More than 180 Central Kentucky business and civic leaders will board a chartered jet Monday morning for Commerce Lexington's 73rd annual Leadership Visit — three days of networking, gathering ideas and discussing strategies to improve Lexington.
This year's destination: San Antonio.
Huh? At first glance, a metropolitan area of 2.2 million people in the vastly different landscape of South Central Texas would seem an unlikely comparison for Lexington.
San Antonio is about the size of Pittsburgh, where Commerce Lexington made its first joint visit with Greater Louisville Inc. in 2010. And it is considerably larger than last year's destination, Greenville, S.C., and several other recent ones: Austin, Texas (2008), Madison, Wis. (2009) and Boulder, Colo. (2007).
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But when it comes to some aspects of urban development, Lexington and San Antonio have striking similarities. And San Antonio leaders have been especially adept at creating public-private partnerships to get things done, according to the Commerce Lexington officials who organized this trip.
"San Antonio is a city that's got confidence and strong leadership, public and private," said Bob Quick, Commerce Lexington's president.
Mayor Jim Gray and six of the Urban County Council's 15 members will be on the trip, as will be Fayette County Public Schools' top two leaders; two legislators; and a host of planning and development officials, business executives and leaders of non-profit organizations.
Rather than gathering ideas for new initiatives, the trip's agenda is focused on what attendees can learn to help accomplish projects already under way in Lexington.
"How do we apply what we see and learn to move along some of the things we're already working on?" said Lynda Bebrowsky, Commerce Lexington's senior vice president of marketing. "What are some of those processes that we can apply here?"
Two areas of focus will be the River Walk, San Antonio's second-biggest tourist attraction after the Alamo, and Pearl Brewery, a 22-acre mixed-use development in a once-abandoned beer factory at the end of a recent northern extension of the River Walk.
They offer striking similarities to budding Lexington initiatives: the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District; the Lexington Distillery District, and restoration of Town Branch Creek.
The Lexington group also will tour several other areas and hear from a variety of San Antonio officials, including former mayors Henry Cisneros and Nelson Wolff, who now leads the government of surrounding Bexar County.
As I was preparing to cover this trip, I called a former colleague, Audrey Lee, for her perspective. A longtime Herald-Leader reporter, editor and editorial writer, she left Lexington in 2004 for the San Antonio Express-News, where she is now the enterprise editor.
She said San Antonio's political leaders are particularly strong at marshaling local, state and federal resources to create the infrastructure needed for private investment to thrive. There is less anti-government sentiment there than in most other parts of Texas — military bases have long been a backbone of the local economy — and leaders are not afraid to push for tax increases when they can demonstrate a future payoff.
River Walk, in particular, offers an excellent example for what Lexington can accomplish. "It's exactly what Town Branch could be," Lee said.
San Antonio, like Lexington, was founded along a stream whose flow varied greatly with rainfall and, by the turn of the last century, had become a troublesome stormwater sewer through town. Lexington buried much of Town Branch Creek; San Antonio officials considered doing the same thing.
Then, thanks to a Works Progress Administration project during the Great Depression, a downtown section of the San Antonio River was restored, and the River Walk was created. The beautification effort has grown steadily since the 1950s, creating a magnet for tourists and private development.
In recent years, a northern reach of the river has been restored near museums and the Pearl Brewery, a popular development that makes Lee think of what the Lexington Distillery District could become. A southern reach is now being restored with a more natural feel near the region's old Spanish missions.
Lee said San Antonio and Lexington each have some advantages over the other. San Antonio could be even more successful, she said, if it had Lexington's merged city-county government, because Texas law makes it difficult for county governments to deal with urban growth.
San Antonio, on the other hand, has the advantage of municipally owned water, electrical and gas utilities, giving the public a greater voice in long-term strategy, Lee said.
Public utility ownership has resulted in more conservation easements to protect San Antonio's aquifer, as opposed to costly industrial water-supply solutions. Also, there has been considerable emphasis on energy conservation and investments in wind, solar and cleaner-coal technology that will allow an older, dirtier coal-fired power plant to be retired ahead of schedule.