Kentucky development leaders showcase high-tech innovation

September 30, 2014

gamersJason Mize, left, a partner in the Lexington company Really Big Spiders, demonstrated its online game, “Tales from the Strange Universe,” to Jonathan Gay of the Kentucky Innovation Network. Lexington is now a hotbed for electronic game development. Photo by Tom Eblen


Who knew Lexington was becoming a hotbed for electronic game development?

That’s exactly why Commerce Lexington and the state Cabinet for Economic Development brought seven freelance journalists here to visit with local game developers at Awesome Inc., the tech business incubator on Main Street.

At a reception Tuesday, they were to meet with other local business leaders, including Carey Smith, CEO of Big Ass Solutions, the giant fan company.

Earlier in the day, some of the journalists toured Northern Kentucky University’s College of Informatics, a new program that focuses on data science applications. Others went to Morehead State University to see the Space Science Center. Later this week, most will be covering the annual Idea Festival in Louisville.

“We just wanted to show them that from small business to big you can do it here in Lexington,” said Gina Greathouse, Commerce Lexington’s senior vice president for economic development.

Lexington has seven full-fledged companies developing electronic and online games and several programmers and artists who work on them part-time, said John Meister. He is a board member of RunJumpDev, a local organization that helps game developers network and promote their products.

Meister also is a partner in one of those companies, Super Soul. After working 10 years as a software engineer, he teamed up with artist Richie Hoagland to develop the Xbox game Compromised in 2012. Their company will soon release Speak Easy, a 1920s-themed fighting game for PlayStation 4.

Meister said game development has been growing in Lexington because many technology workers play games and become interested in making them. Lexington’s low cost of living helps, because it is much cheaper to develop games here than in many other cities with large high-tech communities.

While he wasn’t that interested in gaming, Terry Troy, a Cleveland-based journalist who writes for Scientific American magazine, said he came away from the tour with many story ideas. He was especially impressed by Morehead’s Space Science Center, which has become a national leader in developing small space satellites for research.

“Kentucky is a state of dichotomies; you have the Creation Museum and then over in Morehead is the cutting edge of satellite technology,” Troy said. “I knew there was a lot of innovation in the state, but you just don’t realize how much until you see it. I’m impressed.”

Pencils of Promise founder keynotes Lexington conference

May 12, 2014

Adam Braun was a Brown University student planning a career in high finance when he was inspired by a film to travel to developing countries to see poverty firsthand.

In India, he asked a boy he encountered what he wanted most. The reply stunned him: “a pencil.” Braun gave the boy his pencil and never forgot how his face lit up.

140513Emerge0002AThat encounter, and others on Braun’s semester abroad, made him realize the power of education to change lives. He returned home with a goal to gain enough financial expertise to start an organization to raise money to build a school overseas.

Since 2009, Pencils of Promise has partnered with communities and governments to build 206 schools in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. It also trains teachers and covers other school costs. Braun’s book, The Promise of a Pencil, released this spring, was a New York Times best-seller.

Braun will be in Lexington on Thursday to be the keynote speaker at Emerge 14, a one-day conference organized by Commerce Lexington to engage young professionals in the community.

Other speakers include Josh Nadzam, founder of Lexington’s Manchester Bidwell Replication Project, which aims to create a version of a Pittsburgh program that fights poverty through arts education and job training; Whit Hiler and Griffin Van Meter of the state pride organization Kentucky for Kentucky; and Matt Jones, founder of Kentucky Sports Radio.

Breakout session topics include “turning your passion into reality,” “leveraging the community to grow your business,” “pursuing elected leadership,” “developing your best professional self” and “growing a movement.”

The conference will be at the Hilton Lexington/Downtown hotel, with breakout sessions at nearby locations.

The idea for the conference, which is planned as an annual event, came from Commerce Lexington’s Leadership Visit last year to Omaha, Neb., which hosts a similar conference, where Braun has been one of its most popular speakers.

Not only are Braun’s personal story and accomplishments inspiring, but New York-based Pencils of Promise represents a new business model for doing good that is gaining attention from many young professionals.

In many ways it resembles a traditional nonprofit organization, but Pencils of Promise uses for-profit business strategies to accomplish its goals. All donations go to programs, and overhead, which accounts for less than 20 percent of the organization’s budget, comes from other sources. All finances are disclosed online at


Emerge 14
One-day conference organized by Commerce Lexington to engage young professionals in the community, featuring keynote speaker Adam Braun of Pencils of Promise, Josh Nadzam of the Manchester Bidwell Replication Project, Whit Hiler and Griffin Van Meter of Kentucky for Kentucky, Matt Jones of Kentucky Sports Radio, Megan Smith of Cake + Whiskey magazine, Carey Smith of Big Ass Solutions, Colmon Elridge, assistant to Gov. Steve Beshear, and more.

When: 8 a.m.-6 p.m. May 15. Schedule available at

Where: Hilton Lexington/Downtown hotel, 369 West Vine Street.

Fee: $99, includes breakfast and lunch. Register and learn more at



Lexington, Louisville business people to seek ideas in Charlotte

April 7, 2014

College basketball rivalry aside, Lexington and Louisville are working more cooperatively than ever before. The latest example is the upcoming “leadership visit” to Charlotte by members of Commerce Lexington and Greater Louisville Inc.

More than 200 business and civic leaders from Lexington and Louisville will travel to Charlotte June 1-3 to meet with their counterparts there. It is the second time leaders from Kentucky’s two largest cities have made a joint trip; the first was to Pittsburgh in 2010.

This trip’s emphasis will be regional economic development, said Bob Quick, president of Commerce Lexington.

“Charlotte is a place where a lot of regional initiatives occur,” he said, explaining the choice of destination. “We think there could be some good lessons in how they operate as a region. It’s built into their culture.”

Other potential lessons in Charlotte include workforce development initiatives at Central Piedmont Community College, which has forged partnerships with area industries for technical training, much as Bluegrass Community and Technical College has done with Toyota Motor Manufacturing Co. and others, Quick said.

“They fully grasp what a complete educational system you have to have” to create a growing, dynamic regional economy, Quick said.

Another thing Charlotte has that Lexington and Louisville would like to have: authority to ask voters for a local-option sales tax for specific city improvement projects. Government and business leaders in Lexington and Louisville are generally supportive of such taxing authority, but Kentucky’s rural-dominated General Assembly has consistently balked at granting that authority.

