Lexington business group learns how San Antonio changed

Herald-Leader columnist,Tom EblenJune 5, 2012 

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. Those partnerships include the public, which has approved several bond issues and tax increases to finance 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 Mayor Jim Gray; LexArts president Jim Clark; and Jeff Fugate, president of Lexington's 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 pay for 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 finance 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 school 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 the Alamo, the River Walk and the circa 1731 San Fernando Cathedral.

Brewer also highlighted 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.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: Tomeblen.bloginky.com.

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