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Lexington's 'creative class' looks to our future

Lexington's political and business leaders often talk about the importance of the "creative class" in building a vibrant 21st-century economy.

It makes sense that an economy based on innovation and technology needs young, creative, well-educated innovators.

On the Sunday after Christmas, I spent the afternoon listening to members of the creative class — a dozen or so of the smartest young people Kentucky has produced in recent years.

We sat in a circle of chairs inside the Miller House, a little-known landmark of modernist architecture that a small group of fans rescued from vandals, restored and is struggling to preserve.

Most of the people there were in their late 20s or early 30s. Some were former Gaines Fellows at the University of Kentucky. Others were Lexington natives, spouses and significant others with educations from Harvard, Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

They were architects, educators and entrepreneurs in the arts and technology. Some were back in Lexington after a few years in larger cities. Others were home visiting family, on break from successful careers in New York and Boston. I could sense, though, that they hoped to return to Lexington. Someday. If only.

The question that brought them together was this: How can Lexington do a better job of keeping its brightest young people and attracting more? Rather than suffering from brain drain, how could this city become a brain magnet?

Several of them had begun the discussion Labor Day weekend at a retreat organized by former Gaines Center director Dan Rowland and Vice Mayor Jim Gray. After I left, the talk continued at a reception at Gray's home.

Among the laments: Lexington doesn't have enough economic opportunities, especially in technology. UK and other universities aren't integrated enough into civic life. Too few people are risk-takers. Lexington leaders look elsewhere for innovation but often don't recognize it under their noses. The local arts community is vibrant — and growing more so — but lacks the acceptance and philanthropy found elsewhere.

Their expectations weren't unrealistic. They didn't want to change Lexington so much as to expand its horizons. Things are moving in the right direction, they said, just more slowly than in many of the cities Lexington competes with economically.

What they loved about Lexington was its beauty, people and authentic culture. It's a place big enough to have world-class amenities yet small enough that an individual can make a difference.

They loved Lexington's quality of life, livable neighborhoods and the potential of its human-scale downtown. They wondered why there wasn't more connectivity with Louisville and Cincinnati, which are so close yet seem so far away.

They saw great potential for reviving parts of town that have seen better days, such as the Distillery District and old Northside neighborhoods. They wondered why Lexington doesn't do more to capitalize on local treasures, such as McConnell Springs, the Kentucky Horse Park and the Miller House.

None of these young professionals seemed to be horse people. Yet they were excited about next fall's Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, and they were surprised more people in Lexington seem not to be.

These young people understood that an international event like the Games can have a transformative effect on a city. But when they started talking about how people should take advantage of it, there was an interesting dichotomy.

Several of those living here said they were confused about how they could harness the Games to develop or promote their slice of Lexington. Who is in charge? What is the process?

It doesn't really matter, the people living in Boston and New York replied. Organize your own events, activities and celebrations around the Games. While it's nice to be part of the official program, it's hardly necessary. Seize the day and put your stamp on it. Just do it.

It's good to read books and listen to consultants. But if Lexington really wants to tap the creative class, we must recognize and listen more to its members. Many of them are right under our noses. And many more would like to come home, if given the right opportunity.

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