Lexington one of six ‘university cities’; can it take advantage of it?

October 18, 2015
Mayor Jim Gray, right, greeted University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto at a Lexington Forum luncheon on Jan. 24, 2012. Photo by Pablo Alcala.

Mayor Jim Gray, right, greeted University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto at a Lexington Forum luncheon on Jan. 24, 2012. Photo by Pablo Alcala.


Lexington has been a college town for more than 200 years. But when Scott Shapiro, a top aide to Mayor Jim Gray, was benchmarking local data against other cities recently, he discovered something interesting: Lexington was one of six U.S. cities whose numbers place them in a unique category.

This group, which he calls “university cities,” have distinct characteristics that make them different from smaller college towns or major cities with big research universities. And those characteristics translate into big economic development opportunities in the 21st century’s knowledge-based economy.

“This is one of those ah-ha moments,” Gray said of the analysis.

So, how can Lexington capitalize on this insight? We’ll get to that in a moment.

First, let’s see what Shapiro discovered about university cities, which he defined as metropolitan areas of between 250,000 and 1 million people with students making up at least 10 percent of the population.

Each city has a diversified economy closely tied to a major urban research university. In addition to Lexington, the cities are Madison, Wis.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Fort Collins, Colo.; Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C.; and Lincoln, Neb.

Each city has an abundance of attributes that naturally come with universities, including educated people, talent, openness to new ideas, innovation, entrepreneurialism and a lot of arts and culture.

These cities seem to have more of these attributes than college towns, in short, because they are big enough that many students can stay after graduation rather than moving on to find economic opportunity.

But unlike major cities with universities, these six university cities have a lower cost of living, less crime and, in many ways, a higher quality of life.

Shapiro’s analysis found, for example, that 42 percent of adults age 25 and older in university cities have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 29 percent nationwide.

High education levels seemed to have a big influence on productivity and wages. When adjusted for the cost of living, Shapiro found that the median annual salary in university cities is only about $700 below that of the nation’s 15 largest cities.

Unemployment rates from 2009 to 2013 averaged 6.3 percent in university cities, compared with 8.7 percent in other similar-sized cities and 8.8 percent in the nation’s largest 15 cities.

Business starts averaged 16.3 percent higher in university cities than in similar-sized cities, and only slightly below the rate for the nation’s largest cities. The number of non-profit organizations, which often drive social entrepreneurship and improve quality of life, was almost double that of similar-sized cities.

University cities are much safer. Violent crime averaged 36 percent lower in the six university cities than in similar-size cities and 40 percent lower than in the nation’s 15 largest cities.

And university cities are more fun. They have 47.2 percent more arts, recreation and entertainment places per thousand residents than the average of similar-size cities. And while they average fewer cultural assets than the 15 largest cities, they have more of them per thousand residents — 25.7 percent more.

One key attribute of a university city is being the “right” size to balance economic opportunity, cost of living and quality of life. And therein lies a danger. While Austin is what many university cities aspire to become, the Texas capital has lost some luster as housing costs and traffic headaches have risen.

Shapiro has started a blog (Universitycities.org) to share news and ideas about university cities, and he is talking with the University of Kentucky about hosting a national symposium on the topic next year.

This subject isn’t just of interest to academics; it has a lot of practical application.

Lexington’s mayor sees the university city model as an important lens through which to view many things, from business recruiting efforts and workforce-development strategies to land-use planning and infrastructure investment.

“I think it helps us in the sorting and filtering process,” Gray said. “When you know who you are, you have a better chance of getting where you want to go.”

For one thing, he said, it shows that Lexington’s economic development strategy should be mainly built around leveraging assets that grow out of the presence of UK, Transylvania University and other education centers.

It also underscores the importance of making sure affordable housing is available and traffic doesn’t get out of control. It means Lexington should nurture cultural institutions and other quality-of-life infrastructure that talented, educated people and the companies that want to hire them look for in a city.

The next step, Gray said, is to benchmark Lexington’s data against the five other university cities to assess strengths and weaknesses.

“I think we’re poised for exploiting the knowledge economy in a better way than the industrial cities have been,” Gray said. “It’s a question of how do you really take advantage of that.”

Election showed Lexington voters the best and worst of politics

November 8, 2014

grayMayor Jim Gray gave his acceptance speech on election night Tuesday. Gray and his opponent, Anthany Beatty, ran gentlemanly races and campaigned on real issues. Photo by Pablo Alcala


Voters in Lexington have seen the best and worst of American politics over the past few months.

The worst was the U.S. Senate race between 30-year incumbent Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Their campaign was one TV attack ad after another, funded by huge sums of special-interest money. McConnell and Grimes were both zinged by fact-checkers for lies and half-truths.

The main narrative of this campaign was the phony “war on coal” — the myth that Eastern Kentucky coal-mining jobs, which have been disappearing for three decades because of mechanization and market forces, will be saved if only the industry is allowed to inflict more pollution and environmental damage on this state.

The candidates agreed to only one debate, and even then rarely strayed from their talking points. Grimes wouldn’t admit she voted for President Barack Obama, her party’s nominee, and McConnell wouldn’t acknowledge the overwhelming scientific consensus about climate change. It was an absurd spectacle.

The race for Lexington mayor was a much different story. Mayor Jim Gray and his challenger, former Police Chief Anthany Beatty, behaved like gentlemen and, more importantly, campaigned on real issues grounded in fact.

They also appeared together in so many debates and public forums that voters had plenty of opportunities to assess them and their positions.

For the most part, Urban County Council candidates also ran issues-oriented campaigns and behaved responsibly.

Why the contrast between local and national politics? The biggest factor, I think, is that races in Lexington’s merged city-council government are non-partisan. That prevents every person and idea from having to be labeled and put at odds.

Since the 1980s, America’s two-party system has become increasingly nasty and counterproductive. We have devolved into a culture of winner-take-all politics where big money, ideology and partisan gamesmanship often trump common sense and the common good.

Of course, Lexington government isn’t completely free of those influences. But the more voters and elected leaders can keep them at bay, the more progress this city will continue to make.

I think Gray was re-elected by a wide margin because most voters could not fault his performance. His administration has combined progressive leadership with good management and fiscal responsibility. And the mayor is the first one to admit that having a good re-election challenger kept him on his toes.

But the race also showed that Beatty is someone who would bring a lot of skill, experience and wisdom to public service should he seek elected office again.

Lexington lost a lot with the retirement of Vice Mayor Linda Gorton, a talented legislator who has a gift for bringing people to consensus. Fortunately, Gorton will be succeeded by someone with similar skills. Steve Kay, the new vice mayor and only returning at-large council member, is a professional facilitator with a reputation for integrity and fairness. Like Gray, he also is not afraid to tackle tough issues others have avoided.

As for the other council members who won races Tuesday, there are no obvious weak links. Kevin Stinnett moved up from a district to an at-large post, while Richard Moloney and Fred Brown returned to council after previous service.

Jake Gibbs is new to public office, but his background and demeanor could make him a model for a constituent-focused district council member. Another newcomer, Susan Lamb, was formerly the council’s clerk. She brings to her new job valuable knowledge of how city government really works.

I hated to see Harry Clarke lose re-election, because the retired University of Kentucky music professor did a great job in his one term. But Amanda Mays Bledsoe has a background in government policy that could make her an able successor.

