Tom Eblen

Off to Madison in search of ideas

If you want to change, you must expose yourself to new ideas.

That's why I'm a fan of Commerce Lexington's annual Leadership Visit. On Monday, more than 260 of Lexington's government, business and civic leaders will board two chartered jets to Madison, Wis., for the 70th annual trip.

Each year, Commerce Lexington sponsors the three-day trip to a different city in search of ideas for improving Lexington.

(Another reason I'm a fan of the trip is that it helps influential people from different areas of the community get to know each other, and it brings new people into the leadership circle.)

Many of those on the trip will be business executives. Others include Lexington's mayor, vice mayor, police chief and most members of the Urban County Council, as well as the mayors of Richmond and Versailles. Fayette Schools Superintendent Stu Silberman is going, along with representatives of four colleges and universities.

Last year's trip to Austin, Texas, underscored the importance of "weird" creativity in building a city's economy. It also showed how live music and other entertainment venues can attract creative young people and become an economic engine.

The year before, the people who went to Boulder, Colo., brought home the idea that walking and bicycle trails can improve a city's quality of life — and, again, attract creative talent. That helped jump-start various trail-building efforts around Lexington.

Like those cities and others previously visited, Madison and Lexington have a lot in common. They're about the same size and have beautiful natural settings, major research universities and other good institutions of higher learning.

The University of Wisconsin has reached the University of Kentucky's goal of becoming a Top 20 research university. Madison is much further along than Lexington in attracting and developing high-tech companies. Madison has a more educated population and higher per-capita income.

Madison and Lexington both often show up on national rankings of great places to live and work, although Madison often ends up higher on the list.

"Quality of life" is sometimes hard to define, but everyone agrees it will be vital in order for cities to thrive in the 21st-century economy. That is because technology and digital communications give companies and individuals more freedom to choose their location.

Among the topics on the Lexington visitors' agenda: arts and culture, downtown development, recreation and environmental sustainability. They'll hear from Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and Rebecca Ryan, founder of Madison-based Next Generation Consulting and author of Live First, Work Second, who will report on her impressions of Lexington.

Commerce Lexington has visited Madison before, in 1997. And similarities between the two cities led the Herald-Leader to send reporter Jamie Gumbrecht there nearly three years ago to do her own comparison.

Among the things that struck Gumbrecht about Madison were the close town-gown relationship and the emphasis on walking (a major pedestrian thoroughfare, State Street), biking (150 miles of trails and bike lanes everywhere) and opportunities for people to gather for events or just to hang out (50 live music venues and a huge lakefront commons).

For my own quick preview, I consulted an old friend, Ellen Foley, a Madison resident and former editor of the city's largest newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal. What, I asked her, makes Madison such a great city?

Foley cited qualities that might not be readily apparent on a quick visit. Madison has a history of being open to new ideas and different kinds of people, including immigrants. It has long valued education, partly because those immigrants saw education as the way to get ahead.

She mentioned a vibrant, innovative business community and a deep sense of community philanthropy and civic engagement.

"We care about each other. We take actions to help each other," she said. "We still go to the city council meetings that last until 3 a.m. Way before micro-blogging, our neighborhoods had active oral networks that shared stories and issues. We had a huge controversy in our neighborhood about putting islands in a busy street to slow traffic. One big issue was who was going to plant flowers in this island, and which flowers!"

For another perspective, I consulted a new friend, Rebecca Self, education director of Seedleaf, a non-profit group that promotes affordable, community-grown food in Lexington. A Lexington native, Self has lived in Madison and will be among those going on the Commerce Lexington trip.

Self said Madison residents feel a responsibility to get involved in civic affairs, and seem to be more proud of their city than Lexingtonians are of theirs.

"I think their self-pride actually helped to create their reputation," she said. "From starting out in a place where they believed in themselves and their potential rather than doubting it, they were able to do some pretty impressive things, many of which I hope we'll see and in some way replicate."