While Lexington and Louisville leaders say they have learned a lot from annual study visits to other cities, they are always quick to point out that every city is different and no city is perfect.

Charlotte, for example, has had some recent leadership problems Lexington and Louisville have been fortunate to avoid. Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon was arrested by the FBI in late March on bribery and corruption charges. Undercover agents pretending to be investors say they made almost $50,000 in payoffs to the mayor, a 47-year-old Democrat, in return for his help with the city’s permit and zoning process. An indictment is expected later this month.

Quick said Commerce Lexington and Greater Louisville Inc. have worked closely together on economic initiatives for years. But cooperation between the cities has grown considerably since the 2010 trip to Pittsburgh.

Another big reason for the more cooperative atmosphere, Quick said, is the close personal and working relationship between the cities’ mayors, Jim Gray of Lexington and Greg Fischer of Louisville. Both are Democrats and former chief executives of family-owned businesses.

“It’s unprecedented to have the level of trust we now have between Kentucky’s two largest cities,” Quick said.

The most notable cooperative venture is BEAM, the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement. It seeks to foster growth in high-tech manufacturing in both cities and the counties along Interstate 64 between them, primarily through focused recruiting and workforce development efforts.

This marks the 75th year that Lexington chamber leaders have made this annual trip to other cities. And while some good local-improvement ideas and momentum have come from the trips, most people go because it is easily the best local networking opportunity of the year.

Where else can you spend almost three days uninterrupted with the mayor, council members and other top leaders in local government and educational institutions, as well as senior executives of local banks, businesses and nonprofit organizations?

There are still spaces available for those wanting to attend. The cost is $2,200 per person ($200 less if you share a hotel room, and another $300 less if you find your own transportation to and from Charlotte rather than taking one of the chartered jets from Lexington and Louisville.)

Four $1,000 scholarships will be given to “emerging leaders” who want to attend. The deadline for applications was to have been Monday, but it has been extended to April 18.

Scholarship candidates must be ages 21-39 and have demonstrated community involvement, including leadership positions in organizations, said Amy Carrington, Commerce Lexington’s leadership development director.

Registration and more information:


Commerce Lexington launches $4 million job-creation campaign

May 29, 2013

Commerce Lexington unveiled a five-year private fundraising campaign on Wednesday to finance economic development efforts by announcing that it already has raised more than $2.5 million, or 65 percent, of its $4 million goal.

Initial contributions to the Full Stride initiative came from 26 local companies and organizations, with the largest amount coming from Toyota Motor Manufacturing. Individual donor amounts were not disclosed.

“Short of health and family, there is nothing more important in the world than a good job,” Mayor Jim Gray said at the announcement event at Griffin Gate Marriott, which included a symbolic balloon launch.

Lexington now has 225,000 jobs, about 10,000 more than it had three years ago, Gray said. Still, he added, the local unemployment rate is more than 6 percent, which means the number of unemployed people looking for work would fill almost half of Rupp Arena.

“This effort is at the top of what we’ve got to do,” Gray said.

Gray said job-creation is the most important factor in keeping the local economy strong. And to get those jobs, he said, Lexington must “double down” on creating the kind of attractive, livable community that will attract the best people and employers.

The $4 million raised from private companies will be combined with economic development money appropriated by the Urban County Council. Commerce Lexington is seeking $2.275 million from local government over the next five years.

“This is a public-private partnership,” said Bill Lear, managing director of the law firm Stoll Keenon Ogden.

Much of the money will be used to better market the Bluegrass region to employers. Strategies include encouraging companies already here to expand and recruiting diverse new businesses, including making calls on companies in Europe and Asia.

Other strategies include encouraging the development of small and minority-owned businesses through programs that provide loans and sales opportunities with area manufacturers. Also, the plan calls for several educational initiatives to improve workforce skills development.

“We have to create jobs,” said Central Bank CEO Luther Deaton. “And we have to educate our workforce.”

San Antonio showed power of teamwork, attitude

June 11, 2012

Here is a problem with Lexington: It has always been such a good place to live that residents and their leaders have rarely felt much urgency to strive to make it great.

I was reminded of that again last week, when I accompanied 184 other Kentuckians to San Antonio on Commerce Lexington‘s 73rd annual Leadership Visit.

Like the other four cities I have visited with Commerce Lexington since 2008, San Antonio has fewer natural assets and more inherent problems than Lexington does. Yet, leaders in those cities have accomplished some significant civic and economic improvements.

The lessons of San Antonio were not only what civic leaders have done, but how they did it. Texas is a conservative state, but San Antonio voters have approved bond issues and tax increases for infrastructure improvements because leaders convinced them it would spark private economic development and create jobs.

The key, officials said, has been strong public and private leadership, a can-do attitude, a willingness to take risks and the ability to develop a shared vision and action plans that don’t fizzle out each time political leadership changes.

“Almost every project we have done … has relied on partners,” said Nelson Wolff, a former legislator and two-term mayor who now leads the government of surrounding Bexar County. “It’s all about partners; it’s all about building personal relationships.”

“We have that can-do attitude,” added San Antonio real estate developer Marty Wender. “There’s always going to be naysayers, but Texans make things happen. When people tell me something can’t be done, I love it, because it means I can do it and they won’t try.”

What could that kind of leadership look like in Lexington? For one thing, it could mean dusting off all of the visioning documents and master plans this city has done in recent years, identifying common elements and developing a plan to make them happen. A good place to start would be to complete the Destination 2040 process with an action plan.

It could mean that Lexington’s business and political leaders create a united front to lobby the General Assembly to give the city control over its public safety pension system. The current system’s unfunded liability and outrageous disability rules pose a financial threat that only will get worse until the problems are solved.

Business and government leaders must figure out creative ways to finance the urban infrastructure Lexington needs to attract investment, development and jobs.

The streetscape and Cheapside improvements completed in 2010 have brought new life and economic activity downtown. The next challenge will be continuing infrastructure investment to support that, as well as the organic growth happening in areas such as Jefferson Street, National Avenue and the Distillery District.

It will take a lot of money to fund Lexington’s infrastructure needs, which include the storm water and sewer improvements we must make because past leaders didn’t face up to the true cost of suburban sprawl.

San Antonio leaders are now pushing for a 1⁄8 cent sales tax increase to improve public schools. Lexington needs that kind of local-option sales tax authority for its infrastructure needs. Business and political leaders must find the courage to convince Kentucky’s rural-dominated General Assembly to allow it.

