Tom Eblen

How will Mayor Jim Gray be remembered? He inspired Lexington to think big.

Jim Gray leaves office next week as one of Lexington’s most popular and accomplished mayors. The city is better now than when he started, and it is poised for greater things. What will he be remembered for most?

Gray spent eight years as mayor and four years before that as vice mayor. He will be succeeded Sunday by Linda Gorton, an Urban County Council veteran who was vice mayor during his first term.

Gray, 65, who before he entered politics helped grow his family’s construction company into a major builder of manufacturing facilities, always said he had three goals as mayor: make government more efficient; create jobs; and help Lexington become a “great American city.”

Gray has made government more efficient and fiscally sound, thanks to his talent for problem-solving and putting good people in key jobs. His administration mastered the basics of government and tackled a range of issues, such as improving internet service by encouraging competition and taking bolder steps than past administrations to address homelessness and affordable housing.

Early in his first term, Gray set up a process to negotiate with police and firefighters to resolve nearly $300 million in unfunded pension liabilities. The success of that effort attracted national attention.

Lexington has added more than 33,000 jobs since Gray took office, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, although he had the good fortune to serve during a long, steady economic recovery from the 2008 crash.

Gray has helped set the stage for future growth. He partnered with Louisville Mayor Greg Fisher to attract advanced manufacturing jobs. And his administration arranged a land swap with the University of Kentucky that will give the city 200 acres of prime development land near I-75 for industrial prospects.

Gray’s third goal was rather vague; what makes a city great, anyway? He explained it this way: make Lexington a great place for residents to live, work and play and others will be attracted to it, too. By many measures, Lexington is better than it has ever been. The city frequently makes national rankings of “best cities” for this or that.

When Confederate monuments became a hot issue across the country in 2015, Gray appointed a public art review board to make recommendations about two statues outside the old Fayette County Courthouse. The board recommended they be moved.

Gray didn’t act on the recommendation. But two years later, when the issue sparked deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va., that groundwork helped Gray and the council be able to quickly and peacefully remove the statues. The ultimate solution was perfect: the statues of Confederate generals John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge went to Lexington Cemetery, where both men are buried.

Gray may be remembered most for his vision for a revitalized downtown. After some missteps, he helped find a way to renovate and expand Lexington Center and Rupp Arena. Plans also were developed and launched for Town Branch Commons, a linear park through the city center that should spur new private development.

As vice mayor, Gray was one of the few city officials who saw through developer Dudley Webb’s flawed plans for the mixed-use CentrePointe project, which ended up being delayed almost a decade for lack of financing. Using both carrots and sticks, Gray, council members and city planners guided Webb toward building a better project.

Gray is passionate about good design, and he connected Webb with acclaimed Chicago architect Jeanne Gang. While her design ultimately was not used, her site plan and other ideas had a big influence. CentrePointe, now called City Center, will be much better than it would have been without Gray’s intervention.

Gray’s leadership was key in the renovation and reuse of two important historic buildings: First National Bank, now the 21C Museum Hotel, and the long-neglected old Fayette County Courthouse. Interiors for both buildings were designed by Deborah Berke of New York, one of the nation’s most acclaimed architects and dean of the Yale School of Architecture.

When the city held a design competition for Town Branch Commons, it attracted big-name talent. The winner was Kate Orff of New York, one of the nation’s leading landscape architects and director of Columbia University’s Urban Design Program.

When was the last time three of America’s best design professionals worked on projects in Lexington? Gang and Orff later won MacArthur “genius” grants.

Lexington has long had advantages other cities its size do not, from a highly educated population to a gorgeous rural landscape. But because things have always been pretty good here, few citizens and elected leaders have felt much urgency to strive for greatness. Jim Gray did, and his vision inspired others.

Lexington has more energy and optimism now than I have ever seen before. That may end up being Gray’s greatest legacy.

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Tom Eblen, the Lexington Herald-Leader’s metro/state columnist since 2008, writes opinion and feature columns. A seventh-generation Kentuckian, he was the Herald-Leader’s managing editor from 1998-2008. Eblen previously worked for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Associated Press. He is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.
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