Downtown developer Phil Holoubek and other locals who organized the Creative Cities Summit last week had three main goals.
They wanted to have out-of-towners feel Lexington’s creative buzz. They wanted to expose Lexington’s leadership to new ideas. And they wanted to show more of their neighbors the economic and social vitality Lexington could achieve through greater creativity and broader community engagement.
About half the 570 people who paid $199 to attend the summit Wednesday through Friday were not from Lexington, and the ones I talked with were clearly impressed. They loved the friendly people, the beauty of springtime in the Bluegrass and the handsome Lexington Center facility, where every time they walked into the lobby they saw a curving glass wall with a panoramic view of downtown.
But they also were wowed by Lexington’s creativity: the special installations by artists; the presentations by technology entrepreneurs and poets; and performances by such local talent as the dancers from Mecca Studio, guitarist Tee Dee Young and the wacky March Madness Marching Band.
And I’ll bet many of the Lexingtonians who attended the summit were seeing most of this local talent for the first time, too.
The summit’s speakers were impressive, beginning with Lexington’s own Ben Self, the technology entrepreneur who helped create President Barack Obama’s online campaign strategy. Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class and other best-selling books, was the highest-paid speaker — the headliner to get people in the door. But I found many of the other presenters to be more thought-provoking and inspiring.
Rebecca Ryan, a Madison, Wis., consultant who has been working with Commerce Lexington on strategies for attracting and retaining young professionals, was one of several who stressed the importance of diversity and inclusion to economic success. “If you want to retain people, you give them a place at the table and real work to do,” she said.
Tonya Surman talked passionately about the Center for Social Innovation she started in Toronto. She is working with the Kentucky Conference for Community and Justice to create a similar facility in Lexington, to be called The Plantory, where fledgling do-gooder organizations can share office space and feed off each other’s ideas.
The real show-stopper was Bill Strickland, author of Making the Impossible Possible and founder and CEO of the Manchester Bidwell Corp., a wildly successful job training and community arts program for poor people in Pittsburgh. Commerce Lexington will visit Manchester Bidwell on its annual trip next month.
What made Strickland so inspiring was his message that poor people, who are often treated as society’s liabilities, can become productive assets. His formula is a no-nonsense combination of hard work, striving for excellence and treating each person with respect.
Charles Landry, author of The Art of City Making, delivered a powerful message about the importance of beauty in city design — and the economic and social costs of ugliness.
“Think of the city as a living work of art,” said Landry, noting that cities Lexington’s size are often in the best position to innovate and succeed. “They’re small enough to make it happen and large enough to be taken seriously.”
Landry warned that cities that already have a good quality of life can easily become complacent and fall behind economically. “People who look too beautiful often have problems because they don’t try hard enough,” he said.
And if that didn’t hit home, the Englishman added this: “People say about Lexington that they talk a lot and don’t do a lot.”
Landry isn’t the first to make that observation, and it is the reason that Progress Lex, a new civic group, has organized a follow-up session Saturday at the Carnegie Center downtown. It is called Now What Lexington? and is free and open to the public. The session is designed to give people a forum to harness creative ideas and make plans to act on them. (Register at: www.nowwhatlexington.org.)
I spent my first 18 years, and the past dozen, living in Lexington. I can honestly say I have never seen more creativity and energy in this city than I have the past five or six years. For example, downtown is well on its way to transformation. Authentic local arts and culture have blossomed. And the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games will soon help take Lexington to a whole new level.
Hosting the Creative Cities Summit was a reflection of the change happening in Lexington. But the summit will have been worthwhile only if it inspires people throughout this city to get more creative and put the talk into action.