We learned a lot about Madison, but we also learned a lot about Lexington, each other and maybe ourselves.
About 260 Central Kentuckians spent three days last week on Commerce Lexington's 70th annual Leadership Visit. Like many others I spoke with, I left Wisconsin's capital city thinking the same thing I did last May when we left Austin, Texas.
Metro Lexington is a more beautiful place, with better year-round weather, than either of those cities. So why do they rank higher on national surveys of quality of life and economic vitality?
It's not about the place so much as the attitudes of the people who live there.
Rebecca Ryan, a Madison-based consultant hired by Commerce Lexington to speak, succinctly described the challenge for any city that wants to succeed in the future: "How do we build a place that the next generation will be homesick for?"
Madison, like Austin, is a national magnet for next-generation talent. Lexington, by comparison, attracts less of it — and often has trouble keeping home-grown talent.
Lexington is a great place, and it is doing a lot of things right. As many people pointed out, it has made enormous progress, especially in the past few years.
But this is the real question: Are the cities Lexington competes with for talent making more progress?
Lexingtonians like to avoid controversy, and they can be polite to a fault. But those who went to Madison had some frank discussions about the civic traits that often can get in the way of progress in Lexington.
Like other Kentuckians, we are quick to criticize, find fault and run ourselves down. We often don't recognize the good things about Lexington, or take personal responsibility for helping to solve problems. We like to talk and study but are slow to act. We don't like change. We listen to outsiders, but ignore innovative people among us.
We don't integrate our universities into the rest of the community as well as Madison and Austin do. We don't value education — or educated people — as much as those cities do. We won't embrace and celebrate our creative entrepreneurs as much as those cities do.
For example, while the Commerce Lexington group was in Madison, Alltech had 1,200 people from more than 70 countries in Lexington for a symposium on sustainable agriculture. Alltech is one of Kentucky's most innovative companies, yet the only things most people here know about it are that it makes Kentucky Ale and is sponsoring the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
Next year's Commerce Lexington trip will be a first: a visit to Pittsburgh in conjunction with Greater Louisville Inc. The trip's focus will be regional cooperation.
While everyone agreed that is a great idea, many also thought another approach is needed.
"It's time to take a trip to Lexington to see all the things that we are doing," said Urban County Councilman Jay McChord.
He also said different segments of the community should mix it up more: "We should create salad bowls, rather than salad bars where everything is kept separate."
Some suggested retreats to regional assets such as Berea and Centre colleges, or a meeting in Lexington to follow up on ideas from past city visits and measure progress. Others suggested that Commerce Lexington promote local speaking opportunities for Lexington's brightest minds in business and academia.
During the visit, Madison leaders spoke about their city's environmental leadership and emerging technology companies. They talked about strong neighborhoods and citizen engagement. They discussed the value people there place on education and high-level academic research that will create the jobs of the future.
"This community is focused on solving problems," said Police Chief Noble Wray.
One message came through loud and clear: It's not about the place so much as the attitudes of the people who live there.
Lexington must do more to leverage its "social capital." All of it.
Cities such as Madison and Austin are more open to people who are different. They value diversity and strive for inclusion. They are, the consultant Ryan said, places where "what's your idea is more important than who's your daddy."
It was a point that had many of the Lexingtonians shaking their heads in agreement — especially the 20- and 30-somethings who kept saying, in so many words: Give us more reasons to stay in Lexington. Please.
Despite significant improvement in recent years, Lexington remains divided by race and class. Too many aspects of community life are as starkly black or white as the plank fences that surround our horse farms.
For example, many Lexingtonians do not welcome Latinos, even though the local economy would collapse without them. Gays and lesbians often feel shunned. Young people of all races complain they are not valued — or listened to.
How many white people attend the annual Roots & Heritage Festival? How many blacks and whites attend Festival Latino?
Dr. Michael Karpf, who came from Los Angeles in 2003 to become the University of Kentucky's executive vice president for health affairs, said Lexington is more diverse than many people realize, but it doesn't celebrate its diversity.
Karpf spends as much time as anyone trying to attract top talent to Lexington. He said the city must work harder to overcome stereotypes many outsiders have about Kentucky.
"We've got a bad history when it comes to diversity," Mayor Jim Newberry said in his speech at the end of the trip. "It's better. But I full well appreciate the fact we've got a lot of work that remains to be done."
It is valuable to look to other successful cities for ideas and inspiration. But if Lexingtonians really want to compete for top talent, we also must look in the mirror.