each other,” Abramson said. “We have more in common than what separates us.”

Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry joked: “For the first time, I can say ‘I love Louisville.'”

New Madison arts center hosts Lexington dinner

May 20, 2009

On the second night of each year’s Commerce Lexington trip, central Kentucky banks sponsor a big dinner.

This year’s event was held Tuesday night at the new  Overture Center for the Arts, an impressive $205 million downtown facility that was a gift to the city from Madison businessman W. Jerome Frautsch.

The center includes performance space, a contemporary art museum and this fabulous room where the Lexington visitors dined.

Click each photo to enlarge.

Tour shows how bikes fit into city’s big picture

May 20, 2009
Arthur Ross, Madison's pedestrian-bicycle coordinator, led the bicycle tour that included five Urban County Council members.

Arthur Ross, Madison's pedestrian-bicycle coordinator, led a bike tour that included five Urban County Council members. Photo by Tom Eblen

One of the most popular optional activities during Commerce Lexington’s trip to Madison, WI, was a bicycle tour of the city’s extensive trail network.

It didn’t hurt that the weather was perfect Tuesday afternoon: sunny and in the 70s.

About 50 Lexington visitors paid to rent bikes for a 7-12 mile ride. The group included five six Urban County Council members: Kevin Stinnett, George Myers, Doug Martin, Chuck Ellinger, Jay McChord and Tom Blues.

Madison is regarded as one of the nation’s best cities for bicycling and walking, with a 150-mile network of trails. Many of the trails are popular recreation facilities, especially those around the lakes on either side of downtown Madison.

But what was notable was how trails and bike lanes have been integrated into Madison’s street and sidewalk network. It’s not a novelty; it’s serious transportation and a tool for better connecting Madison’s neighborhoods, businesses and public venues.

The city requires new developments and buildings to have parking facilities for bicycles as well as cars. And when it snows — as it does a lot here — trails are cleared as quickly as streets, because so many people bike to work, said Arthur Ross, Madison’s pedestrian-bicycle coordinator.

In addition to commuters and recreational riders, many people now run errands on bikes and a growing number of businesses are using them to make deliveries, Ross said.

While some neighborhoods have resisted new trails, fearing they would bring in a “bad element,” there’s no evidence of that. Ross said property values of homes often rise after trails are built near them.

Ross noted that trails are especially important in cul de sac neighborhoods. The intent of cul de sacs is to isolate people from the impact of automobiles and traffic, but they shouldn’t isolate people from each other, he said.

The key to successful integration of trails, bike lanes and roads is public education and good design that minimizes traffic conflicts. That was evident during the trail ride, as intersections where the trail crossed streets were carefully marked for both drivers and cyclists. Most roads also accommodate bicycles.

Halfway through the tour, the group stopped for lunch at Strand Associates, a Madison-based engineering firm with a vice president who lives in Lexington, Mike Woolum. Strand is doing the design work for Lexington’s Legacy Trail, which by the end of next year will connect downtown Lexington with the Kentucky Horse Park.

Environmental issues will be key for cities, business

May 19, 2009

Madison is a “green” city, and for any of the Commerce Lexington visitors who didn’t believe it, there was a pair of green-colored glasses and a copy of the booklet Green Living for Dummies at their seat.

Seriously, Madison, WI, has long been a pioneer among American cities in looking for ways to improve environmental sustainability. It was among the first cities with curbside recycling, and energy conservation has always been big — thanks to high power costs and below-zero winters.

Other cities and businesses are following Madison’s examples, not just because it’s a good thing to do, but because it makes economic sense and will make even more sense in the future as energy prices rise and the world grapples with increasingly complex environmental issues and depletion of fossil fuels.

“The environmental movement is not a trend,” said Sonya Newenhouse, president of Madison Environmental Group. “It’s like the civil rights movement or the women’s movement.”

Newenhouse was an interesting example not only of Madison’s focus on sustainability, but how its quality of life attracts and retains talented people who build its economic future.

There’s an often-told joke here that Madison’s cab drivers all have PhDs because they came here to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, didn’t want to leave but couldn’t find jobs.