The same is true for state lawyer Angela Evans, who was elected to the district seat Stinnett left. Jennifer Mossotti, Shevawn Akers and Jennifer Scutchfield are good district council members who deserved re-election.

Urban County Council members come from a variety of backgrounds, experiences, party affiliations and political beliefs. But because Lexington’s government is non-partisan, citizens hold them to a higher standard. People expect them to work together, reach consensus and move the city forward.

As in the past, Lexington’s mayor and council members have the opportunity to show politicians in Frankfort and Washington how to rise above petty politics and get things done for the greater good.

Mayer may not become mayor, but he has some good ideas

May 10, 2014

What makes a good mayor? Someone with both good ideas and the political and management skills to make them happen. Jim Gray has demonstrated both qualities during his four-year term.

Gray has two challengers for re-election in the May 20 primary: Anthany Beatty, who became a University of Kentucky vice president after retiring as Lexington’s police chief, and Danny Mayer, an English professor at Bluegrass Community and Technical College who for four years published the community newspaper North of Center.

Beatty has demonstrated good management and political skills, but he doesn’t seem to have many ideas. His campaign website and public statements have offered only vague generalities about city issues and what he would do as mayor.

Mayer has little political or management experience, but he has developed a detailed issues platform. While some of his proposals are controversial, there are good ideas there worth discussing.

The Gray and Beatty campaigns have raised well into six figures. Mayer said he has taken only three contributions totaling $250 and has loaned his campaign a few hundred more. He hasn’t even invested in yard signs, which he admits was a mistake, and is mostly campaigning door-to-door and online.

“A lot of my work has been trying to plan out alternative visions and ideas; I look at it as the end point of what I did with North of Center,” Mayer said. “But rather than just talking about what we are doing wrong, this was a way to flesh out a positive vision for the city.”


Danny Mayer

Among Mayer’s proposals is a $15 hourly minimum wage for city employees and contractors, as Seattle is considering. He also wants to decriminalize marijuana use, which probably would require state rather than just city action. Both moves, he said, would strengthen low-income neighborhoods by putting more money in families’ pockets and fewer people in jail.

Mayer’s two main proposals are less controversial, and they make so much sense that they should be part of the election conversation whether or not he is the candidate who emerges from the primary to challenge Gray in November.

Mayer said that as mayor he would strategically invest in growing Lexington’s local food economy and developing the city’s “greenways” — abused and neglected urban streams and watersheds whose restoration could improve overall water quality, create recreational opportunities and provide paths for walkers and cyclists.

Lexington developed an extensive Greenways Master Plan in 2001, which was approved by the Planning Commission. But Mayer said too little has been done to implement and expand on that plan.

Under a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Lexington must spend hundreds of millions of dollars to correct long-ignored water quality problems caused by suburban development. That provides the perfect opportunity to make the most of our natural greenways, Mayer said.

Greenway development could help connect Lexington’s fragmented trail system, making it easier for suburban residents to get around on foot or bike. Modest infrastructure investments at key connecting points around Lexington could make a big difference, he said.

More walking and biking trails, along with investment in Lextran to expand routes and service hours would reduce traffic congestion and air pollution and increase mobility for low-income residents.

Mayer also said that as mayor he would budget $1 million for investments in local food, which has been growing in popularity. Growth in that sector will be important as climate change and rising transportation costs erode the nation’s industrial agriculture models of the past few decades.

Nutritious local food also fights obesity and other health problems that are contributing to rising health care costs, Mayer noted.

Investment in local food projects would create work for the growing number of UK and BCTC students graduating with sustainable agriculture expertise, as well as lower-skilled people who need jobs. It also would allow non-profit organizations such as Seedleaf and Food Chain to build on work they already are doing.

Some unused city park land could be used for expanding greenway trails or producing food, Mayer said, and the city could do more to promote backyard and community gardens.

“I see that as a 21st century economy,” he said. “These markets and segments are growing, but we haven’t talked about how we could legitimately scale them up. You just need models and an emphasis, like we did with Victory Gardens in the 1940s.”

Mayor Jim Gray’s upbeat speech also a re-election pitch

January 21, 2014

It was cloudy and snowing outside, but Mayor Jim Gray was all sunshine and warmth Tuesday as he gave his annual State of the City speech.

One reason for Gray’s relentlessly upbeat talk is that Lexington is in better shape than most cities, as he pointed out several times. A lot of good things are happening here, and Gray and his administration can take at least some of the credit.

Another reason for the sunny report is that Gray is running for a second four-year term in November. This speech before an annual luncheon sponsored by the Lexington Forum was all about making the case for re-election.

With the Jan. 28 filing deadline only a week away, Gray has no opponent. That hasn’t happened for almost 30 years, so somebody is likely to challenge him. But it may not be much of a contest.

Gray is popular and personable. His administration has significant accomplishments, many good things in the works and no major vulnerabilities so far. Plus, Gray’s re-election fund already has $180,000 in the bank.

With former Vice Mayor Mike Scanlon’s announcement last week that he won’t run, the only potential opponent of significance would seem to be Anthany Beatty, who was Lexington’s first black police chief and is now assistant vice president for campus services at the University of Kentucky.

Beatty is well-known, well-liked and was an effective police chief. But his candidacy for mayor could be a long-shot. Beatty said Tuesday that he will make a decision by this weekend.

There also has been speculation that Beatty might run for an at-large seat on the Urban County Council, but Beatty said he has no plans to run for council.

Even if Beatty doesn’t run, Gray is likely to get at least token opposition. Running for mayor is always a good way for people to attract attention to specific issues — or themselves. It can be good for civic dialogue, or at least entertaining.

Still, Gray wasn’t taking any chances Tuesday. The closest thing to a controversial issue he mentioned was to urge support for state legislation allowing voters in Kentucky cities to authorize a time-limited, 1 cent sales tax increase for specific construction projects.

Any proposal for higher taxes is controversial among some tax-averse voters, but this one is a no-brainer. Local voters should have the right to approve higher taxes for a purpose they value without being micro-managed by Frankfort.

Most of Gray’s speech was a laundry list of accomplishments, good rankings on national lists and feel-good optimism about Lexington. He put his accomplishments in the context of his three goals as mayor, which were posted on banners behind him: create jobs, run government efficiently and build a great American city.

“I am proud to report that the state of our city is strong and getting even stronger,” Gray said. “Lexington is today a beacon for other cities.”

Borrowing a device recent presidents have used in their State of the Union speeches, Gray recognized several do-gooders in the audiences, as well as two women who wrote public love notes to Lexington, one a letter to the editor in the Herald-Leader and the other a Huffington Post blog essay.

Gray also went out of his way, as he often does, to recognize and praise council members. Unlike some previous mayors, Gray has realized he can be more effective if he tries to get along with council members.

(The day before, during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Unity Breakfast, Gray realized he had forgotten to recognize several council members in the audience. So he passed a note to the Lafayette High School student who was acting as emcee and asked him to do it for him.)

Gray made a point of recognizing Emma Tibbs, the influential leader of the Fayette County Neighborhood Council, whose litigation forced the city to agree to fix persistent waste-water problems. And he praised public safety employees, many of whom have been unhappy with pension reforms and other city cost-cutting efforts.