Lexington has made a lot of progress recently in bringing more public participation and transparency to growth and development issues. The challenge going forward will be for leaders to listen to citizens offering different ideas, but not be distracted by naysayers with no ideas to offer.

This is a good time to be having these kind of strategic discussions. The recent Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force process was one of the most effective in Lexington’s history. It brought together a broad group of stakeholders whose research and discussions led to a shared vision that departed from previous conventional wisdom.

Now, the challenge with the Arena District and other downtown improvements is to develop specific action and financial plans. We also must keep the momentum going even though these projects will require decades to complete.

Darryl Byrd, the leader of San Antonio’s SA2020 long-term planning process, summed up the challenge by quoting Edward Whitacre, who was chairman and CEO of AT&T when the company was based in San Antonio.

“It’s all about knowing what you want,” he said, “and getting there on purpose.”

San Antonio showed how to make most of assets

June 10, 2012

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.


Exploring how San Antonio keeps improving the city

June 5, 2012

The Alamo in downtown San Antonio is Texas’ most popular tourist attraction. Nearly 200 pioneers, including a group of Kentuckians with knife designer Jim Bowie among them, perished in the 13-day battle with Mexican forces in 1836. Photos by Tom Eblen


SAN ANTONIO, Texas — On Monday, the 185 Kentuckians visiting San Antonio with Commerce Lexington heard about what this city is doing to transform itself. On Tuesday, they heard more about how it is being done.

The bottom line: public-private partnerships that can bring together expertise, consensus and money from a variety of sources to the table. Those partnerships also include the public, which has approved several bond issues and tax increases to fund new public infrastructure necessary for private enterprise to take root and grow.

“It’s all about partners,” said Nelson Wolff, a former legislator and San Antonio mayor who now leads the government of surrounding Bexar County. “It’s all about building personal relationships.”

A morning panel discussion included Ben Brewer, president of Centro San Antonio, an umbrella group that coordinates downtown improvement efforts; Darryl Byrd, CEO of SA2020, the city’s long-term visioning process; and Felix Padrón, director of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs.

With them on the panel were three Lexingtonians — Mayor Jim Gray, Lexarts President Jim Clark and Jeff Fugate, president of the Downtown Development Authority — to help relate San Antonio’s experiences to what is happening in Lexington.

Byrd said San Antonio’s long-term planning process has been about setting ambitious goals for world-class excellence, developing strategies and partnerships to accomplish them and continuously measuring progress and results. “We try to divorce ourselves from things that keep us thinking small,” he said.

Brewer said Centro keeps that long-term vision in mind as it coordinates a variety of downtown improvement efforts. One key piece is a downtown improvement district, created by property owners in 1999 to fund extra landscaping, cleaning crews and a staff of 50 tourism ambassadors in the center city. Those commercial property owners pay annual assessments totaling about $2 million to fund the efforts to make downtown welcoming and looking its best.

Padrón discussed the role arts now play in improving the economy and quality of life in San Antonio, including a significant investment in public art. “It’s not art for art’s sake, but art for economic development,” he said.

After the morning session, the Commerce Lexington delegation broke up into groups to tour the Blue Star Contemporary Arts Center; Café College, a resource center to help local middle and high school students pursue college educations; the new Mission Reach of the River Walk; a nearby Toyota plant; and downtown attractions and improvement efforts under way beyond them.

I took the downtown walking tour, during which Brewer showed the group longtime attractions such as the Alamo, the River Walk and the circa 1731 San Fernando Cathedral.

Brewer also highlighted such efforts as the “amigos” hired through the downtown improvement district who answer visitors’ questions and help them find their way; adaptive reuse of old buildings to enhance the city’s unique character; improvements in public transportation, including a bicycle sharing program; and conversion of some former surface parking lots into small public parks.

The Commerce Lexington group returns to Kentucky on Wednesday after a morning session focused on applying lessons learned in San Antonio to improvement projects and programs already under way in Lexington.

Follow the trip

Tom Eblen will post updates and photos from the trip’s final day Wednesday at

The skyline near San Antonio’s Alamo shrine is filled with hotels and the Tower of the America’s, built for the world’s fair Hemisfair ’68. City officials say San Antonio attracts 22 million tourists each year, 75 percent of whom are leisure travelers rather than people attending conventions.

San Antonio’s BCycle bicycle rental system has 19 locations throughout the city’s downtown area. The bikes are designed for short trips in the city, but the system’s popularity falls when temperatures rise into the 90s, as they were Tuesday during Commerce Lexington’s visit.

The circa 1731 San Fernando Cathedral, the oldest continuously functioning religious community in Texas, was among the stops on a downtown walking tour that people on the Commerce Lexington trip took Tuesday in San Antonio.


San Antonio trip begins with tour of River Walk

June 4, 2012

The Commerce Lexington delegation began its three-day visit to San Antonio with a boat tour of the River Walk. Photos by Tom Eblen


SAN ANTONIO, Texas — A century ago, when this was the biggest city in Texas, the San Antonio River, which runs through the middle of town, was one of its biggest problems.

When rains came, the river could inundate the city. A 1921 flood killed more than 50 people. When rains didn’t come, the river could slow to a trickle. Once managed by a public official called the Ditch Commissioner, the river became so polluted and overgrown that civic leaders considered trying to bury it.

The river “really was a drainage ditch,” said Richard Perez, president of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. “And a very unsightly drainage ditch at that.

Then, with some creativity and New Deal “stimulus” money, the ditch was transformed in the 1930s into River Walk, now the second-biggest tourist attraction in Texas behind the nearby Alamo.

A 185-member delegation from Commerce Lexington began its 73rd annual Leadership Visit on Monday with a boat tour of the River Walk, which is in the midst of a $358 million expansion on its north and south ends.

“This river project has been an amazing jewel for our community,” said Lori Houston, an official with the San Antonio River Improvements Project, which is helping oversee the public-private effort.

The downtown section of the River Walk has been a tourist destination since the 1950s. It was lengthened to more than three miles for the 1968 world’s fair, called Hemisfair ’68.

During the past decade, the River Walk has been extended both north and south. These sections, though, are designed more to attract local residents than tourists.

The four-mile northern section, called the Museum Reach, connects several local museums and ends at the old Pearl Brewery, a former beer factory that has been transformed into a successful mixed-use commercial development. The Museum Reach has attracted $256 million in private investment to the area since its completion in 2009, Houston said.

The project included $10 million worth of public art, funded with private donations, installed mostly beneath bridges crossing the river. “This is how we turn an ugly underpass into a work of art,” Houston said.