When Newenhouse finished her PhD at the university and couldn’t find a job doing what she wanted to do — environmental sustainability consulting — she started her own firm. It has grown substantially, and now she has started a second company, too.

“I was one of those PhD students who never left,” she said. “I got into the transportation business, although not cab-driving.”

Newenhouse’s firm helps companies become more environmentally friendly and energy efficient — and save money. Among its many services is developing parking and commuting plans.

Her firm also helps companies that are demolishing buildings figure out how to minimize waste. In Madison, 40 percent of landfill waste is from construction and demolition, and the city has laws that require as much as possible to be recycled so the landfills don’t fill up so fast.

A second company she started, Community Car, rents cars by the hour to people who occasionally need a car but don’t want the cost — or environmental impact — of driving one more than they really need.

Jeanne Hoffman, Madison’s sustainability coordinator, said many of the city’s environmental efforts are done in partnership with local companies. “The business community cooperates greatly with the city and with non-profits,” she said.

Among the initiatives are incentives to build environmentally friendly LEED-certified buildings and use sustainable energy. The city’s fire stations have solar thermal systems. There’s a growing interest here in developing wind power.

There are many rebates and tax incentives for installing solar panels to generate power, which people and companies can sell back to the local electric utility for a higher price than electricity they buy.

“It’s a wildly popular program,” Hoffman said. “Businesses had better start thinking about this because it’s going to affect their bottom line.”

Click on images to enlarge.

First stop: Madison downtown development

May 18, 2009

The Commerce Lexington trip began with several optional tours — Arts & Culture, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recreation, “green” Madison and downtown development.

I took the downtown development tour, which focused on an impressive new mixed-use project called University Square. It is a $180 million public-private partnership between a developer and the university that is built beside campus on a 3.4-acre site that had been a 1970s-era shopping center.

The most striking thing about University Square, which has won some design awards, is the clean, open contemporary architecture. One interesting feature is a roof garden on the fourth floor, with patio areas for residents and students and green plantings in trays around the roof.

About one-fourth of the space is planned for retail, although the poor economy has slowed that piece of the project. The university has one-fourth of the space, which is used for student services offices and space for student activities.

Half the building is a private development of upscale student apartments — 356 units that can hold 800 students. The apartments are quite nice — and not cheap. They rent for $1,000 per bedroom (units have one, two or three bedrooms).  Many students rent two-to-a-bedroom to save money.

At 1.1 million square feet, it is the largest mixed-use project ever done in Madison.

About $3 million in tax-increment financing was used for the enclosed parking areas, and the university invested about $57 million. The rest is private money, said Susan Springman, who works for the developer, Executive Management Inc.

The developer approached the university about the project in 1996. Construction began in 2006 and the building has been opening in phases over the past nine months. Springman said one thing that made the project possible was a close working relationship with the city.

This is one of the nicer of many new student housing apartment projects. Local officials say it has helped move students out of older homes in the neighborhoods surrounding the university, allowing families to start moving back into those and making the neighborhoods more stable.

Commerce Lexington group off to Madison, WI

May 18, 2009

About 260 Lexington area business, civic and government leaders were boarding two chartered jets early this morning for Commerce Lexington’s 70th annual leadership visit. This year’s destination: Madison, Wis.

The chamber of commerce visits a different city each year to see what progressive things it is doing and how some of those ideas might be used to improve Lexington. It’s also a great three-day networking opportunity for leaders in many spheres of Lexington life who might not otherwise get to know each other.

This year’s trip includes the mayors of Lexington, Richmond and Versailles, as well as Lexington’s vice mayor and several Urban County Council members, the police chief and school superintendent.

This is Commerce Lexington’s second visit to Madison; the first was in 1997. Last year, the trip went to Austin, Texas, and the year before, Boulder, Colo.

I’ll try to post updates here several times a day Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Then, I’ll follow up with a column in Friday’s Herald-Leader about lessons learned from the trip.

If you’re on Twitter, I’ll also be posting items at  Also check out Commerce Lexington’s Web site.