The mayor did his best to leave the Lexington Forum crowd upbeat about the state of the city, no doubt hoping the feeling will last until at least November.

No money, but Bloomberg Challenge was valuable experience

March 25, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Losing Michael Speaks

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

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

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

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

Lexington, Louisville partnership makes sense

August 15, 2011
Mayors Greg Fischer, left, of Louisville and Jim Gray of Lexington. Photo by Mark Cornelison

Mayors Greg Fischer, left, of Louisville and Jim Gray of Lexington announce the project in Louisville last Thursday. Photo by Mark Cornelison

LOUISVILLE — The Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement was announced Thursday with all the fanfare that two cities’ business leaders could muster.

A furry University of Louisville cardinal mascot escorted Lexington Mayor Jim Gray to the stage of a Galt House ballroom as a furry University of Kentucky wildcat did the same for Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer. More than 1,000 people from both cities applauded, and a marching band played the Superman movie fanfare, symbolizing the goal of creating a super-region for advanced manufacturing.

The hype might have been goofy, but the ideas behind the effort and the process for achieving it could be an economic game- changer, not only for Louisville and Lexington, but for the entire state.

Brookings, the public- policy think tank, chose Lexington-Louisville as one of seven regions where it will work with business, government and educational leaders to develop a plan for regional economic development. The idea is to focus on business sectors that already are strong and have potential to become major players in international trade.

Brookings thinks regions, rather than individual cities, are the economic powerhouses of the future, especially as the world becomes more urbanized. More than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas, up from 30 percent in 1950 and 2 percent in 1800. By 2030, it could be 60 percent.

Kentucky mirrors the trend. More than 55 percent of Kentuckians live in urban areas, which account for 72 percent of the gross state product of $50.5 billion a year. More than 2 million of Kentucky’s 4.3 million people live in the 27 counties that make up the Louisville- Lexington region, which includes Elizabethtown. Metro Louisville accounts for 31 percent of gross state product; metro Lexington, 14.2 percent.

Fischer got the ball rolling with Brookings. A review of 11 previous economic studies quickly identified advanced manufacturing as an area for focus. Manufacturing employs 65,000 people, or 11 percent of the work force, in metro Louisville, and 30,000, or 8 percent of the work force, in metro Lexington.

The biggest manufacturing niche is the auto industry, with the Toyota assembly plant in Georgetown, two Ford assembly plants in Louisville and suppliers across the state.

Manufacturing jobs were key to creating the American middle class a century ago, and it is no coincidence that the middle class has declined as manufacturing has moved overseas. But some of that high-end manufacturing is moving back to the United States, and Kentucky has the potential to attract it, Fischer said.

“This is a can-do region with enormous assets,” said Amy Liu of Brookings. “We think there’s a real opportunity to succeed here.”

So what could make this different from so many well-intentioned but marginally successful economic development efforts in Kentucky? Several things.

Brookings brings a level of expertise to which Kentucky has rarely had access. The institution is donating its services, valued at about $750,000. Kentuckians are providing about $250,000 in support services and expertise, which will be paid for with private donations.

Fischer and Gray — two new mayors with similar entrepreneurial backgrounds and political outlooks — are powering the initiative. Sports entrepreneur Jim Host will chair the effort. Host is one of Kentucky’s most capable leaders — a drill sergeant with a strong record of getting things done in both cities. His most recent accomplishment: building the KFC Yum Center in downtown Louisville.

Host will lead a 15- to 20-member committee the mayors will appoint soon. And if the mayors are smart, two of those appointments will be the presidents of UK and U of L, which will be vital to this effort’s success.

The committee will develop a specific business plan to be announced by the end of 2012. The key to execution will be forming partnerships among government, industry and education groups. The public may offer suggestions at Facebook.com/bluegrassmovement.

Beyond the goal, though, this cooperative effort could be a big deal for Kentucky. That is because Louisville and Lexington — cities only 70 miles apart but long separated by cultural differences and sports rivalries — will be working more closely than ever before.

The effort also will focus statewide attention on the economic importance of the Louisville and Lexington metro areas. After all, 40 cents of every tax dollar generated in Louisville goes to the rest of the state, as does 23 cents of every Lexington tax dollar, Host noted. When the cities succeed, the whole state benefits.

“The leverage potential this has, we don’t even know,” Gray said. For example, he noted, Jefferson County school board members invited Fayette County school board members to the announcement luncheon. What might a closer working relationship there lead to?

“Greg and I naturally see alliances as a big deal,” he added. “And in this case, one-plus-one could add up to three, four or five. That’s what all of this really represents.”

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.

Will Mayor Gray keep making the tough calls?

March 5, 2011

In his first two months in office, Mayor Jim Gray hasn’t been shy about wading into swamps to wrestle alligators. The question is: Will he keep it up?

Gray moved quickly to launch management reviews of Lexington’s troubled jail and emergency call center. He was involved behind the scenes in last week’s ouster of the two top officials of the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department, where poor management seemed to be at the root of longstanding problems.

Last Monday, Gray asked for the resignation of Fire Chief Robert Hendricks, saying he had not demonstrated the level of leadership the department needed. The flash point was Hendrick’s failure to manage overtime, resulting in an $80,000 budget overage that was on track to grow to $500,000 by the end of the year.

If the chief refuses to resign, the Urban County Council will ultimately decide whether to fire him. Council members voted unanimously Thursday to support Gray in gathering information that could lead to the chief’s dismissal.

Gray said in an interview Friday that, after nearly four decades as a business executive, he is comfortable with this part of his job. “This is what you do as a manager,” he said. “You’re a problem-solver.”

Gray, who is on leave as chief executive of his family’s firm, Gray Construction Co., said experience has taught him that nothing can do more to diminish an organization’s efficiency or morale than poor leadership.

“It’s always blamed on the employees,” he said. “Employees are in search of leadership. When it’s not present, the issues really elevate themselves.”

Will more heads roll? That depends, Gray said. He created the Mayor’s Office of Performance Management, headed by Sheila Hupp, who held a similar job in Irving, Texas. Her task is to work with city division directors to set standards and measurements of success.

“This is not an event, it’s a process,” Gray said. “But we do have a moment in time because of the financial crisis to adapt, adjust and learn better ways of operating.”

While Gray said he is determined to run government more like a business, it is still government, which means politics. Gray was elected with backing from Lexington’s police and firefighter unions, and his transition team reports reflected their dissatisfaction with both the fire and police chiefs.

So is Police Chief Ronnie Bastin’s job also on the line? Gray said no, because he doesn’t see evidence of poor management in the police department.

What’s more, Gray said, the police and firefighters unions’ support of his campaign will not keep him from driving a hard bargain in contract negotiations, which begin soon. For the first time, he said, the city will hire a professional negotiator to assist management.

“My responsibility is to represent the people, the taxpayers, in these negotiations, and that’s what I’m going to do,” Gray said. “That involves respecting the work of our public safety employees. But it also involves driving a hard and true bargain that’s best for everyone. Unless it’s good for everybody, it’s not good for anybody.”

Gray said he will take the same tough approach to fixing the police and firefighter pension system, which looms as perhaps the biggest financial crisis facing Lexington’s government.