The eight-mile southern section, called the Mission Reach, will connect the Alamo to other Spanish colonial missions in the area. When completed, it will be more of a natural park, with hiking and biking trails. Much of the work involves restoring the river eco-system that was destroyed during years of “modern” water-management efforts.

San Antonio officials said the River Walk is a great example of how local, state and federal government have worked together with private business to create the infrastructure necessary for private commerce to flourish.

Commerce Lexington’s annual Leadership Visit is designed to get Central Kentucky leaders away for three days to network with each other and gather ideas for improving Lexington. Over the years, the trips have sparked initiatives such as bike trails, Thursday Night Live at Cheapside, a small-business loan program and facilities improvement funding for Fayette County Public Schools.

This year’s trip began at Pearl Brewery, where Perez and San Antonio’s city manager, Sheryl Sculley, discussed a dizzying array of local initiatives that include street improvements, recreational trails, libraries, museums and a new performing arts center. Many of those initiatives are being funded with $1 billion in recent bond issues approved by local voters to provide the public infrastructure for business growth.

Despite the borrowing, Sculley said, San Antonio is the only one of the nation’s 10-largest cities that has a triple-A bond rating from all three financial rating agencies.

Sculley said much of San Antonio’s infrastructure focus recently has been on improving public schools and the “liveability” of downtown. That includes a goal of adding 7,500 new housing units in the center city by 2020. “We all know that great cities have great downtowns,” she said.

Before returning to Lexington late Wednesday, the Commerce Lexington visitors will be looking at San Antonio’s accomplishments and strategies and trying to scale them to their own city, which is only one-fourth the size. The trip is funded by several Lexington banks and other companies and the people on the trip, who paid almost $2,000 each to attend.

Follow the trip

Follow Tom Eblen’s updates from San Antonio at

Rivercenter Mall is one of many private developments that have grown up along San Antonio’s River Walk.


River Walk beautified a section of the San Antonio River that was once a drainage ditch.

Vernal Kennedy of Bluegrass Community and Technical College used her iPad to photograph dam locks as her River Walk tour boat passed through them.

Commerce Lexington group heads to San Antonio

June 4, 2012

More than 180 Central Kentucky business and civic leaders will board a chartered jet Monday morning for Commerce Lexington’s 73rd annual Leadership Visit — three days of networking, gathering ideas and discussing strategies to improve Lexington.

This year’s destination: San Antonio.

Huh? At first glance, a metropolitan area of 2.2 million people in the vastly different landscape of South Central Texas would seem an unlikely comparison for Lexington.

San Antonio is about the size of Pittsburgh, where Commerce Lexington made its first joint visit with Greater Louisville Inc. in 2010. And it is considerably larger than last year’s destination, Greenville, S.C., and several other recent ones: Austin, Texas (2008), Madison, Wis. (2009) and Boulder, Colo. (2007).

But when it comes to some aspects of urban development, Lexington and San Antonio have striking similarities. And San Antonio leaders have been especially adept at creating public-private partnerships to get things done, according to the Commerce Lexington officials who organized this trip.

“San Antonio is a city that’s got confidence and strong leadership, public and private,” said Bob Quick, Commerce Lexington’s president.

Mayor Jim Gray and six of the Urban County Council’s 15 members will be on the trip, as will be Fayette County Public Schools’ top two leaders; two legislators; and a host of planning and development officials, business executives and leaders of non-profit organizations.

Rather than gathering ideas for new initiatives, the trip’s agenda is focused on what attendees can learn to help accomplish projects already under way in Lexington.

“How do we apply what we see and learn to move along some of the things we’re already working on?” said Lynda Bebrowsky, Commerce Lexington’s senior vice president of marketing. “What are some of those processes that we can apply here?”

Two areas of focus will be the River Walk, San Antonio’s second-biggest tourist attraction after the Alamo, and Pearl Brewery, a 22-acre mixed-use development in a once-abandoned beer factory at the end of a recent northern extension of the River Walk.

They offer striking similarities to budding Lexington initiatives: the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District; the Lexington Distillery District, and restoration of Town Branch Creek.

The Lexington group also will tour several other areas and hear from a variety of San Antonio officials, including former mayors Henry Cisneros and Nelson Wolff, who now leads the government of surrounding Bexar County.

As I was preparing to cover this trip, I called a former colleague, Audrey Lee, for her perspective. A longtime Herald-Leader reporter, editor and editorial writer, she left Lexington in 2004 for the San Antonio Express-News, where she is now the enterprise editor.

She said San Antonio’s political leaders are particularly strong at marshaling local, state and federal resources to create the infrastructure needed for private investment to thrive. There is less anti-government sentiment there than in most other parts of Texas — military bases have long been a backbone of the local economy — and leaders are not afraid to push for tax increases when they can demonstrate a future payoff.

River Walk, in particular, offers an excellent example for what Lexington can accomplish. “It’s exactly what Town Branch could be,” Lee said.

San Antonio, like Lexington, was founded along a stream whose flow varied greatly with rainfall and, by the turn of the last century, had become a troublesome stormwater sewer through town. Lexington buried much of Town Branch Creek; San Antonio officials considered doing the same thing.

Then, thanks to a Works Progress Administration project during the Great Depression, a downtown section of the San Antonio River was restored, and the River Walk was created. The beautification effort has grown steadily since the 1950s, creating a magnet for tourists and private development.

In recent years, a northern reach of the river has been restored near museums and the Pearl Brewery, a popular development that makes Lee think of what the Lexington Distillery District could become. A southern reach is now being restored with a more natural feel near the region’s old Spanish missions.

Lee said San Antonio and Lexington each have some advantages over the other. San Antonio could be even more successful, she said, if it had Lexington’s merged city-county government, because Texas law makes it difficult for county governments to deal with urban growth.

San Antonio, on the other hand, has the advantage of municipally owned water, electrical and gas utilities, giving the public a greater voice in long-term strategy, Lee said.

Public utility ownership has resulted in more conservation easements to protect San Antonio’s aquifer, as opposed to costly industrial water-supply solutions. Also, there has been considerable emphasis on energy conservation and investments in wind, solar and cleaner-coal technology that will allow an older, dirtier coal-fired power plant to be retired ahead of schedule.

Party showcases Lexington’s startup businesses

February 6, 2012

The Lexington Venture Club’s annual celebration of local entrepreneurs last week had a ’70s disco theme, but it was all about the future of economic growth in Central Kentucky.