Looking to Madison for ideas to improve Lexington

May 14, 2009

If you want to change, you must expose yourself to new ideas.

That’s why I’m a fan of Commerce Lexington’s annual Leadership Visit. On Monday, more than 260 of Lexington’s government, business and civic leaders will board two chartered jets to Madison, Wis., for the 70th annual trip.

Each year, Commerce Lexington sponsors the three-day trip to a different city in search of ideas for improving Lexington.

(Another reason I’m a fan of the trip is that it helps influential people from different areas of the community get to know each other, and it brings new people into the leadership circle.)

Many of those on the trip will be business executives. Others include Lexington’s mayor, vice mayor, police chief and most members of the Urban County Council, as well as the mayors of Richmond and Versailles. Fayette Schools Superintendent Stu Silberman is going, along with representatives of four colleges and universities.

Last year’s trip to Austin, Texas, underscored the importance of “weird” creativity in building a city’s economy. It also showed how live music and other entertainment venues can attract creative young people and become an economic engine.

The year before, the people who went to Boulder, Colo., brought home the idea that walking and bicycle trails can improve a city’s quality of life — and, again, attract creative talent. That helped jump-start various trail-building efforts around Lexington.

Like those cities and others previously visited, Madison and Lexington have a lot in common. They’re about the same size and have beautiful natural settings, a major research university and other good institutions of higher learning.

The University of Wisconsin has reached the University of Kentucky‘s goal of becoming a Top 20 research university. Madison is much farther along than Lexington in attracting and developing high-tech companies. Madison has a more educated population and higher per-capita income.

Madison and Lexington both often show up on national rankings of great places to live and work, although Madison often ends up higher on the list.

“Quality of life” is sometimes a hard-to-define characteristic, but everyone agrees it will be vital for cities to thrive in the 21st century economy. That is because technology and digital communications give companies and individuals more freedom to choose their location.

Among the topics on the Lexington visitors’ agenda: arts and culture, downtown development, recreation and environmental sustainability. They’ll hear from Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and Rebecca Ryan, founder of Madison-based Next Generation Consulting and author of Live First, Work Second, who will report on her impressions of Lexington.

Commerce Lexington has visited Madison before, in 1997. And similarities between the two cities led the Herald-Leader to send reporter Jamie Gumbrecht there nearly three years ago to do her own comparison.

Among the things that struck Gumbrecht about Madison were the close town-gown relationship and the emphasis on walking (a major pedestrian thoroughfare, State Street), biking (150 miles of trails and bike lanes everywhere) and opportunities for people to gather for events or just to hang out (50 live music venues and a huge lakefront commons).

For my own quick preview, I consulted an old friend, Ellen Foley, a Madison resident and former editor of the city’s largest newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal. What, I asked her, makes Madison such a great city?

Foley cited qualities that may not be readily apparent on a quick visit. Madison has a history of being open to new ideas and different kinds of people, including immigrants. It has long valued education, partly because those immigrants saw education as the way to get ahead.

She mentioned a vibrant, innovative business community and a deep sense of community philanthropy and civic engagement.

“We care about each other. We take actions to help each other,” she said. “We still go to the city council meetings that last until 3 a.m. Way before micro-blogging, our neighborhoods had active oral networks that shared stories and issues. We had a huge controversy in our neighborhood about putting islands in a busy street to slow traffic. One big issue was who was going to plant flowers in this island, and which flowers!”

For another perspective, I consulted a new friend, Rebecca Self, education director of Seedleaf, a non-profit group that promotes affordable, community-grown food in Lexington. A Lexington native, Self has lived in Madison and will be among those going on the Commerce Lexington trip.

Self said Madison residents feel a responsibility to get involved in civic affairs, and seem to be more proud of their city than Lexingtonians are of theirs.

“I think their self-pride actually helped to create their reputation,” she said. “From starting out in a place where they believed in themselves and their potential rather than doubting it, they were able to do some pretty impressive things, many of which I hope we’ll see and in some way replicate.”
View Larger Map