The current discussion about Lexington's economic development efforts is not a new one, but it has the potential to become a messy one.
In 1983, Mayor Scotty Baesler, citing "too many turf battles and too many old prejudices," formed Lexington United to promote Lexington and drive economic development. It was funded with a mixture of public and private money. Among its responsibilities was developing the Bluegrass Business Park on Georgetown Road, which is now almost fully built out.
In 2004, Lexington United was merged with the Greater Lexington Chamber of Commerce and the Partnership for Workforce Development to create Commerce Lexington. The merger, largely driven by the business community, aimed to consolidate key economic development functions and hopefully better coordinate them with surrounding counties on a model resembling that of Greater Louisville Inc.
The feeling afterward was that Lexington had gotten its economic development structure right.
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However, it now feels like we could be revisiting what Baesler tried to address nearly three decades ago. Due to Commerce Lexington's partially public-funded status and a botched draft report by the consulting firm AngelouEconomics, questions have arisen over how the city's money has been spent on behalf of economic development with Commerce Lexington and what Lexington has gotten in return.
With a new mayor in Jim Gray, who is no stranger to economic development from his nearly 40 years with Gray Construction, and a recommendation for a greater role for the mayor in AngelouEconomics' revised draft report, those questions have been extended into whether Commerce Lexington or city government itself should be the center of economic development efforts.
In a Herald-Leader story last Sunday, skepticism about how the current arrangement is working was expressed by Vice Mayor Linda Gorton and councilman Julian Beard, who was Mayor Teresa Isaac's economic development director and now heads the council's economic development committee.
These things seem clear:
■ Mayor Gray it going to be taking a leadership role in the city's economic development activities, as he should. It's in his wheelhouse.
■ There needs to be a functional public-private economic development effort that has the support of the business community. Optimally, it would be regional in nature, but regionalism is far easier said than done.
■ Commerce Lexington should be fully forthcoming about how it spends public money. It maintains, correctly, that it is not subject to the open-records law because less than one-quarter of its budget comes from public money, but we have seen the disastrous results caused recently by a lack of transparency in several quasi-governmental agencies.
What's in play is what's usually in play in turf battles — money and control.
The Chamber of Commerce did not receive funds from the Urban County Government until after Commerce Lexington was formed in 2004 and it began receiving LFUCG's contribution to Lexington United.
In 2007, Mayor Jim Newberry's first budget contained a dramatic increase in funding for Commerce Lexington, to $620,000. In return, Commerce Lexington was able to expand its economic development efforts for marketing, minority business development, workforce/education, existing businesses and the Bluegrass Business Development Partnership.
The majority of Commerce Lexington's $1.2 million economic development budget comes from a fund-raising campaign that netted $3.2 million over five years from local businesses.
Currently, it receives $485,500 from the city, including money used to incent American Airlines' return to the market.
Money and control aren't the only things in play right now. In a larger sense, so is the economic future of Lexington and Central Kentucky.
The times are incredibly challenging and every city and state is chasing projects and new jobs. The models that were right 30 years ago, 20 years ago, or even 10, might not be completely right for today and the future.
The one thing that we must have to succeed, though, is a Lexington, united.