When Lexington and Fayette County merged in 1974, the state General Assembly, over the city’s objections, created a separate pension fund for city police and firefighters rather than putting them in Kentucky’s County Employees Retirement System.

The city’s pension system has always been underfunded, but the liability has ballooned 900 percent since 1997. The city’s unfunded obligations to the system now total about $325 million.

There are many reasons for that unfunded liability, but a big one has been very generous disability benefits. A study showed that 42 percent of Lexington police and firefighters retire on disability, compared with 7.6 percent of Louisville police and firefighters and 8 percent in the country retirement system.

Gray said he will soon appoint a commission to study the pension problems and recommend solutions. I’m betting those solutions will require tighter rules and reduced benefits for future police and firefighters.

Convincing the General Assembly and the unions to go along with such changes is sure to be one of the biggest tests of Gray’s wrestling ability. Alligators don’t come much bigger than that.

Reports offer look into city’s problems, possibilities

February 5, 2011

Mayor Jim Gray was elected in November after publishing a rather detailed “Fresh Start Plan.”

He then asked Christopher Frost, a University of Kentucky law professor, to round up 80 citizens and divide them into transition teams to study the opportunities and problems facing Lexington and its government. Those team reports are now available on the city’s Web site, Lexingtonky.gov.

Gray already is moving to address some of the biggest problems, such as management of the jail and the police and firefighter pension system.

But the reports include many less-pressing issues, such as the deteriorating condition of the annex parking garage across the Martin Luther King Boulevard viaduct from city hall. You may have noticed the jacks holding up the corkscrew exit ramp that 16-year-olds taking their driver’s test have feared for generations.

The need to renovate or replace that garage — and city hall itself — has been widely discussed. But with money tight, don’t expect it to happen anytime soon. Still, the General Services Transition Report points to a serious need to invest more in maintenance of city buildings and parks.

Lexington has a bad habit of building new facilities, then not budgeting any additional money to care for them, the report says. Such was the case last year when the restored Lyric Theatre and the Legacy Trail opened with no new funding for maintenance and upkeep. The report cites $29 million worth of “high priority maintenance needs” citywide.

The report suggests selling the city-owned Victorian Square Garage, which is in good shape, in a good location and is well-used — but not by city government. That garage could be sold for perhaps $2.5 million to raise money for maintenance of other facilities.

It also suggests creating a non-profit parks conservancy group, like Louisville’s Olmstead Conservancy. While the Triangle Foundation does good work with Lexington’s small downtown parks, other city parks could use similar private support.

Expect to hear a lot more from Gray and others about leveraging philanthropy and public-private partnerships. With a tight city budget, it will be essential.

One transition team’s report says Gray should “use the bully pulpit of the mayor’s office to make philanthropy a top priority in Lexington. … Set an ambitious goal, such as doubling the number of assets that the Blue Grass Community Foundation manages, and work towards that goal for a complete year.”

That report also suggests creating a privately funded “philanthropic liaison” within the mayor’s office, such as New York and Philadelphia have, to coordinate city government’s efforts with local non-profits, foundations and corporations.

When I printed out all of the transition team reports to read, I had a stack of paper more than an inch thick. They offer a lot to think about, but here are a few random recommendations that shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle:

■ Appoint a Director of Agriculture to the city’s economic team to focus not only on the equine industry but on diversification of Fayette County’s agriculture economy. That would include more emphasis on locally grown food, and perhaps pushing for the legalization of industrial hemp, which in the 19th century was Fayette County’s biggest cash crop.

■ Get the mayor and Urban County Council out of city hall more often by having some council meetings and “mayor’s night out” events in neighborhoods around town.

■ Bury power lines at the same time the city is replacing sewer lines as part of the federal consent decree.

■ Promote public transportation with more shuttles like the Colt Trolleys at special events. Make the downtown transit center more inviting by encouraging food vendors and performers to come there. Continue former Mayor Jim Newberry’s emphasis on bike lanes and trails, and mark popular bicycle commuter routes.

■ Create a Community Development Corp. or “land bank” to promote redevelopment of blighted areas and vacant land within the Urban Services Boundary.

■ Develop metrics for measuring progress in such areas as jobs created by locally owned businesses, housing affordability, female and minority owned businesses and health care coverage.

■ Create an Innovative Solution Fund to solicit ideas from private industry for specific problems city government has identified but not solved. Ideas would be scored, and the best ideas would be funded.

With the economy still recovering and the city budget tight, Lexington can’t act on every good idea. But that doesn’t mean we should stop thinking.

Cutting spending shouldn’t shortchange investment

January 30, 2011

As I was watching President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech on TV Tuesday night, I got a text message on my cell phone from Mayor Jim Gray: “Geez I think the prez is gonna start talking abt Henry Clay next!”

Obama had just been saying that, while huge deficits require some cuts in federal spending, the nation must renew its commitment to investing in the research and infrastructure needed to ensure long-term economic prosperity.

The president did not mention Clay, the U.S. senator, House Speaker and four-time presidential candidate from Lexington who lived from 1777 to 1852. But Gray had referred to him repeatedly a few hours earlier when he delivered a similar message in his first State of the Merged Government speech.

Gray said that while Lexington government must stop spending more than it takes in, the city still must find ways to make smart investments for the future.

“In order to make our city a center of economic innovation, we must keep growing our quality-of-life infrastructure,” Gray said, noting the city’s recent investments in downtown streets and sidewalks, rural land preservation, the arts and recreational trails.

He also called for a privately financed study to assess the costs and benefits of renovating and expanding Rupp Arena and the adjacent downtown convention center. Those facilities are important drivers of Lexington’s economy, and they must remain competitive, he said.

“Business men and women recognize there are times when we have to spend money to make money by investing in the brand,” Gray said.

Nobody embodied that economic truth more than Henry Clay.

Clay is best remembered as “the great compromiser” for his ability to cut deals with opposing political factions. But perhaps his greatest legacy was what he called the “American System.” That involved federal investment in roads, canals and other infrastructure to promote both economic development and national security.

Clay argued that public infrastructure was essential for American industry to compete with foreign imports, which then came from Britain rather than China. Then, as now, free-market extremists objected. Clay’s nemesis was Andrew Jackson, who if he were alive today would probably be trying to lead the Tea Party.

Their big showdown came when President Jackson vetoed federal funding for the road between Lexington and the Ohio River at Maysville — essentially what we now know as U.S. Highway 68. Clay said the road was important for interstate commerce in the growing West, but Jackson thought federal funding for it was unconstitutional. Over time, Clay’s beliefs prevailed. Had they not, the union would not likely have survived the Civil War.

In their zeal to slash most “government spending,” Tea Partiers also want to stop decades of public investment in infrastructure, education, social welfare, health care, the arts and quality of life. But where would American free enterprise be today without that investment?

How could businesses have prospered without roads, bridges, airports and public education — not to mention all of the federally funded basic medical research and that government project now known as the Internet?

Free markets are good. But if everything were left up to the ebb and flow of the marketplace, Americans would be less healthy, less educated and have far less economic opportunity.

The strong cities and nations of the future won’t get that way by private investment and individual effort alone. That is why, for example, China and other nations are investing billions in clean energy research and technology while many American companies prefer to fund political and public relations campaigns to deny both climate change and inevitable change.

