Tom Eblen: Magazine rankings can help Lexington get even better

Tom Eblen
Tom Eblen

How can Lexington be both the nation's most sedentary city and the fourth-best city for business and careers? Those seemingly contradictory rankings came out recently in Men's Health and Forbes magazines.

The laziness award from Men's Health — that peerless monthly guide to flatter abs and better sex — gave people a good laugh at Lexington's expense. I didn't hear the news for several days; I was with a large group of Central Kentucky friends in Virginia, where we were bicycling 300 miles up and down mountains.

When I returned home, I also discovered that Forbes had ranked Lexington No. 4 in its annual Best Places for Business list, up from 9th last year. (Louisville ranked No. 14.)

I don't put much stock in magazine rankings, which are designed mostly to draw attention to magazines. But people love lists, no matter how suspect they seem. The good rankings give us something to brag about; the bad ones, something to fuss about — or think about.

The slap from Men's Health was another reminder that Kentuckians need to adopt healthier lifestyles. One more reminder came last week, when two public health groups reported that nearly one-third of all Kentuckians are obese, making this the nation's sixth-fattest state.

Maybe the drumbeat will persuade more Kentuckians to give up smoking, cut back on fatty foods and sugary drinks, and get more exercise. Lexington lags many cities when it comes to bicycle lanes, trails and a pedestrian-friendly environment that allows physical activity to be part of everyday life. But recent improvements show that when facilities are built, Lexingtonians will use them.

Forbes said it arrived at its list by weighing a series of metrics, including job and income growth, cost, quality of life and educational attainment. Lexington ranked higher than all of the cities that Commerce Lexington members have visited in recent years to gather improvement ideas: Greenville, S.C., was No. 60; Pittsburgh, No. 69; Madison, Wis., No. 63; Austin, Texas, No. 7; Boulder, Colo., No. 44; and Oklahoma City, Okla., No. 28.

Most Commerce Lexington trips have focused on downtown development and quality-of-life improvements — important factors in long-term economic vitality. All of the cities visited have offered good ideas for Lexington. But as last month's trip to Greenville showed, Lexington has more going for it than we often assume.

Some Lexington businessmen — impressed by Greenville's success in recruiting industry — were quick to tout South Carolina's low-tax, low-regulation, anti-union environment. But economic statistics show a more complicated picture.

Before Forbes ranked Lexington a whopping 56 places above Greenville, I was looking through the "regional economic scorecard" that Clemson University economists compile for Greenville's leaders.

Greenville considers Lexington one of its "peer" cities, and our metropolitan area outperformed theirs in almost every measure on the scorecard: work-force education, cost of living, knowledge workers, innovative activity and capacity, entrepreneurial environment, employment diversity and high-wage employment opportunities.

Even more telling, Lexington leads Greenville in per-capita income, perhaps the best measure of economic health. (Still, both places trail the national average, and the gaps have widened in recent years. That is neither a healthy sign nor an argument for "business-friendly" low wages.)

Economists in both South Carolina and Kentucky say one of the main keys to long-term economic prosperity is education. Still, many business and political leaders find it easier to fuss about taxes, regulation and unions than to make significant, long-term investments in education.

What lessons should we draw from economic comparisons? In a nutshell, Lexington should more aggressively build on its strengths and focus on initiatives that will promote long-term, broad-based economic prosperity.

And what about all of those magazine lists? Be neither discouraged nor deluded; just consider them tools. Brag about the Forbes ranking — it might bring in some business — and use the Men's Health ranking to rally support for mending our unhealthy ways.

Lexington is neither as good nor as bad as others say we are. But if we are smart, we will use both the praise and criticism to get better.

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