As a couple hundred people mingled beneath glittering disco balls at Buster’s Billiard & Backroom on Manchester Street, Warren Nash, director of the University of Kentucky’s Lexington Innovation & Commercialization Center, reported some encouraging statistics.

The 78 early-stage companies surveyed by the Lexington Venture Club reported receiving $69.9 million in funding last year, the most since statistics started being kept in 2005. The biggest source of that funding was so-called angel investors — people willing to risk their own money on other people’s good ideas.

Those 78 companies produced revenues of $127.2 million in 2011 — up 35.3 percent from the previous year. And they employed 780 people (605 full-time and 175 part-time) with an average annual full-time salary of $65,651. Those employees included 279 people (182 full-time and 97 part-time) hired last year — a 16.2 percent increase over 2010.

“You represent the future of Lexington and our country,” UK President Eli Capilouto, one of the few people in the room wearing a tie, told the entrepreneurs.

What is always fascinating about this annual event, organized by Commerce Lexington, is the diversity and creativity of these entrepreneurs and how most of them are trying to leverage new technology to solve old problems.

Nearly half of the 78 companies the Venture Club focused on are in biotechnology and health care fields, with the next largest clusters involving software, information technology and advanced manufacturing.

The program included videos highlighting three companies:

■ Seikowave uses special optics to make quick, three-dimensional measurements for applications as diverse as auto parts, dental implants and video games.

■ CoPlex Therapeutics is developing therapies that the company thinks can prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Like Seikowave, CoPlex Therapeutics grew out of technology developed by UK researchers.

■ SoJo Studios, an entertainment company that creates social games on Facebook to finance real-world development projects in the United States and Haiti. The company’s Wetopia game recently received endorsements from entertainers Ellen DeGeneres and Justin Bieber.

Many other local start-ups are just as fascinating. Rick Gersony of told me how he has combined his interests in art and medicine to develop online medical animations for doctors and patients. And Subodh Das of Underground Recovery LLC is developing technology to recover valuable metals from urban landfills and industrial sites.

Wes Keltner is a local marketing guy whose company, Gun, has become one of the nation’s largest consultants for video-game makers. “That’s right; we play video games for a living,” he said. Michael Hartman’s Frogdice has become a leading independent developer of video games and virtual environments.

Mayor Jim Gray told the entrepreneurs that he wants Lexington — like Austin, Texas, and Boulder, Colo. — to become known as a city that nurtures out-of-the-box thinking and the entrepreneurial companies that result from it.

Gray read from an email he received recently from Ezra Roizen, a California investment banker on the board of the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business who spent some time in Lexington recently.

“Lexington has many of the key ingredients for being a hub of entrepreneurship and innovation: a great university, comfortable college town environment, access to capital and a draw for global leaders through the horse community — those are real strengths, and it means you will grow great people, and great people like to come here,” Rosen wrote.

“Entrepreneurs like to be around smart people, they need to be around money, and they enjoy being in a nice place. San Francisco has these things, but it’s not the only place. Cities like Austin and, more recently, Boulder have built world-class entrepreneurial ecosystems,” he wrote.

“But it’s in the ecosystem. It’s not one thing; it’s not a single person or a shiny, new tech park or a loan program. It’s a community and a way of life.”


What are rankings worth? Depends how you use them

July 10, 2011

How can Lexington be both the nation’s most sedentary city and the fourth-best city for business and careers? Those seemingly contradictory rankings came out recently in Men’s Health and Forbes magazines.

The laziness award from Men’s Health — that peerless monthly guide to flatter abs and better sex — gave people a good laugh at Lexington’s expense. I didn’t hear the news for several days; I was with a large group of Central Kentucky friends in Virginia, where we were bicycling 300 miles up and down mountains.

When I returned home, I also discovered that Forbes had ranked Lexington No. 4 in its annual Best Places for Business list, up from 9th last year. (Louisville ranked No. 14.)

I don’t put much stock in magazine rankings, which are designed mostly to draw attention to magazines. But people love lists, no matter how suspect they seem. The good rankings give us something to brag about; the bad ones, something to fuss about — or think about.

The slap from Men’s Health was another reminder that Kentuckians need to adopt healthier lifestyles. One more reminder came last week, when two public health groups reported that nearly one-third of all Kentuckians are obese, making this the nation’s sixth-fattest state.

Maybe the drumbeat will persuade more Kentuckians to give up smoking, cut back on fatty foods and sugary drinks, and get more exercise. Lexington lags many cities when it comes to bicycle lanes, trails and a pedestrian-friendly environment that allows physical activity to be part of everyday life. But recent improvements show that when facilities are built, Lexingtonians will use them.

Forbes said it arrived at its list by weighing a series of metrics, including job and income growth, cost, quality of life and educational attainment. Lexington ranked higher than all of the cities that Commerce Lexington members have visited in recent years to gather improvement ideas: Greenville, S.C., was No. 60; Pittsburgh, No. 69; Madison, Wis., No. 63; Austin, Texas, No. 7; Boulder, Colo., No. 44; and Oklahoma City, Okla., No. 28.

Most Commerce Lexington trips have focused on downtown development and quality-of-life improvements — important factors in long-term economic vitality. All of the cities visited have offered good ideas for Lexington. But as last month’s trip to Greenville showed, Lexington has more going for it than we often assume.

Some Lexington businessmen — impressed by Greenville’s success in recruiting industry — were quick to tout South Carolina’s low-tax, low-regulation, anti-union environment. But economic statistics show a more complicated picture.

Before Forbes ranked Lexington a whopping 56 places above Greenville, I was looking through the “regional economic scorecard” that Clemson University economists compile for Greenville’s leaders.

Greenville considers Lexington one of its “peer” cities, and our metropolitan area outperformed theirs in almost every measure on the scorecard: work-force education, cost of living, knowledge workers, innovative activity and capacity, entrepreneurial environment, employment diversity and high-wage employment opportunities.

Even more telling, Lexington leads Greenville in per-capita income, perhaps the best measure of economic health. (Still, both places trail the national average, and the gaps have widened in recent years. That is neither a healthy sign nor an argument for “business-friendly” low wages.)

Economists in both South Carolina and Kentucky say one of the main keys to long-term economic prosperity is education. Still, many business and political leaders find it easier to fuss about taxes, regulation and unions than to make significant, long-term investments in education.

What lessons should we draw from economic comparisons? In a nutshell, Lexington should more aggressively build on its strengths and focus on initiatives that will promote long-term, broad-based economic prosperity.