Government taxing and spending is a delicate balance that must constantly be debated and adjusted. But just as excessive public debt and wasteful spending are bad for the economy, so is a failure to make sufficient public investments in the future.

People who call for simplistic solutions to complex problems put America’s economic future and national security at risk, as Clay recognized nearly two centuries ago.

History may not repeat itself, as the saying goes, but it sure does echo.

Teams urge Gray to focus on selling Lexington

January 24, 2011

One of the smartest things Jim Gray did after being elected mayor was create diverse transition teams of local citizens to study and make recommendations on key issues facing Lexington.

The team reports, which started coming out late last week, offer the new mayor a great source of free advice. They also could help generate buy-in for initiatives Gray chooses to pursue.

The first reports I wanted to read dealt with economic development and job creation. Those are two of the biggest issues facing Lexington, and they were central themes of Gray’s campaign.

Gray appointed two groups to study economic development. Both were diverse, ranging from economic development professionals and corporate executives to small-business owners and interested citizens.

“I deliberately tried to create an environment where different points of view would be expressed,” Gray said.

After a healthy amount of debate and dissension, the two groups produced very different reports. But there were many common themes. Both said Lexington needs:

■ Better coordination among local economic development groups, and better measurement of results.

■ More effective marketing of Central Kentucky as a place for entrepreneurs.

■ Closer relationships between Lexington and surrounding communities, Louisville and Northern Kentucky, as well as between the city and University of Kentucky.

■ Streamlined bureaucracy to make it easier for businesses to get permits, approvals and information.

The strongest common theme, though, was a call for Gray to focus much of his personal time and attention on economic development.

“The mayor should initiate and drive Lexington’s economic development strategy and execution,” one report said, adding that he should be the “face” of Lexington to the world.

That makes sense. As an executive of family-owned Gray Construction Co., Gray spent more than 30 years working with companies on site selection and business development.

“That’s my DNA — selling and marketing,” Gray said Friday, adding he had spent much of that day meeting with executives from a company, which he declined to name, that is considering moving to Lexington.

One economic development transition team was led by Kim Menke, a Toyota executive and former Commerce Lexington chairman. Its report recommended many traditional strategies, such as a professional marketing campaign and economic incentives.

It suggested the mayor create a small but diverse business advisory board, as well as roundtables of chief executives from small and large local companies to give him advice. Gray said he was already planning such a CEO roundtable and will have an announcement soon.

The other team was led by Alan Hawse, vice president of information technology for California-based Cypress Semiconductor. Its report suggested many less conventional — and less costly — approaches, such as targeted recruitment of successful Kentucky natives and UK graduates elsewhere who might want to move back to Lexington to work, create or expand companies.

That group’s report emphasized the growth potential of several development-related initiatives Gray already supports. Those include full implementation of the Downtown Master Plan, funding infrastructure for the Lexington Distillery District and creation of a “land bank” to encourage redevelopment of blighted urban property.

(It is worth noting, though, that while some members of that team wanted to give the city condemnation power as part of land bank legislation, the mayor is against that. “There are creative paths that don’t require eminent domain,” Gray said.)

That team put especially strong emphasis on Gray using his personal skills to promote economic development: setting vision and strategy, building relationships, cheerleading local entrepreneurs and selling Lexington elsewhere.

“A lot of the things that need to be done are leadership things that Jim could be really good at,” Hawse said.

As mayor, that is perhaps Gray’s biggest opportunity — and challenge.

The reports

Click here to download report from Team 1 (Hawse)

Click here to download report from Team 2 (Menke)

New Louisville mayor wants Lexington partnership

January 2, 2011

Louisville Mayor-elect Greg Fischer, right, chats with people in mid-December at a holiday lunch for Louisville tourism officials. Photo by Tom Eblen

LOUISVILLE — Anyone who has lived in Kentucky very long knows Lexington and Louisville are separated by much more than 75 miles of Interstate 64 and a blue vs. red college sports rivalry.

The state’s two largest cities have always been insular in ways that no longer make economic sense. That is because success in a 21st-century global economy can be as much about collaboration as competition — and a lot more about regions than cities.

Kentucky’s business and civic leaders have been slowly coming around to this idea. But the election of new mayors with similar backgrounds, outlooks and goals could be a game-changer.

Lexington’s new mayor, Jim Gray, and Louisville’s new mayor, Greg Fischer, take office this week. They are both 50-something Democrats who begin their first executive jobs in government with experience as chief executives of creative, entrepreneurial and globally focused companies. If anybody gets the new economic reality that cities face, they should.

“I do think it’s a new day for both cities,” Fischer said. “Having mayors that understand that should be a plus.”

I know Gray, 57, pretty well. But I hadn’t met Fischer until last month, when I drove to Louisville to interview him at his no-frills campaign headquarters in a converted bourbon warehouse east of downtown.

Fischer, 52, was born and raised in Louisville. He graduated from Trinity High School before heading to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Fischer said he helped start or invest in about 20 companies, beginning at age 25 with SerVend, which makes automated ice and beverage dispensers still used in many restaurants.

Long active in the community, the married father of four hasn’t been in politics long. He lost the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in 2008 to Bruce Lunsford, who then failed to unseat Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. Fischer succeeds Louisville’s longest-serving mayor, Jerry Abramson, who stepped down to become Gov. Steve Beshear’s re-election running mate.

Fischer said he first met Gray, the CEO of his family’s construction company, about four years ago. Fischer wanted to pick his brain on behalf of a company he partially owns, Dant Clayton Corp., which builds sports stadiums.

“Little did we know four years ago that we would be sitting across the table in different capacities now,” Fischer said. “I enjoy Jim’s personality, his optimism, his team-building approach. He’s got good energy to him.”

Fischer said he hopes to have a regular dialogue with Gray. “We have been texting back and forth, but haven’t had substantive conversations yet,” he said.

Fischer’s ideas and philosophy sound strikingly similar to Gray’s.

Like Gray, Fischer’s top priority is creating jobs. While there have been some encouraging announcements recently by major employers such as Ford Motor Co. and General Electric, Louisville has lost more than 24,000 jobs in the past decade, mainly in manufacturing.

Fischer said he plans to focus on industry sectors in which Louisville is already strong, such as transportation logistics and health care companies that focus on long-term and aging care. Partnering with Lexington and other nearby cities also will be a priority.

The two cities’ economies tend to complement rather than compete with each other. And there are many things they share, such as a central location and auto manufacturing and supply industries.

Those rival sports teams are attached to major research universities that could play a bigger role in developing long-term knowledge jobs in Kentucky, Fischer noted. “People talk about the rivalry, but I see that as an advantage, because we’re always talking to each other,” he said.

“It makes all the sense in the world for Louisville and Lexington — Frankfort’s obviously there, and maybe Elizabethtown — to work together as a region to be viewed as relevant on an international scale,” he said. “We’ve got to be thinking globally now when we think about competition. We’ve got to be able to overcome any parochial interests or baggage and look forward.”

The two cities also must work with Northern Kentucky to convince the rural-dominated General Assembly that what is good for urban areas is good for the entire state, because they produce most of Kentucky’s jobs and taxes.

Fischer would like to see legislation allowing local-option sales taxes to allow Kentucky cities to be more competitive with similar-sized cities in other states. But just as important is comprehensive state tax reform that will encourage businesses to set up shop here rather than elsewhere. “Right now,” he said, “our tax code is not our friend.”

