“Lexington is different,” Mayor Jim Gray said in October, because it’s a university city, a medium-sized community with a research university at its center that nurtures entrepreneurs, adapts quickly to changing economic conditions and consistently has lower unemployment than the country and other regions.
Gray was introducing a day-long summit at the University of Kentucky on the concept of University Cities, an initiative his office, along with UK and other university cities, had been working on for some time.
We’re fortunate, our wealth is in smarts. “A gift from the gods,” UK economist Ken Troske told the crowd.
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But in November, Commerce Lexington and some on the Urban County Council presented a different vision. They moaned that land-use policies protecting Fayette County’s rural area stand in the way of attracting industries that are essential to our economic growth and well being.
So, what is it: Are we a unique place with lots of intellectual capital and economic flexibility, or a place that needs to scrape topsoil off farmland to attract relatively low-paying, low-skill jobs?
We can be both, some would argue.
But we can’t. And we don’t need to be.
Lexington-Fayette County, located in one of the most beautiful regions in the world, has a major university and its huge medical complex at its center, is surrounded by valuable farmland, and has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state (3.2 percent in September) and the nation.
Our prosperity, in part, grows out of a long history of encouraging intense urban development and rural-land preservation by limiting urban services within a defined boundary. Each time the council reconsiders land-use decisions, some claim we can’t have economic growth without extending that boundary.
But we don’t have to be beggars at the economic-development table. We can, and must, focus on preserving the unique and irreplaceable physical beauty of this place while developing our human capital to its fullest potential.
That won’t happen by settling for More Than a Bakery, the cookie and cracker maker that Councilman Kevin Stinnett and a spokesman for Commerce Lexington cited as one that got away because of land-use restrictions.
The information provided for the state tax incentives that were used to lure the company, a division of Richmond Bakery in Indiana, to Woodford County, says average hourly wages will be $22. That number includes benefits and management salaries. So, line workers are more likely to earn something in the $12 to $15 an hour range. That’s $25,000 to $31,200 a year for full-time work.
Rob Ramsey, owner of the four Ramsey’s Diners, said the restaurant business is so competitive that he has fry cooks who “are bringing home $45,000, $50,000 a year and I can’t staff it.”
As for production jobs at the bakery, they’re described this way by the company: “requires standing, walking, bending, kneeling, stooping, crouching, crawling, and climbing all day. ... must be able to lift 50 pounds, work in confined areas, and in awkward positions.” Workers, “are sometimes exposed to hazardous situations. Frequent exposure to very hot temperatures from ovens. May work close to others, usually within a few feet. May work in settings that are loud or have distracting noises.”
There are too many poor people in our wealthy community. But the solution is not to strain city budgets to extend services into what is now farmland in order to bring in poverty-level jobs that are physically wearing, noisy and dangerous, and that would lower the average wage.
Economic development here must focus on activating our abundant intellectual capital to create more locally grown jobs while giving low-wage workers the opportunity to develop more skills.
That’s the goal the council should set for the 200-plus acres for a business park near Interstates 64 and 75 that UK has tentatively agreed to give the city in a land swap.
Lexington is different, it’s smarter and must reach higher.