And what about all of those magazine lists? Be neither discouraged nor deluded; just consider them tools. Brag about the Forbes ranking — it might bring in some business — and use the Men’s Health ranking to rally support for mending our unhealthy ways.

Lexington is neither as good nor as bad as others say we are. But if we are smart, we will use both the praise and criticism to get better.

Will Lexington leaders act on Greenville’s lessons?

June 19, 2011
Knox White, left, the mayor of Greenville, S.C., leads a group of people from the Commerce Lexington across the Falls Bridge, a suspension pedestrian bridge that replaced an ugly highway bridge over a waterfall that has become a city park. Photo by Tom Eblen

Greenville Mayor Knox White, left, leads a group from Commerce Lexington across Falls Bridge, a suspension pedestrian bridge that replaced a highway bridge over a waterfall that has become a city park. Photo by Tom Eblen

One of the most valuable things about Commerce Lexington’s annual “leadership visit” is that it brings together nearly 200 people who spend three days looking at Lexington’s strengths and weaknesses through the lens of another city.

Last week’s trip to Greenville, S.C., was my fourth, and I found it the most useful. Perhaps that was because Greenville’s relative size, assets and challenges are more similar to Lexington’s than are those in Pittsburgh, Madison or Austin.

In many respects, Lexington is better than all of those cities. It was easy to sense some of Greenville’s shortcomings, despite city leaders’ positive spin. But the point of the trip was to learn from what they do better than we do.

The primary lesson was that beautiful, high-quality urban development can improve both quality of life and economic vitality. Since the 1970s, Greenville has transformed an ugly, car-choked downtown into a garden spot where people want to live, work and play. Economic prosperity has followed.

Greenville is more politically and socially conservative than Lexington, and much of what city leaders did was controversial. But they did it, and it worked.

The city transformed a Main Street the size of Lexington’s from a sun-baked, four-lane highway into a pleasant two-lane, two-way gathering place. It is shaded by big trees and filled with shops, restaurants, sidewalk dining and plenty of parking in diagonal street spaces and artfully disguised garages. A neglected riverfront and waterfall became a gorgeous public park surrounded by new development.

Downtown is now beautiful, inviting, unique to Greenville — and twice as big as it was. Old buildings have been restored and adapted to new uses. Contemporary mixed-use developments have been built and are successful. There are a variety of performance halls, sports venues and museums. The renaissance is growing in all directions, and nearby towns are emulating it.

What can Lexington learn from Greenville? Here were my takeaways:

Articulate a simple vision that almost everyone can embrace. That is different from launching a task force or commissioning a detailed study that will gather dust on a shelf. Simply agree on a vision such as this: Lexington’s urban and suburban spaces should be worthy of the beautifully unique countryside that surrounds them.

Leaders must lead. As the Lexingtonians saw in Greenville, that means taking risks, working together and figuring out creative ways to accomplish goals. It means entrepreneurial partnerships among government, business and nonprofits. It also means inclusive, transparent planning and long-term strategies.

Demand excellence. Greenville raised the bar for downtown development with design guidelines and an architectural review process. Developers know they must meet high standards — and that city officials will work with them to overcome obstacles to mutual success.

Remember when the developer who wanted to build a one-story, suburban-style CVS drugstore on Lexington’s Main Street said the retailer wouldn’t do better? Well, a two-story, urban-style CVS is under construction on Greenville’s Main Street. When finished, it will look like it has always been there.

I asked Mayor Knox White to explain Greenville’s redevelopment vision in a nutshell. “Downtown is all about the walking experience,” he said. “The architectural guidelines, the landscaping, everything. It’s a religion with us.”

Build on success. Greenville’s revitalization was an intentional, long-term process. Partnerships were formed to create world-class anchor projects and beautiful public spaces that would attract private investment around them. Civic leaders were not afraid to dream big and take risks.

Greenville leaders said they always have a “next big thing” on the horizon. Lexington achieved much during the three years before last fall’s Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. We need a “next big thing” on which to focus.

This is a time of great opportunity for Lexington. Over the next couple of decades, Lexington will redevelop three huge tracts of urban land: the 46 acres around the Civic Center and Rupp Arena; the adjacent Distillery District; and the area surrounding the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus at the old Eastern State Hospital site.

Greenville shows what can be done, and the visitors from Lexington left talking like converts at a tent revival. But as we all know, even the most sincere believers can backslide when distracted.

Will Lexington stop being satisfied with good enough and try for great? Can those who went to Greenville help articulate a clear vision for Lexington and mobilize the community behind it? Will our leaders lead?

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Charm before the storm: Greenville’s Wyche Pavilion

June 15, 2011

Before a violent thunderstorm Wednesday evening sent trash barrels flying through the air and Commerce Lexington visitors running for cover, the group enjoyed a reception at the Wyche Pavilion, a shelter made from the ruins of one of Greenville, S.C.’s oldest industrial buildings beside the Reedy River in downtown. The pavilion is a great example of “adaptive reuse” of a historic structure that speaks to Greenville’s authentic heritage as a textile mill town and manufacturing center.

At BMW driving school, team-building begins at 80mph

June 15, 2011

GREENVILLE, S.C. — Because Commerce Lexington’s annual “leadership visit” is as much about creating trust and good working relationships back home as it is about getting ideas from the city being visited, organizers try to begin each trip with a team-building exercise.

That is why the first stop for the 193 Kentuckians on this year’s trip to Greenville was the BMW Performance Driving School.

“So what do I do now?”  Eli Capilouto asked our instructor through the open car window.

The University of Kentucky’s president-elect was sitting behind the wheel of a BMW M3 sedan with 414 horses under the hood, lawyer David Smith beside him and Keeneland Vice President Vince Gabbert and me in the back seat. We were about to see how fast Capilouto could drive a slalom course without killing us.

“At home I drive a 12-year-old Buick,” Capilouto deadpanned to the instructor. “Is this anything like it?”

“Well, they both have four wheels,” the instructor replied.

Capilouto said it was his second time around this track Wednesday. His first set of passengers gave him mixed reviews. “They said my driving was like my bowling — I knocked down a lot of pins,” he said. “The cones were not my friends.”

The three of us tried not to gasp as Capilouto roared down the straight-away and into the first turn. You could feel the trust building, though, as he successfully negotiated each fast turn, slamming on the accelerator and brake in turn.