As Louisville and Lexington develop long-term strategic plans, they should pay attention to how those complement each other. “Then let’s create a joint plan between our cities,” he said.

“We are in a natural position to be more allies than what we are,” Fischer said of Louisville and Lexington. “We’re just an hour away. If we were living in a large metropolitan area, that would be the average commute, or less, for a lot of people.”

Wrapping up the old year, preparing for the new

December 30, 2010

I have been using some of my 2010 use-it-or-lose-it vacation time during the past couple of weeks, so I haven’t been in the paper much.

But I got up early this morning to be the guest of Mick Jeffries (above) on his Trivial Thursdays show on WRFL.

For those of you unfamiliar with WRFL, that’s Radio Free Lexington, 88.1 on the FM dial, the University of Kentucky’s eclectic, student-run radio station. (WRFL broadcasts from the basement of the Student Center in  space formerly occupied by the University Bookstore, where my father was the manager for many years. This is a small town.)

And for those of you not familiar with Mick — photographer, writer, graphic artist, disc jockey, trivia buff and all-around good guy — I always refer to him as Lexington’s unofficial Commissioner of Fun. That’s because whenever I run across something fun happening in Lexington, he’s usually in the middle of it.

This morning, from 7 to 9, Mick played an assortment of music while we talked about trivia associated with Dec. 30, how 2010 played out in Lexington, local culture and happenings and whatever else struck our fancy. If you have two hours to kill, you can download the podcast here.

I will be back in the paper, and online, this weekend. I’ll have a year-in-review slide show of my favorite photographs from 2010, as well as an interview with the new mayor of Louisville, Greg Fischer. He talks about how he and the new mayor of Lexington, Jim Gray, need to get Louisville and Lexington to work together more for the benefit of Kentucky’s economy. I’ll also have a blog post from Sunday afternoon’s inaugural ceremonies for Gray and the new Urban County Council members.

I hope you are thinking of your New Year’s resolutions. One of mine is to write more on this blog than my three or so newspaper columns each week. See you in 2011!

Some advice for Lexington’s new mayor

November 13, 2010

Welcome to the mayor’s office, Jim Gray. You are inheriting a Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government short on money and beset by challenges.

Despite the shortcomings that got him voted out of office, Mayor Jim Newberry did a lot to move Lexington forward. He tackled some tough issues so you won’t have to.

Many difficult issues remain, though, and the stagnant economy is sure to make many of them worse. Consider last week’s news about a $7.2 million shortfall for city employee health care as a sign of things to come.

Still, this is a time of great promise for Lexington. There are encouraging grass-roots efforts all over town. The Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games brought Lexington global attention, and the air seems filled with energy and possibility.

I’m sure you are getting plenty of advice, but I have some, too. Much of it comes from smart people I have talked with who know Lexington and city government quite well. Some of them didn’t vote for you, but they still want you to succeed — because they want Lexington to succeed.

First, don’t surround yourself with “yes” men and women. Too many politicians make that mistake and become insular, defensive and thin-skinned — and they fail. Be open with the media and the public. Don’t hold grudges. Your ability to engage the community is what got you elected. Don’t stop.

Mayor-elect Jim Gray

Mayor-elect Jim Gray

Many people, especially your friends and allies, will have ideas for you and requests of you. Give them honest, tactful and prompt answers. A non-answer angers most people more than a “no”. You can’t make everybody happy, and remember that your allies can be harsher critics than your opponents.

Seek out diverse opinions from both experts and average folks. Encourage opposing viewpoints and constructive criticism, especially when it comes from people who seem to be motivated by Lexington’s best interests rather than their own. Don’t fall into the trap of analysis paralysis. Be prepared to deal with unpleasant surprises.

Don’t pretend to have all of the answers, or feel like you must. Often, the best thing you can do is offer encouragement to other people’s ideas and efforts. Sometimes they need city government’s help; other times, they just need city government out of their way.

Look for public-private partnerships and smart ways to leverage city resources. Do more to engage the non-profit and philanthropic communities, not to mention the bright minds at the University of Kentucky, Transylvania University and Bluegrass Community and Technical College. A successful mayor is about coordination and collaboration, not control.

Reach out to Newberry’s supporters. Work to build credibility with your critics. It is especially important to have a good working relationship with the Urban County Council, which should have an excellent leader in Linda Gorton, your successor as vice mayor.

You must build better relationships with council members to whom you are not close — and be prepared to distance yourself occasionally from some to whom you are close. Be a good listener. Compromise when you can, but don’t be afraid to take unpopular stands when you think you must.

Everyone, including you, knows you are a better big-picture leader than a detail-oriented manager. That’s not necessarily bad — and certainly better than the other way around.

Some big-picture leaders make the mistake of getting too bogged down in details, which causes them to neglect the big-picture issues where they could do the most good. Play to your strengths.

Assemble a strong leadership team. You have chosen Richard Maloney, a former council member, as chief administrative officer and Jamie Emmons, your campaign manager, as chief of staff. Both are smart and well-liked. Do they have the management skills and toughness they will need? Time will tell. Be sure they have good mentors.

You must hire (or retain) strong leaders in key jobs, because inertia is the natural tendency of any bureaucracy. Elected officials come and go, and bureaucrats know they are likely to outlast you. Change takes time and persistence. Choose resourceful leaders who will motivate city employees to do their best — and hold them accountable when they don’t.

Avoid rewarding supporters with city jobs or contracts, because it will reflect badly on your biggest campaign contributor: you. Nothing will sour a “fresh start” honeymoon quicker than patronage and favoritism.

Good luck. Nobody said this would be easy.

Gray, Gorton combo could be good for Lexington

November 6, 2010

A successful team requires talented people in roles that play to their strengths. Lexington voters seem to have achieved that last week by electing Jim Gray as mayor and Linda Gorton as vice mayor.

Gray and Gorton have complimentary strengths and good communications skills. They both enjoy working with people and solving problems, and they have a good relationship with each other. They met for coffee soon after the election, and they plan to make it a habit.

That is important, because Lexington has suffered from poor communications and collaboration between the executive and legislative branches of city government over the past four years. Changing that dynamic will make it easier to tackle tough issues. It also will help Lexington take full advantage of its newfound confidence and energy coming out of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

Gray comes to the mayor’s office with a perspective that outgoing Mayor Jim Newberry didn’t have. After losing his first race for mayor in 2002, Gray was elected vice mayor in 2006 and has served four years on the Urban County Council.

“That was an unexpected benefit of me losing that mayor’s race,” Gray said. “I’ve now got that experience.”

The legislative role didn’t always play to Gray’s strengths. Being mayor could be a better fit. Gray has an executive background; he is on leave as chief executive of Gray Construction Co., an innovative and successful family-owned company.

Gorton, a registered nurse, has become a superb legislator in her dozen years as both a district and at-large council member. She has often been willing to take on tough jobs and master the minutia of issues and process. She has an exceptional ability to bring people together and help them reach consensus.

When I met separately with Gray and Gorton last week, each said they don’t expect to agree on everything, but they are confident they will work well together.

“We can have good conversations,” Gorton said. “I think Jim Gray and I come from the same mold of being inclusive, wanting to hear other people’s ideas. And we’re both very much into laying things out in the open and talking about them.”

