FROM THE ARCHIVES: In 2006, then-Herald-Leader staff writer Jamie Gumbrecht traveled to Madison, Wis., a city that Lexington often uses as a benchmark, to see how the cities compare. On Saturday, the University of Kentucky and University of Wisconsin mens basketball teams play each other in the Final Four of the NCAA tournament in Arlington, Texas. This story was published Oct. 29, 2006. MADISON, Wis. A look down on southern Wisconsin shows a landscape shifting from massive farms to rural homes, to neighborhoods, to a brightly lit city between two large lakes. That's Madison, home to 222,000 people, about 150 miles of bike trails, more than 50 live music venues, at least two specialty cheese shops and the University of Wisconsin. From a comparable perspective, Central Kentucky's rolling acres of bluegrass give way to horse barns, subdivisions and then, our own city, with 268,000 people, 19,000 campus parking spaces, nine movie-theater complexes, two racetracks and the University of Kentucky. The view from the air shows two mid-size college towns, but on the ground, they're different. Madison, the home of a Top 20 university, has a lifestyle that includes entertainment for everyone, whether you're a teenage indie rock fan, a stay-at-home dad or a theater-going businesswoman. It's known for high-tech jobs, artistic opportunities, local activism and statewide pride. It has ethnic restaurants next to mid-priced boutiques. Smooth Wisconsin ice cream, chilled Wisconsin beer, and bright red Wisconsin sweatshirts are its hallmarks, along with Saturday mornings at the farmers market on the Capitol lawn and Saturday nights on the Wisconsin Union's lakeside terrace. Madison has been called the Berkeley of the Midwest and it's a place where people want to live. UK wants to move from 35th among public research universities to crack the Top 20. To do that, it needs to attract more and better students, faculty and other creative minds. But it needs a Top 20 university town to keep them here. If you want that school in Lexington to be a major university, what is going to be its claim to that title? asks Michael Goldberg, interim president of Madison's Overture Center for the Arts. To change the university, you may have to change Lexington. So far, the plan for the university is on track. Backed by $25 million from the state government for the 2006-08 biennium, the Top 20 plan calls for 7,000 more students, 625 new faculty members and the infrastructure and community to welcome them. By 2020, Lexington could look more like Madison than the city you see today, but it's up to its residents to make it feel like a top college town. The Top 20 plan bolsters the university, says UK President Lee Todd, but its point is to improve the quality of life for the entire state, starting in Lexington, even if you never set foot inside a math lab or a humanities lecture hall. The campus of the university is really the commonwealth, he says. We've got to regain it. Bluegrass and basketball With UK and Transylvania University snuggled inside Fayette County, Lexington is a center for education, student life and some of the special perks and problems that come with them, such as a focus on downtown housing, as well as a proximity to noisy, beer-fueled house parties. It has the colleges, but it doesn't compare to the feel of Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan; the high-tech operations of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; the politics of the University of California-Berkeley; the music of the University of Texas-Austin or the lifestyle of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When you say Lexington, people say bluegrass, Todd says. When you say UK, it's basketball that comes up. There are many people who assume it's in Louisville. We have to build a reputation. What you notice in a college town is how integrated the town and the universities are. I love Madison and Ann Arbor -- those are two towns we should attempt to emulate. You can walk out of class, go across the street and have many places to eat and shop. UK and downtown were only three blocks apart, but 50 miles apart, mentally. College and city officials have different ideas about why Lexington hasn't thrived like other college towns, such as Madison. The blame, they say, could go to history. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Lexington was the Athens of the West, known for top education and vibrant culture. But some in Lexington clung to the past instead of developing for the future, and education wasn't as great a priority around the state. Others blame development that drew people away from downtown, traffic patterns that encouraged driving instead of walking, and community organizations that were competitive with university groups for arts patrons. Many students returned home for the weekend, never bothering to connect with their college town. Some argue that UK's sports reputation overshadowed innovative academic and arts programs, suggesting that the borders of the university didn't go beyond Rupp Arena. The Wisconsin Idea While college towns such as Madison grew into bustling centers of art and science, health care and retail, UK and Lexington officials say each developed separately, without tapping into the energy of the other. I think everybody recognized that there was this entity over here, says Julian Beard, the city's economic development director, gesturing toward the window of his downtown office and the campus that lies beyond it. It'd been that way since 1865. But in a marriage of that length, you take each other for granted. You think you don't have to work at anything. The town-and-gown relationship in Lexington might have faltered because of complacency. Until economic considerations called for change, as they