“I have new-found respect for the university!” Gabbert said as we all changed seats so he could take a turn at the wheel. “I used to have a Camero. I still miss it, as you might can tell.”

Driving school was an exciting start to the three-day visit, during which Greenville officials will show off their successes in downtown revitalization and economic development. A big piece of that economic development has been BMW, which was attracted to Greenville nearly two decades ago and now employs 7,000 workers here who will build 240,000 vehicles this year.

In addition to the slolam course, BMW’s customer driving school offered several other tests of skill, including an off-road course where the Kentuckians could put a BMW X5 sport-utility vehicle through its paces, and a polished-concrete pad where two drivers would see how fast they could round corners in a BMW 135i sedan without spinning out on the wet pavement.

This team-building experience got rave reviews.

“You could feel the power; it was awesome!” said Vice Mayor Linda Gorton, who usually drives a Honda Accord.

“It was super fun, and we got to meet so many people,” said Mary Allison Belshoff, executive director of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s Lexington affiliate and my driving partner on the wet-pavement racetrack. “When you put people in unnatural environments, they get to know each other in interesting ways.”

The rest of the trip’s agenda includes tours, presentations, speeches and discussions, but no more high-speed joyriding. The group flies back to Blue Grass Airport late Friday afternoon. You might want to avoid Man O’ War Boulevard about then, just in case.

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Lexington leaders give Greenville a second look

June 15, 2011

This is the week each year when Commerce Lexington takes several dozen business and civic leaders to another city for three days of networking and brainstorming about how to improve Lexington.

Nearly 200 people are leaving on chartered jets Wednesday morning for Greenville, the largest city in the Upstate region of South Carolina. Although a much smaller city than Lexington, Greenville is the center of a metro area with 172,000 more people.

The annual “leadership visit” went to Greenville in 1995, but Commerce Lexington thought the city was worth a second look. Greenville has continued to prosper, thanks to smart economic development, good urban planning and successful public-private partnerships.

The city that once called itself “textile capital of the world” is now home to a mix of companies, many from Europe, including BMW and Michelin. A big part of Greenville’s strategy was revitalizing its urban core and improving the quality of life.

“They focused on what makes the city unique and special,” said Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, whose family-owned construction company helped build BMW’s facilities there. “It’s become a city that reaches out globally, not a big city but a city with a modern, cosmopolitan sense.”

Greenville’s downtown revitalization was sparked in the 1970s by a mayor who immigrated from Austria. He thought a beautiful, pedestrian-friendly European approach was a good antidote to the car-centric, asphalt-everywhere path that had contributed to urban decay.

That meant downsizing some streets, adding trees, restoring old buildings and removing a highway bridge over a neglected gulch of the Reedy River. The river was cleaned, the gulch transformed into a park and the four-lane bridge replaced by a unique pedestrian bridge.

“They have reclaimed that whole space, and it has had an amazing effect on the downtown,” said Jeanne Gang, the renowned Chicago architect whom Dudley Webb recently hired to redesign the stalled CentrePointe project in downtown Lexington. “They have an amazing set of beautiful urban elements that they’ve done over time.”

Gang’s firm, Studio Gang Architects, is completing designs for two signature projects in Greenville: Reedy Square and the Blue Wall Center.

Reedy Square will be the “town square” that Greenville hasn’t had, plus a showcase for regional attractions and culture. “It’s both a place for the locals to go hang out and a place that turns visitors on to what all there is to do in the Upstate,” Gang said.

Blue Wall Center, a 175-acre area at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, will have a visitors center, gardens and trails for people to get a taste of the local mountains. “We’ve been calling it speed-dating with nature,” Gang said. “It’s both a landscape and a building that work together to be this kind of visitor destination.”

Lexington can learn some things from Greenville, but how much of that learning will be converted into action? That is a frequent criticism of these trips — at least by people who don’t go on them.

Commerce Lexington President Bob Quick said there has been action. For example, Lexington’s Thursday Night Live and Minority Business Development programs began with ideas from the 1995 Greenville trip. “Sometimes it takes years for things to come together,” he said.

Last year, Commerce Lexington went to Pittsburgh with Greater Louisville Inc. The most popular idea from Pittsburgh — replicating Bill Strickland’s Manchester Bidwell program for inspiring and teaching job skills to young people — has been stalled by the weak economy, Quick said.

But many of Manchester Bidwell’s concepts will be used in the Fayette County Public Schools’ new agri-science vocational program, which begins this fall on Leestown Road. “Some of the things that we’re going to be doing are very similar to what Strickland is doing,” outgoing Superintendent Stu Silberman said.

Quick said the biggest benefit from last year’s trip has been stronger relationships among leaders in Lexington and Louisville, which has led to more cooperation on common issues and economic development initiatives.

Networking is always the biggest benefit of these trips. Sometimes it takes getting away from work and the patterns of everyday life to build new relationships that will help turn good ideas into successful action.

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

March 6, 2011

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.

In case you missed Comment on Kentucky …

June 21, 2010

I was on Kentucky Educational Television’s Comment on Kentucky program Friday night, discussing a couple of recent column subjects: The Friedell Committee for Health System Transformation and the Commerce Lexington/Greater Louisville Inc. trip to Pittsburgh. Host Ferrell Wellman’s other guests were Ryan Alessi of Insight’s cn2 and syndicated columnist Don McNay. There also was plenty of talk about politics and the latest antics of Republican Senate nominee Rand Paul. If you missed the show this weekend, you can watch it online by clicking here.

Education is the key to continued prosperity

May 17, 2010

Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt isn’t a trained educator; his background is in public policy. His audience of Kentuckians last week consisted mostly of business people.

But his sobering message was as much about business and public policy as it was about education. He said the mediocrity of American public schools is a huge threat to the nation and its economic prosperity.

“It is incontrovertible that America is in decline,” Roosevelt said. “It is serious, and it is deeply rooted in education.”

The percentage of Americans who are college graduates has remained at about 30 percent for the past half-century, while it has doubled and tripled in some other countries, he said. More than half the engineering students at U.S. universities now are foreigners.

America’s anti-academic popular culture, where most children spend hours each day watching television and playing video games, is a big part of the problem. “We celebrate swagger over work,” Roosevelt said.

The focus on improving the achievement gap among poor and minority students, as important as it is, obscures the fact that good schools and students aren’t doing well enough compared with those in countries that are the emerging economic powers.

American school children’s curricula are less rigorous, and they spend less time in school than students in other countries. Striving, Roosevelt said, is no longer a core American characteristic as it is in countries such as China and India.