Recent changes in council procedures will give Gorton more influence than Gray had. The vice mayor, rather than the mayor, will chair council work sessions. And there will be fewer work sessions, because more work will be done in committees.

Those committees, which the vice mayor appoints, will be organized to more closely relate to the city’s administrative structure. “I think that will make our legislative process much more efficient and much clearer,” Gorton said.

The election also added three new council members — Steve Kay, Chris Ford and former Councilman Bill Farmer Jr. All bring a deep knowledge of Lexington and strong people skills to the job.

Gray said he will work hard to gain council members’ trust and respect. “My dad used to say that people do business with people they like,” he said. “It’s true in business, in politics and in life. My job is to reach out and listen.”

Much work must be done before Gray, Gorton and the three new council members take office in January. Gray’s first order of business is appointing key administration officials.

Gray knows he is better at ideas and vision than details, so he plans to restore the job of Chief Administrative Officer. He expects to make that appointment this coming week.

Before making other appointments, Gray wants to assess those already in place — many of whom are quite talented, he said. Gray, who was endorsed by all of the city’s employee organizations, said improving communications and employee morale is a priority. Shaking things up isn’t necessarily the best way to improve performance.

“I know better than to be a bull in a china shop,” he said.

Gray’s longer-term goals include more public-private partnerships, which were used so effectively during the Games. He also wants to engage the philanthropic community more, and encourage all segments of Lexington to get involved in civic life.

“I want to have everyone working together, because we want (Lexington) to come out of this recession stronger,” Gray said. “We want to increase the level of confidence about what this city can achieve with the resources we have.”

Jim Gray? Jim Newberry? No, just Gym

October 14, 2010

A bit of election humor, courtesy of the High Street YMCA in Lexington.

How WEG could affect Lexington, Kentucky politics

September 19, 2010

Some of the biggest winners and losers to come out of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games won’t be riding horses.

High on the list are Mayor Jim Newberry, Vice Mayor Jim Gray and Gov. Steve Beshear. Whether each ends up as a winner or loser could depend a lot on how well the Games go.

The 16-day competition at the Kentucky Horse Park comes at a tricky time for Gray, who is challenging Newberry for re-election. The election is Nov. 2, only 44 days from now and 23 days after the Games end.

Gray has an uphill battle to unseat Newberry, a competent if not always inspiring mayor. Newberry isn’t nearly as vulnerable as Teresa Isaac was four years ago when he ousted her.

Ordinarily, Gray and Newberry would be in full campaign mode by now, even though both tend to come off as petulant and whiney when they attack each other. The contest so far has been a low-key affair, with Gray having neighborhood meetings and Newberry cutting ribbons.

As the Games draw near, both candidates seem restrained. After all, it isn’t polite to fight in front of company, and Lexingtonians are nothing if not polite.

Expect to see a lot of Newberry at the Games and the related downtown festivities. If all goes well, he can trumpet them as the capstone to four years of progress. But if things go badly, the Games could blow up in Newberry’s face.

What could go wrong? Lots. Having covered two Olympics and many other big events, I have observed that the secret to success is smooth execution of basic logistics. The devil is always in the details.

Traffic, parking, shuttles and other conveniences for spectators, participants and the media will shape perceptions of the Games. If people are able to get in, out and about the Horse Park and the downtown entertainment venues with relative ease, and at a price they consider fair, it will go a long way toward creating good buzz about the Games.

It doesn’t help that the biggest logistical test will come the first night, when tens of thousands of people, most of whom have paid big money for tickets, converge on the Horse Park for opening ceremonies. LexTran and hotel shuttles should ease congestion if they run smoothly, but this is a city of drivers who freak out at the slightest traffic jam.

If all goes well, great. If not, the problems had better be fixed quickly or there will be hell to pay. This is especially true as it relates to visiting journalists. If they hear spectators complaining, and if bungled logistics make it hard for them to do their jobs, they won’t hesitate to tell the world about it.

While Newberry has the most to gain or lose politically from the Games, the governor also has a lot at stake. Beshear has been a big booster, as has his wife, Jane, an avid horsewoman.

Responding to concerns that spectators would have to walk a half-mile or more from their $20 parking spaces at Spy Coast Farm to the Horse Park venues, the governor’s office last week took the lead in organizing a free shuttle service to be operated by a church group.

Beshear has often stepped up to help the Games. Perhaps the most notable example was in January 2008 when he shifted nearly $30 million in state appropriations to fund the Horse Park’s outdoor stadium and other Games-related improvements that had languished in budget limbo for a year.

That money originally was intended for parks projects throughout the state, but “Kentucky’s reputation is on the line” with the Games’ success, Beshear said. About half of that money was to have gone for improvements at Dale Hollow State Park, which is in Senate President David Williams’ district.

Williams was not amused. Since then, he has become the Republicans’ most promising candidate for governor next year, when Beshear, a Democrat, faces re-election.

Don’t be surprised to hear Williams bring up the subject if the Games go badly — or even if they go well. Kentucky politicians have always been able to whip up rural voters by complaining that cities get too many of the goodies.

So let the Games begin. If there is anything Kentuckians love as much as horses, it is politics.

Gray’s plan offers hope Lexington mayor’s race can move beyond sniping to more issues, substance

August 22, 2010

Jim Gray is sitting at a conference table in his family-owned construction company’s headquarters, talking me through a 36-page document that explains why he thinks Lexington voters should promote him from vice mayor to mayor.

On the wall behind him, attached to big sheets of brown paper, is a collection of documents connected by fat-marker writing and arrows. He says that is Gray Construction Co.’s strategic plan, which the company has been refining and revising since 1984 as its road map for success.

After his father’s death, Gray, his mother and brothers and their employees built the company from near collapse into a national construction giant. Gray, the chief executive officer, said creative vision, strategic planning and careful financial management have been essential to succeeding in the cyclical construction industry, where profit margins are usually less than 3 percent.

Jim Gray

Gray’s pitch is that he has the skills and experience to achieve the same results for Lexington. He said city government needs more visionary leadership, more strategic planning and better and more transparent management of taxpayer money.

The “Fresh Start Plan” Gray is talking me through is his outline for doing that. “It is a road map, but not etched in stone,” he said. “Plans are made to be intelligently changed, but they must be made and monitored.”

Since Gray challenged Mayor Jim Newberry for re-election, both candidates have spent more time criticizing each other than telling voters what they would do as mayor over the next four years. Gray’s plan gives voters something more to consider. Newberry plans to issue his own detailed plan, but campaign spokesman Lance Blanford said he did not know when.

Gray said his top priority as mayor would be creating jobs in Lexington. He says he has led Gray Construction in working with companies to create 21,989 jobs in 37 states through 831 construction and 74 site-selection projects.

“I come with a set of skills that are directly related to creating jobs,” he said. “I know what makes a community attractive for economic development; that has been my business for over 30 years.”

Gray’s plan includes creating a one-stop shop to help people starting or expanding businesses, and he would encourage entrepreneurship by creating incentives and cutting city taxes and fees for small businesses.

