Will last week's trip to Pittsburgh by Commerce Lexington and Greater Louisville Inc. be just another expensive junket? Or will it help Kentuckians overcome some self-defeating traits, such as complacency and a tendency to ignore the obvious?
Those traits, among others, have often held this state back, despite Kentucky's central location, beautiful landscape and abundant natural resources. The Kentucky visitors were told that Pittsburgh's transformation over the past three decades occurred because the city was forced out of complacency.
Generations of industrial pollution had made the coal-rich region's air and rivers so dirty that they were simply unacceptable. When the steel industry collapsed, Pittsburgh was forced to reimagine and diversify its economy. Lexington and Louisville shouldn't have to be in crisis to learn some lessons from that.
Pittsburgh reinvented itself by leveraging its assets — sometimes literally.
The city has $6 billion in philanthropic assets, thanks to old industrial families with names such as Heinz, Carnegie and Mellon.
While that money has been a huge help, several Pittsburgh leaders echoed the comments of Grant Oliphant, president of The Pittsburgh Foundation. "It's really not about money," he said. "It's about leadership and imagination."
At a time when many people thought Pittsburgh should be desperate enough to welcome any development, the philanthropic community urged civic leaders to be choosy. That led to downtown design standards, good architecture, environmentally friendly construction and an emphasis on making Pittsburgh more beautiful and pedestrian-friendly.
"Pittsburgh was a fabulous city (in which) to be a car," Oliphant said. "For people, not so much."
Changing that involved many battles with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, but the city usually prevailed. Some of the results are extraordinary, such as several beautiful iron bridges that were restored rather than being replaced with ugly concrete.
Investment in the arts sparked the revival of a critical downtown district, prompting people and businesses to want to move there.
When it came to rebuilding and diversifying Pittsburgh's economy, leaders focused on the city's core strengths — manufacturing, energy and finance — but looked for ways to reinvent them for the modern economy. Well-funded local research universities have helped Pittsburgh businesses focus on innovation, technology and entrepreneurship.
Pittsburgh's public schools were such a mess that foundations cut off support to force change. Bold reforms led to Pittsburgh becoming one of three American public school systems to receive a major Gates Foundation grant — a $40 million award to explore better teaching methods.
Perhaps the boldest stroke of all is the $250 million Pittsburgh Promise — a guarantee that, beginning in 2012, each Pittsburgh Public Schools graduate with good grades will receive a four-year scholarship for higher education worth about $10,000 a year.
When thinking about the future, it is more important to focus on the "what" than the "how," Oliphant said. "It is the appeal of a large, transformational idea. When the vision of 'what' is compelling, people will figure out the 'how.' "
As I listened to the presentations, I kept thinking: What are Kentucky's core strengths that could be reinvented for a modern economy? For example, how could the horse industry follow the bourbon industry's lead in reinventing itself? How could more investment in research universities create Kentucky's technology industries of the future? How could more school reform provide the workforce those new industries will require?
Most of all, I thought: What are the big, transformational ideas for Lexington and Louisville?
The theme of this trip was "today we partner, tomorrow we prosper." But it could have been more simply expressed with Pittsburgh native Fred Rogers' famous question: "Won't you be my neighbor?"
While only 75 miles apart, Kentucky's two largest cities have always been separated too much by culture, ego and college sports rivalries. While that has never been smart, it is now simply unacceptable.
Kentucky is too poor and too far behind other states by most measures of economic and social progress for Lexington and Louisville to not work more closely together, share resources and become a more powerful force in the rurally dominated General Assembly.
"It's about time we realize that we have more in common with each other than what separates us," Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson said. "Great things are happening in all 120 counties, but we are the economic engine of this commonwealth. Without us, it doesn't work. And with us, it creates the opportunity for other communities, other counties to grow and expand."
It also means that the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville must collaborate more, rather than competing for precious resources the way they compete in basketball and football.
Those are obvious things that Lexington and Louisville can no longer ignore; as obvious as the words that have been on the state seal since Kentucky became a state in 1792: United We Stand, Divided We Fall.