Lexington has been a college town for more than 200 years. But when Scott Shapiro, a top aide to Mayor Jim Gray, was benchmarking local data against other cities recently, he discovered something interesting: Lexington was one of six U.S. cities whose numbers place them in a unique category.
This group, which he calls "university cities," have distinct characteristics that make them different from smaller college towns or major cities with big research universities. And those characteristics translate into big economic development opportunities in the 21st century's knowledge-based economy.
"This is one of those ah-ha moments," Gray said of the analysis.
So, how can Lexington capitalize on this insight? We'll get to that in a moment.
First, let's see what Shapiro discovered about university cities, which he defined as metropolitan areas of between 250,000 and 1 million people with students making up at least 10 percent of the population.
Each city has a diversified economy closely tied to a major urban research university. In addition to Lexington, the cities are Madison, Wis.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Fort Collins, Colo.; Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C.; and Lincoln, Neb.
Each city has an abundance of attributes that naturally come with universities, including educated people, talent, openness to new ideas, innovation, entrepreneurialism and a lot of arts and culture.
These cities seem to have more of these attributes than college towns, in short, because they are big enough that many students can stay after graduation rather than moving on to find economic opportunity.
But unlike major cities with universities, these six university cities have a lower cost of living, less crime and, in many ways, a higher quality of life.
Shapiro's analysis found, for example, that 42 percent of adults age 25 and older in university cities have at least a bachelor's degree, compared to 29 percent nationwide.
High education levels seemed to have a big influence on productivity and wages. When adjusted for the cost of living, Shapiro found that the median annual salary in university cities is only about $700 below that of the nation's 15 largest cities.
Unemployment rates from 2009 to 2013 averaged 6.3 percent in university cities, compared with 8.7 percent in other similar-sized cities and 8.8 percent in the nation's largest 15 cities.
Business starts averaged 16.3 percent higher in university cities than in similar-sized cities, and only slightly below the rate for the nation's largest cities. The number of non-profit organizations, which often drive social entrepreneurship and improve quality of life, was almost double that of similar-sized cities.
University cities are much safer. Violent crime averaged 36 percent lower in the six university cities than in similar-size cities and 40 percent lower than in the nation's 15 largest cities.
And university cities are more fun. They have 47.2 percent more arts, recreation and entertainment places per thousand residents than the average of similar-size cities. And while they average fewer cultural assets than the 15 largest cities, they have more of them per thousand residents — 25.7 percent more.
One key attribute of a university city is being the "right" size to balance economic opportunity, cost of living and quality of life. And therein lies a danger. While Austin is what many university cities aspire to become, the Texas capital has lost some luster as housing costs and traffic headaches have risen.
Shapiro has started a blog (Universitycities.org) to share news and ideas about university cities, and he is talking with the University of Kentucky about hosting a national symposium on the topic next year.
This subject isn't just of interest to academics; it has a lot of practical application.
Lexington's mayor sees the university city model as an important lens through which to view many things, from business recruiting efforts and workforce-development strategies to land-use planning and infrastructure investment.
"I think it helps us in the sorting and filtering process," Gray said. "When you know who you are, you have a better chance of getting where you want to go."
For one thing, he said, it shows that Lexington's economic development strategy should be mainly built around leveraging assets that grow out of the presence of UK, Transylvania University and other education centers.
It also underscores the importance of making sure affordable housing is available and traffic doesn't get out of control. It means Lexington should nurture cultural institutions and other quality-of-life infrastructure that talented, educated people and the companies that want to hire them look for in a city.
The next step, Gray said, is to benchmark Lexington's data against the five other university cities to assess strengths and weaknesses.
"I think we're poised for exploiting the knowledge economy in a better way than the industrial cities have been," Gray said. "It's a question of how do you really take advantage of that."