He also said he would recruit three new corporate headquarters to Lexington; have the city purchase from local businesses whenever possible; align the city’s economic development plan with the University of Kentucky’s Top 20 initiative; and recruit former Lexington residents and students who have been successful elsewhere to come back and launch or expand businesses here.

Gray’s plan also includes specific proposals in a dozen other areas, from open government and “running government like a business” to engaging diversity, protecting neighborhoods and the environment, promoting public safety and easing traffic congestion.

Among Gray’s ideas for making the city bureaucracy more business-like is creating an “office of project management” to improve efficiency and accountability. He would create a commissioner for “preservation, planning and economic innovation” to oversee the city’s land-use planning and development functions. “When everybody’s responsible, nobody’s responsible,” he said. “That’s the way it is now.”

The only significant new city building the construction executive proposes anytime soon is a senior citizens center to replace the small, aging facility at Nicholasville Road and Alumni Drive.

“I want to make Lexington as inviting to seniors as it is to young professionals,” Gray said, citing census figures that show the number of people 65 and older in Lexington will double in the next 20 years. He said better addressing the needs of older citizens, from services to the way neighborhoods are designed and developed, is an example of how city leaders should get ahead of the curve.


Jim Newberry

Gray’s plan — available to read or download on Jimgray.org — offers a thoughtful and realistic vision for Lexington’s future. I look forward to seeing what Newberry has to say about his specific plans for the next four years beyond the outline now on Mayornewberry2010.com.

Lexington is fortunate to have two solid, talented mayoral candidates. The more information citizens have about their visions, goals and strategies, the better job they will be able to do of deciding which one should lead Lexington for the next four years.

Lexington voters’ moods as gloomy as weather

May 18, 2010

Lexington voters’ moods seemed as gloomy as the weather Tuesday, at least what few of them came out to the polls.

I spent much of the day driving around town, talking with voters about the candidates and issues that interested them.

The most excitement I detected was among supporters of incumbent Jim Newberry and Vice Mayor Jim Gray in the mayor’s race, and among Republicans voting for Rand Paul in the U.S. Senate race.

Paul was embraced by the conservative Tea Party movement, while his opponent, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, was the GOP establishment’s choice. The race was being watched nationally as a barometer of Tea Party power.

Many Paul supporters said they were ambivalent about the Tea Party, but said he struck them as a departure from politics as usual — and they were plenty tired of that.

“Rand Paul brought me out,” said Connie Cooper, who lives off Pasadena Drive. “He’s different. I like his issues.”

“I don’t like the way the Republican Party has been going,” said Micah Fielden, 20, a pre-medical student at the University of Kentucky who said he voted for Paul.

Nelva Fitzgerald, who lives in Palomar subdivision, also was unhappy with the Republican Party — so she changed her registration Tuesday to Democrat. What sent her over the edge, she said, was Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices who voted to allow more corporate influence in politics, which she thinks is bad for the country.

Raleigh Deaton is a registered Democrat, but would have voted for Paul if he could have. He likes Paul’s fiscal conservatism.

“I’m tired of this doggone government giving money away like it’s growing on trees,” the utility engineer said. “That’s the worst thing we could be doing.”

As the results reflected, most people I talked to supported either Newberry, who finished first, or Gray, who finished second, in the mayor’s race. They will face each other in November.

A couple liked former Mayor Teresa Isaac, who finished third, but most people’s feelings were summed up by Fielden, who said he voted for Gray: “I think she had her shot and it’s time to move on.”

James Potter, an electrician who lives in Twin Oaks subdivision, said he came out to vote for Newberry. “With the World (Equestrian) Games and such, everything seems to be going pretty good,” he said.

Carrie Kennedy of Palomar agreed. “I think (Newberry) has done a good job,” she said.

But Gregory King, who lives in the Kenwick neighborhood east of downtown, disagreed. “I haven’t been much impressed with Mayor Newberry,” he said. “Jim (Gray) seems to have more creative ideas for Lexington.”

Josh Radner, a science teacher at Yates Elementary School, thought so, too. “He’s the more creative thinker,” he said of Gray. “He’s in touch with a wider group of constituents, including some who may not be the most powerful people.”

Allen and Zell Richards, a retired postal worker and teacher who live off Man ‘O War Boulevard in south Lexington, are Republicans and Paul supporters.

But the Richards split on the mayor’s race. He voted for Gray, because he didn’t like Newberry’s support of CentrePointe. She voted for Newberry, but agreed with her husband on that failed development.

“They jumped into that before they knew much about it,” she said. “I thought they should have renovated some of those old buildings. We have a beautiful city and we ought to keep older things around.”

“Yea,” her husband agreed. “Like us.”

Mayoral forum: the good, the bad and the weird

February 25, 2010

There was unease among some journalists, mayoral candidates and their staffers about the format for the first public forum of the Lexington mayor’s race. That’s because the candidates were to be questioned by three community bloggers as well as four journalists.

The concern was this: would the bloggers act professionally?

As it turned out, the bloggers were fine, and they asked some excellent questions.

It was one of the mayoral candidates, Clarence “Skip” Horine, who went off the deep end.

Horine is a businessman who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1993. He was last to join this race, which also includes Mayor Jim Newberry; the mayor he defeated four years ago, Teresa Isaac; and Vice Mayor Jim Gray.

Many of Horine’s responses to questions were fine, although they included a lot of generic conservative “free enterprise will solve everything” language. Then he started making vague and confusing allegations about police corruption and bid-rigging on city projects, prompting Newberry at one point to say that if Horine has evidence of wrongdoing he should give it to prosecutors.

Then, when it was time for the candidates’ closing statements, Horine began with what he (accurately) described as a convoluted story about alleged police wrongdoing. Then he accused a police officer by name of vague impropriety and mentioned that his mother was murdered in Lexington years ago.

As I surveyed the crowd at the Main Street business incubator Awesome Inc., people were glancing at each other with “what the …. ?” looks. Whatever credibility Horine had as a serious candidate evaporated. He seemed more motivated by his own issues than Lexington’s issues.

Aside from the Skip Horine sideshow, the forum offered good discussion on a variety of issues, but few surprises. The three major candidates said jobs and economic development are the biggest issues Lexington faces. Horine said the biggest issue is “trust” of city government (see above).

Newberry had good answers to many questions, but was defensive and aggressive for an incumbent.  Gray made good points about his business expertise and the need for more visionary leadership, but some of his answers were rambling. Isaac answered many questions well, but portrayed her administration as much more successful than most others remember it. (She was voted out of office four years ago by a wide margin.)

The panel’s journalists were me, Bill Bryant of WKYT-TV, Erik Carlson of Business Lexington and Kenny Colston of the Kentucky Kernel, UK’s student newspaper. The bloggers were Bianca Spriggs, Joe Sonka and Steve Smith of UK College Republicans. The forum was organized by Kakie Urch, assistant professor of new media at the University of Kentucky’s School of Journalism and Telecommunications. It was sponsored by the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center at UK.

I was too busy asking questions, listening to answers and condensing them into dozens of 140-character Twitter posts to take notes. But Herald-Leader Andy Mead has a well-done news story summarizing the forum. Read it here.

If this forum was any indication, the 2010 Lexington mayor’s race will be interesting. Let’s hope that amidst the bragging, blaming, posturing and Twilight Zone moments the candidates will give voters some clear information about who would do the best job of helping make a fine city even better.