Tom Eblen

Crowd ponders future at Now What, Lexington?

The Creative Cities Summit a week ago generated a lot of energy. But it was nothing compared to what I felt Saturday at an all-day session called Now What, Lexington?

Perhaps that’s because this gathering was about putting the ideas, inspirations and passion generated by the Creative Cities Summit into specific ideas and plans for improving Lexington.

For starters, it was remarkable that nearly 200 people would spend at least part of a picture-perfect spring Saturday inside the Carnegie Center talking, when they could just as easily have been at Keeneland or a half-dozen other community events.

Several city officials and candidates were there, as well as a legislator and several technology entrepreneurs and community activists. A few University of Kentucky students came, saying they hope to make Lexington their permanent home.

The crowd ranged in age from 20-something to 70-something. It skewed young, though — an encouraging mosaic of faces that represent Lexington’s emerging leadership.

Now What, Lexington? was organized by a new civic group called Progress Lex. The free “unconference,” underwritten by local business sponsors, provided a forum for anyone to propose a topic and gather a group to discuss it. The only requirement was that the 30 or so breakout sessions conclude with action steps. Detailed notes from the sessions will soon be posted at: www.nowwhatlexington.org.

In the sessions I attended, there was remarkably little grousing about what’s wrong with Lexington and a lot of talk about the city’s potential.

A common theme was the importance of a well-designed downtown, from good architecture to the elimination of one-way streets. The CentrePointe fiasco prompted several discussions about the need for design guidelines for new downtown development and a review panel with design professionals that is insulated from politics.

Several people noted that whatever is built on the now-vacant CentrePointe block will shape Lexington and its image for a century or more. “If we mess this up, Lexington has lost a great opportunity,” dentist Wes Coffman said.

Phil Holoubek, a downtown developer and strong advocate for design guidelines, said Lexington must plan for and invest in infrastructure to make sure downtown is developed appropriately. He urged citizens to demand that CVS design the pharmacy it plans to build on a downtown site he partially owns so it fits in with the urban landscape. “It’s very good for downtown to have CVS, but I don’t have any control over what it will look like,” he said.

Other discussions were focused on job creation, economic development, high-tech entrepreneurship and environmental sustainability. There were ideas for retaining bright young people, as well as engaging senior citizens, who will make up an increasingly large percentage of the population over the next two decades. Lisa Adkins, director of the Bluegrass Community Foundation, led a session on this question: “What if every child in Lexington had a mentor?”

Plans were made for using technology to better connect citizens and identify and share resources.

“There’s no need to re-invent the wheel,” said Rebecca Self, education director for the community garden organization Seedleaf. “A lot of these things are being done in Lexington already; we just have to put them together.”

There was talk about how to create the infrastructure for a stronger local food economy — one that benefits low-income residents as well as the people who can afford to shop at the Lexington Farmers Market, which two blocks away was enjoying its first Saturday in the new Cheapside market house.

Anthony Wright, the city’s economic development director, actively participated in a group that discussed how Lexington could replicate the model for arts-inspired youth education and job training for poor people pioneered in Pittsburgh by Bill Strickland, who was a speaker at the Creative Cities Summit.

Participants in many of the groups talked about economic shifts that are radically changing community development models. “We’re in a new age with new forms of collaboration,” said Sherry Maddock, who started the London Ferrill Community Garden on East Third Street. “Government is a partner, but it’s not about government doing everything.”

“It has really been energizing,” entrepreneur Griffin Van Meter said during the wrap-up session. “It really emphasizes why Lexington is such a great city.”

And why it can become even better.

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