Tom Eblen

Lexington leaders told city can attract people

There's a famous Wayne Gretzky quote about skating to where the puck is going to be, rather than where it is. That is as true for successful cities as it is for professional hockey players.

That was the advice Madison-based consultant Rebecca Ryan gave to the 260 Kentuckians who arrived in Madison, Wis., on Monday for Commerce Lexington's 70th annual Leadership Visit. She is the author of Live First, Work Second.

Where will the puck be for cities in the years to come? Ryan — who knows more about basketball than hockey, because she used to play hoops professionally in Europe — said the talented workers of the future will choose where they want to live and find work, rather than following a job where it takes them.

She was talking specifically about younger generations, but a lot of older-generation folks in the audience were nodding their heads, too.

As part of her work for this trip, Ryan came to Lexington and studied its attributes, along with those of Madison and other cities that Lexington likes to compare itself to. She compares cities according to seven indexes that she said will be important for future success.

Those indexes are: Job growth prospects; educational resources; the "social capital" of talent; diversity and civic engagement; the cost of living; what there is to do for fun after work; and how easy it is to get around a city, especially by walking, biking and mass transit.

Lexington scored high in job growth prospects and cost of living, but it lagged the other cities in some other key areas, although it still did pretty well.

Her advice: Focus on quality-of-life issues that will retain natives and attract new residents. I loved the way she put the challenge: "How to build a place that the next generation will be homesick for."

Ryan said cities need to focus on building their "social capital" by being more welcoming of new ideas and diverse groups of people. She noted that one reason the Irish potato famine of the early 1800s was so devastating was that farmers there planted one variety of potato.

"How can Lexington be a more open community?" Ryan asked. "What's your idea should be more important than who your daddy is."

Ryan showed a photo of her modest home, which she said she carefully designed with an architect based on qualities and functions that were important to her. "The power of living in a built space that is intentionally designed is so powerful," she said.

Ryan said the experience emphasized to her the importance of good architecture and urban planning. That includes building a human-scaled city designed for people rather than cars. She said Madison's State Street pedestrian mall downtown is a magnet for local residents as well as visitors.

Ryan took those talking points from a classic 1961 book I happen to be reading now: The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs. I highly recommend it. Jacobs wrote the book to rail against 1950s-era city-planning ideas, which remained in fashion for decades and did a lot to damage cities, including Lexington.

Ryan looked at Lexington's strengths and how they could build on them. A key one she identified was developing more bicycle lanes and paths because Lexington is surrounded by so much bicycle-friendly countryside.

"This is a real area of potential for you," she said, noting that Madison's 150 miles of bike trails are a major civic asset.

I looked at the table behind me and noticed that two of Lexington's biggest bike-trail boosters, Steve Austin of the Legacy Center and Urban County Councilman Jay McChord, had big smiles on their faces.

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