Lexington stands at a crossroads

From Business Lexington
January 08, 2009
by Van Meter Pettit, AIA

Lexington, KY – Lexington, do you want to be a contender? Do you want to be one of the best small cities in America? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then we stand at a crossroads.

As the principal city of the Bluegrass we are a community of remarkable strengths: globally recognized equine and bourbon industries; a protected landscape that has earned the status of a world monument; a highly educated population built on a consortium of 18 institutions of higher learning. We have great advantages relative to other American cities. And yet, despite these blessings, we find ourselves in a pattern of declining wages and poor job growth. Why don’t we have the attractive energy of other university towns like Austin, Madison, Charlottesville, Ann Arbor, or Boulder? Why can’t we compete for visitors and transplants like Greenville or Chattanooga?

What’s holding Lexington back?

I believe it is our consistent failure to invest sufficiently in our city and in those cultural assets that make up the now all-important commodity: “Quality of Life.”

As our recently negotiated consent decree with the EPA attests, we as a community have failed to invest adequately in our infrastructure for decades. As a condition of our agreement, we are taxing ourselves to fix these long-ignored problems in a short period of time. With respect to other aspects of our city, like our parks, trails, sidewalks, and downtown streetscape, we stand in a similar state of neglect, but there is no governing authority that will punish us for failing to make these necessary investments. Ten years ago our parks were inventoried to national benchmarks and found to have an $80 million shortfall in facilities and maintenance (this has not changed).

When we look at cities with whom we would like to compete, we find trail systems and urban public spaces that are decades further developed and a minimum of $100 million ahead in investment. In addition, many of these places have started out with striking natural features like rivers, lakes, or waterfronts. On top of this they have made enormous public investments: converting major streets into parks or pedestrian malls, moving rivers, burying highways, or creating canals among abandoned warehouses. They have thought hard, forged consensus, and taken bold strategic risks. They have opened their wallets and invested in their own economic futures. And they are not standing still waiting for us to catch up.

Many of our peer cities are continuing to aggressively outpace us. They are enjoying the fruits of their labor and sacrifice, while we by comparison are poorly served by a false economy of non-investment. This is something many Lexingtonians know but have not fully accepted. Consequently, we are exporting jobs and educated young people to the greener pastures of higher quality cities. If a business refuses to modernize and invest in its facilities it will soon fall behind its competitors. Likewise, a city that is stingy to a fault regarding important investments ultimately cannot compete with better-equipped locales.

To our credit, we have a very active Chamber that annually sends a large group of business and civic leaders across the country in search of new ideas. In a few short years we have created multiple masterplans that, if followed, will serve us well. We have mustered dozens of task forces to study the myriad tasks that need to be done. Our mayor and council are fluent in the ideas of Richard Florida and the notion that “Quality of Life” is a necessary pre-condition for prosperity.

So what’s missing? Consensus. Money. And resolve.

We must accept the imperative of our situation, forge public consensus, and then execute our goals with boldness, thoroughness, and dispatch. If we will honestly hold ourselves up in comparison to the successes of our peers, neither failure nor delay is an option. If we will readily tax ourselves to avoid punishment (consent decree), why won’t we tax ourselves to compete and succeed?

Instead of waiting for the state or federal government to shower us with cash, why don’t we take care of our own needs? As we showed regarding the health department and the school board, a spirited public debate followed by a decision is all it really takes. Instead of taxing ourselves to meet EPA minimum standards for storm water, what if we created a ‘quality of life’ tax to fund our best common goals and priorities in a timely and committed manner? What if we stopped deferring and ignoring our needs and chased them down instead?

Some will say that the economy is too weak, that we should wait for better weather. But I will remind such folks that it was during the very hardest times that we created our finest institutions, UK and Keeneland. A community that has been dozing for decades does not have the luxury of waiting any longer. We can become one of the great small cities in America if we make up our minds to be. We are already halfway there.

Van Meter Pettit, a Lexington architect, is founder of Town Branch Trail, Inc., an organization advocating for a greenway and trail, or linear park, that would connect downtown Lexington with Masterson Station Park.