A vibrant downtown with a wide array of cultural activities, festivals, bars and restaurants is no longer simply a social amenity, but an important economic development issue for Lexington, the Urban County Council was told on Tuesday.
The Downtown Lexington Corp. brought individuals from business, entertainment and hospitality venues to tell the council that developing a thriving downtown is essential for the entire community's economic prosperity
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And the time to act is now.
"We've studied the issue to death," said Van Meter Pettit, who has spearheaded development of the Town Branch Trail. "Compared to other cities around the country, we're a day late and a dollar short."
Tom Martin, chairman of the Downtown Entertainment Task Force, said, "We're at a point where we want to see less talk and more walk."
Specifically, Martin said, people want to see aggressive recruiting of "entrepreneurial activities downtown."
Lexmark and Toyota, two of the area's largest employers, teamed up recently to study how to recruit and keep racial minority talent in their organizations.
The companies recognize that "diversity is fundamental to our long-term success," said Linda Hollenbaek, vice president of customer services at Lexmark.
The task force talked to young minority professionals in the two organizations. "No one, not a single one mentioned racial issues," she said, but rather "over and over" talked of the need for more entertainment and cultural programs, live music and festivals, plus more affordable downtown housing.
"They also looked for more and better sources of information about where to eat and hear live music," Hollenbaek said.
A primary recruiting tool for attracting young professionals to Lexington for all businesses, not just Lexmark and Toyota, is a vibrant downtown. "We need to make Lexington a more exciting city," she said.
Several individuals told council members that downtown had been "studied to death," in the words of one.
"We don't need any more studies. What we need is to get our foot off the brake" and make things happen, said Eric Patrick Marrs, a downtown supporter. Creating an exciting downtown had become for Lexington an economic survival issue, he said.
Council member Jay McChord concurred. "People are tired of talk. What they want to see is action and implementation." He said 77 percent of young professionals today first find a city where they want to live, "then they find a job."
One step the council could take immediately to improve downtown, McChord said, is to overhaul the outdated sign ordinance to allow signs to be mounted perpendicular to the side of buildings for better visibility.
Mayor Jim Newberry said a new sign ordinance was expected to be unveiled in the spring.
Another road block that could be eliminated would be to streamline the process businesses have to navigate to get their many permits, said Ann McBrayer, a board member of CommerceLexington.
Pettit observed that private developers have invested $200 million in downtown, "but where is the public investment?" he asked.
The city must put up the money for improvements, Pettit said. "Any company that does not invest in its infrastructure will no longer compete."