“It’s an odd form of arrogance to think we’re going to be internationally competitive with the old agriculture-based school calendar,” he said.

Other factors Roosevelt cited include the lack of national education standards, poor management of schools and teacher mediocrity, which is a result of low prestige, low pay and low standards. Teacher hiring and tenure policies are part of the problem. So are hidebound teachers’ unions, although non-union schools don’t seem to perform any better than unionized ones, he said.

Roosevelt said business and civic leaders must demand more from public schools, and they must be willing to provide the resources and leadership to improve them. School systems must become more willing to include non-traditional educators, such as retired professionals and new college graduates in such programs as Teach for America.

Excellent teachers are vital. “We need a national call to action to encourage the best and brightest to go into teaching,” he said.

Roosevelt has overseen significant reforms in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, which have launched a $250 million scholarship program called The Pittsburgh Promise. It guarantees that students who graduate with good grades beginning in 2012 will receive a four-year scholarship for higher education worth about $10,000 a year.

“We need to think about what we want in this country,” Roosevelt said. “More education is the key to improving economic growth and quality of life.”

Roosevelt followed another speaker with a powerful message about education. Bill Strickland is the founder and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corp., an after-school arts program that targets inner-city high school students and an industry-designed vocational training program for unemployed adults.

“It’s all in the way we treat people that shapes behavior,” said Strickland, who spoke in Lexington last month at the Creative Cities Summit. “You can take people who are on the liability side of society’s ledger and make them into assets. It’s called common sense, which is in very short supply in our country right now.”

Efforts are already underway to work with Manchester Bidwell to replicate its program in Lexington, perhaps as part of a new Fayette County Schools vocational education program in agriculture sciences.

Another key to economic prosperity will be getting Kentucky to adequately value and fund its research universities. As Pittsburgh has shown, research universities are key to creating the ideas, technologies and companies that will shape the future of regional economies.

During a panel discussion, University of Louisville President James Ramsey and University of Kentucky President Lee T. Todd Jr. were critical of the General Assembly’s failure to adequately fund the research and education necessary for Kentucky’s economic future.

“Really important startups come out of deep wells of research,” said Tim McNulty of Carnegie Mellon University. “Innovation is very much a local sport.”

Did Lexington, Louisville leaders learn from trip?

May 15, 2010

Will last week’s trip to Pittsburgh by Commerce Lexington and Greater Louisville Inc. be just another expensive junket? Or will it help Kentuckians overcome some self-defeating traits, such as complacency and a tendency to ignore the obvious?

Those traits, among others, have often held this state back, despite Kentucky’s central location, beautiful landscape and abundant natural resources. The Kentucky visitors were told that Pittsburgh’s transformation over the past three decades occurred because the city was forced out of complacency.

Generations of industrial pollution had made the coal-rich region’s air and rivers so dirty that they were simply unacceptable. When the steel industry collapsed, Pittsburgh was forced to reimagine and diversify its economy. Lexington and Louisville shouldn’t have to be in crisis to learn some lessons from that.

Pittsburgh reinvented itself by leveraging its assets — sometimes literally.

The city has $6 billion in philanthropic assets, thanks to old industrial families with names such as Heinz, Carnegie and Mellon.

While that money has been a huge help, several Pittsburgh leaders echoed the comments of Grant Oliphant, president of The Pittsburgh Foundation. “It’s really not about money,” he said. “It’s about leadership and imagination.”

At a time when many people thought Pittsburgh should be desperate enough to welcome any development, the philanthropic community urged civic leaders to be choosy. That led to downtown design standards, good architecture, environmentally friendly construction and an emphasis on making Pittsburgh more beautiful and pedestrian-friendly.

“Pittsburgh was a fabulous city (in which) to be a car,” Oliphant said. “For people, not so much.”

Changing that involved many battles with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, but the city usually prevailed. Some of the results are extraordinary, such as several beautiful iron bridges that were restored rather than being replaced with ugly concrete.

Investment in the arts sparked the revival of a critical downtown district, prompting people and businesses to want to move there.

When it came to rebuilding and diversifying Pittsburgh’s economy, leaders focused on the city’s core strengths — manufacturing, energy and finance — but looked for ways to reinvent them for the modern economy. Well-funded local research universities have helped Pittsburgh businesses focus on innovation, technology and entrepreneurship.

Pittsburgh’s public schools were such a mess that foundations cut off support to force change. Bold reforms led to Pittsburgh becoming one of three American public school systems to receive a major Gates Foundation grant — a $40 million award to explore better teaching methods.

Perhaps the boldest stroke of all is the $250 million Pittsburgh Promise — a guarantee that, beginning in 2012, each Pittsburgh Public Schools graduate with good grades will receive a four-year scholarship for higher education worth about $10,000 a year.

When thinking about the future, it is more important to focus on the “what” than the “how,” Oliphant said. “It is the appeal of a large, transformational idea. When the vision of ‘what’ is compelling, people will figure out the ‘how.’ ”

As I listened to the presentations, I kept thinking: What are Kentucky’s core strengths that could be reinvented for a modern economy? For example, how could the horse industry follow the bourbon industry’s lead in reinventing itself? How could more investment in research universities create Kentucky’s technology industries of the future? How could more school reform provide the workforce those new industries will require?

Most of all, I thought: What are the big, transformational ideas for Lexington and Louisville?

The theme of this trip was “today we partner, tomorrow we prosper.” But it could have been more simply expressed with Pittsburgh native Fred Rogers’ famous question: “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

While only 75 miles apart, Kentucky’s two largest cities have always been separated too much by culture, ego and college sports rivalries. While that has never been smart, it is now simply unacceptable.

Kentucky is too poor and too far behind other states by most measures of economic and social progress for Lexington and Louisville to not work more closely together, share resources and become a more powerful force in the rurally dominated General Assembly.

“It’s about time we realize that we have more in common with each other than what separates us,” Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson said. “Great things are happening in all 120 counties, but we are the economic engine of this commonwealth. Without us, it doesn’t work. And with us, it creates the opportunity for other communities, other counties to grow and expand.”

It also means that the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville must collaborate more, rather than competing for precious resources the way they compete in basketball and football.

Those are obvious things that Lexington and Louisville can no longer ignore; as obvious as the words that have been on the state seal since Kentucky became a state in 1792: United We Stand, Divided We Fall.

Photos of what Kentuckians saw in Pittsburgh

May 12, 2010

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