Revitalized downtown key to city life, Commerce Lexington leaders say

San Antonio trip made big impression

jpatton1@herald-leader.comAugust 13, 2012 

Bob Quick, president and CEO of Commerce Lexington, and Jeri Isbell, vice president of human resources at Lexmark International and 2012 Commerce Lexington board chairwoman, sat down to answer questions about Lexington's economic future and more.

This is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Question: What are some lessons learned from the recent trip to San Antonio?

Answer: "Their River Walk started as a drainage ditch, which was very eye-opening to all of us," Isbell said. "To hear how local business and the chamber came together to make the River Walk what it is, and what an iconic part of San Antonio."

Q: What should Commerce Lexington and the city team up to tackle?

A: "When we went to San Antonio we were looking primarily at two major items: downtown vitality and public-private partnerships," Isbell said. "How do you get things done working together? I think we got a good appreciation for both of those. The River Walk is a key item. The other thing they've done is bring suburban living into downtown. They gave us a great insight into how being pedestrian-friendly draws into your downtown. Wonderful ideas."

Q: Such as?

A: "Our Town Branch is a heck of a lot more than a drainage ditch, right?" Isbell said. "So, we start with a very good spot, and 'How far can we take it?' is really where we are right now."

Quick said many people have assumed restoring a water feature to Lexington would be too difficult. But hearing San Antonio's story changed a lot of minds, he said, just as downtown canals in Oklahoma City and Providence, R.I., sites of previous recent chamber trips, have done.

"Learning that we're in a better situation with Town Branch than they were, it just kind of removed that doubt that they had, because they got to see it and got to experience it," Quick said. "You start rubbing your head, saying ... Why aren't we doing that? What do we have to do to make that feature more visible, more viable?"

Q: How can Lexington build on the success of the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games?

A: "We've got to figure out how we keep challenging ourselves to get to a higher level, because look what we did during the Games," Quick said. "We have a mayor right now who, quite frankly, is not afraid of having a bold, strong vision and then going back and pulling people together. ... That helps incubate these ideas and make them happen quicker."

Q: Is there movement on restoring Town Branch, the waterway that is now running under most of downtown Lexington?

A: It's certainly being taken more seriously, Quick said.

"You're hearing it in more discussions," he said. "Do I know of where it falls out in the order of the arena (renovating Rupp Arena) and the entertainment district and the Distillery District? No, but the fact that it's being discussed in a serious way and is not being pushed aside as too big of an idea that just won't work ... you used to hear people say, 'I just can't see Lexington doing that' ... you don't hear that at all anymore. People do believe; there is a confidence factor."

Q: Any news on the Rupp Arena renovation?

A: "The city has put money into hiring some staff; they're working with the Downtown Development Authority and developing plans to take that to the next step, get that organized," Quick said. "It continues to move forward."

Q: Is there support in the business community for the arena project?

A: "We haven't done a lot of polling on that, but the talk I hear is that people are pretty inspired by the fact that we're thinking bigger," Quick said.

"I think there's a lot of support, intellectually," Isbell said. "The financial part is always the tough side of any of these equations. ... But overall there is support in the community."

Q: How is Central Kentucky's economic climate?

A: "It depends on who you talk to," Quick said. Many companies have ties overseas, and those linked to Asia are doing better, he said.

"Toyota is geared back up," he said. "We have a lot of automotive suppliers in our region who are hiring."

But that isn't universal, he said.

Many businesses are "just holding back," Quick said. "We've got an election in the fall, and I think they're looking at the election. ... You've got a lot of health reform that still hasn't been written, so there's still lots of questions about what that will mean for my bottom line. It does affect hiring. You just have folks holding back because the economy seems like it's up, it's down. It's not going full steam like a lot of people thought it would coming out of a recession. There's just a lot of concerns, and businesses' response is to hold back a little."

Q: What are the biggest things Lexington needs to tackle next?

A: "One would be work-force training, skill development," Quick said. "If you have the jobs but you don't have the skilled work force for that, that can hold you back."

Two: "Got to always stay cost-competitive. You can have a great quality of life, but if you're not affordable ... people don't have to live here, companies don't have to expand here."

Three: "Quality of place. ... It's not just brick and mortar. Look at entertainment. ... The downtown has so much upside still. ... The downtown's our heart, the center point of who we are. And that downtown's got to become more and more vibrant."

"You have to have the part of 'living' that you need d owntown," Isbell said. "Things that you can walk to, and don't have to drive and park cars. Can you get to a grocery store, can you get to a pharmacy? We've got the other 'living' — the restaurants, the Y, lots of other things down there — but can you live there? Is everything around you that you need to live? ... That could be a thing for Lexington to be working on next."

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: janetpattonhl.

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