Lexington leaders to visit Pittsburgh

For the first time, Commerce Lexington and Greater Louisville Inc., are teaming up this year for their annual leadership visit to another city. More than 320 business, educational and government leaders will head to Pittsburgh on Monday for the three-day leadership conference.

But even though the trip has expanded, the number of Lexington attendees is down as shrinking budgets and other factors reduce the number of city council visitors and others.

For Lexington leaders, these conferences have been held annually in various U.S. cities for about 70 years, said Robert Quick, CEO of Commerce Lexington.

Pittsburgh's appeal is its rebirth over the last two decades, as well as the fact that officials there and throughout Pennsylvania have united with their counterparts in Ohio and West Virginia to work together from a tri-state standpoint, Quick said.

Pittsburgh, in particular, has dealt with a lot of issues that are now facing Lexington and Louisville, he said. Kentucky's urban areas especially need to work together when it comes to dealing with the state legislature, which is controlled more by smaller cities and counties, he said.

"We have to work more closely together so we can help the rural areas understand urban issues," he said.

The Pittsburgh trip, said Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, "is a very exciting opportunity for the leadership of this community and the leadership of your community to interact together."

Among the topics on the agenda will be education, business, the arts and philanthropy.

Lynda Bebrowsky, senior vice president for marketing and member services at Commerce Lexington, said the overall number of people from Lexington registered to attend has declined to 200 from around 240 last year.

She attributed the lower attendance in part to the trip's closeness to the primary election.

One of the most noticeable differences in the Lexington delegation this year seems to be that only a couple of Urban County Council members are making the trip compared to most or all in previous years.

"Meaningful ideas have come from these trips, but in tough times like these, we need to cut travel to what's essential at all levels of government, including boards and commissions, just like the private sector is doing," said Lexington Vice Mayor Jim Gray, who is not going to Pittsburgh and who has paid his own way on previous leadership trips.

Vicki Steele, the council's travel coordinator, said, "This is the one event that typically every one of them go — if not every one, then the majority." This year, Steele knows of only two members who are going — 12th District councilman Ed Lane and 10th District Councilman Douglas Martin.

"They've even paid half their tab," Steele said. She said that on previous trips, the city usually paid the whole tabs for council members. She speculated the change might have come because council members agreed to put $5,000 from each of their individual budgets back into the city's general fund to help with city cutbacks.

Each council member received $16,290 for fiscal year 2010, $10,170 of which was earmarked for neighborhood development.

Mayor Jim Newberry will fly to Pittsburgh Monday morning at no charge because Commerce Lexington has enough room to let him ride on one of the chartered planes without charging him. But he will return that afternoon at a cost to taxpayers of $192, said spokeswoman Susan Straub. The city is also paying the full tab for economic development director Anthony Wright.

Lexington Police Chief Ronnie Bastin is using police asset forfeiture money to pay his way. A couple of other city leaders are paying their own way. Last year, the city paid the full tabs for the mayor and Wright to attend, and the police chief also used asset forfeiture money, according to Straub.

Previous trips have been well worth the funds spent, attendees said, noting that ideas for programs like the Thursday Night Live entertainment gathering started there.

"The Fayette Education Foundation came out of the Raleigh trip," said Fayette County schools superintendent Stu Silberman, who is going on the Pittsburgh trip. "Our schools have received hundreds of thousands of dollars because of that foundation being formed."