do now, people were content without a top-ranked university, a bustling college town and the financial progress that combination can bring. There are many people who would prefer it stay as it is, that we don't make any changes, said Harold Tate, executive director of Lexington's Downtown Development Authority. If you bring in a lot of college students to an area, it makes people in mixed neighborhoods nervous. Everybody is just cautious. Todd's theory: Kentuckians need convincing that we deserve a Top 20 university -- and the life that goes with it. People didn't think that goal was achievable, says Todd. When you talk about this Top 20 concept, you have to win your own institution. You've got to win your city, get people in town thinking this is possible. While Kentucky fell behind, other public universities competed for top rankings and reached out to their communities and alumni, whether by booking a famed dance troupe, encouraging students to dine at a local bagel shop or patenting new medical technology to serve the people of the state. What makes Wisconsin different is that it's a 100-year-old value here, says Peyton Smith, an assistant vice chancellor at the University of Wisconsin. In 1904, then-UW president Charles Van Hise declared he would never be content until the beneficent influence of the university reaches every family in the state. That statement transformed into what is know as the Wisconsin Idea, the philosophy that the university border is the state's border and that UW should serve all its people. It translates into campuses throughout the state, research aiding Wisconsin's key industries and partnerships between the campus and the city. It also means the university has experience reinventing itself to spur progress or keep up with changes around the state. Even universities practiced at change have a hard time keeping up. We have to constantly figure out better ways to do this, says Smith, at the University of Wisconsin. If we fall asleep at the wheel, we fall behind. Not just UK No matter how forward-thinking a town-and-gown movement is, change is tough and results uncertain. Longtime Madison residents still grumble about the traffic mess created when State Street, a main thoroughfare in the city, switched from a busy car-filled street to an entertainment-heavy pedestrian-and-bike street in the late 1970s. The opening of a $205 million downtown performance center in 2004 brings top-quality touring groups and state-of-the-art facilities, but increases competition and costs for small arts groups. A notoriously crazy Halloween celebration draws 80,000 people downtown, but has led to riots and damage in recent years. In Lexington and Frankfort, there isn't always agreement about what's best for the university and state. Tempers are already flaring about domestic partner benefits that the University of Kentucky might offer to same-sex and opposite-sex unmarried couples. The benefits, which the University of Louisville already approved, could attract creative minds to the state, UK officials say. But state Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, sponsored a bill that would prohibit the benefits at the state's public universities and community colleges; he says the benefits could overload costs and go against Kentuckians' wishes. It's an early argument in what's sure to be a lot of talking during the Top 20 changes, Todd says. UK says its Top 20 plan will increase graduation rates, engage the university with communities, schools, farms and businesses and increase patents and start-up businesses. Lexington already has a lush natural landscape and a storied history that make it special, says Lisa Higgins-Hord, UK's community relations director, but we're not sure if we're a city of movie lovers or live-music fans; a car culture or a bike town; early to bed or staying out late. Defining the lifestyle in this potential Top 20 town is up to us. UK is not saving the day, Higgins-Hord says. We have to work together to do that.
HOW DOES LEXINGTON STACK UP AGAINST MADISON? Madison, Wis., home of the University of Wisconsin, consistently appears in the listing of Top 20 public universities, and is one of the few institutions UK uses as a benchmark that also has a law school and a medical school. Madison is Wisconsin's capital, which made it a population center before the university was founded in 1848; Lexington's horse industry made the town a destination before UK opened in 1865. Madison must define itself culturally while competing with Chicago and Milwaukee, just as Lexingtonians can easily drive to Cincinnati or Louisville for entertainment. Here's how the cities compare. POPULATION Lexington: 268,000 Madison: 222,000 HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMAS Lexington: 84.2 percent Madison: 92.2 percent PUBLIC UNIVERSITIES UK, with about 40,000 students, staff and faculty UW, about 60,000 students, staff and faculty BACHELOR'S DEGREE OR HIGHER Lexington: 27.2 percent Madison: 49.7 percent GEOGRAPHY Lexington: Bluegrass, hills and proximity to Eastern Kentucky coal-mining Madison: Lakes, the isthmus on which the city is built and proximity to farmland FAVORITE SPORTS UK: Basketball UW: Football, hockey AVERAGE TRAVEL TIME TO WORK Lexington: 20 minutes Madison: 19 minutes MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME Lexington: $42,442 Madison: $45,928 MAJOR PERFORMING ARTS VENUE SEATS Lexington: 3,147 seats at Singletary Center for the Arts, Lexington Opera House and Downtown Arts Center Madison: 5,469 seats at Overture Center for the Arts' five stages and Wisconsin Union Theater OTHER ATTRACTIONS Lexington: Keeneland, Lexington Legends baseball Madison: Wisconsin state Capitol, Saturday Farmers Market, Madison Mallards baseball SOURCES: U.S. CENSUS DATA, STAFF RESEARCH