Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Gray's 'fresh start' has ideas to chew on

Jim Gray is sitting at a conference table in his family-owned construction company's headquarters, talking me through a 36-page document that explains why he thinks Lexington voters should promote him from vice mayor to mayor.

On the wall behind him, attached to big sheets of brown paper, is a collection of documents connected by fat-marker writing and arrows. He says that is Gray Construction Co.'s strategic plan, which the company has been refining and revising since 1984 as its road map for success.

After his father's death, Gray, his mother and brothers and their employees built the company from near collapse into a national construction giant. Gray, the chief executive officer, said creative vision, strategic planning and careful financial management have been essential to succeeding in the cyclical construction industry, where profit margins are usually less than 3 percent.

Gray's pitch is that he has the skills and experience to achieve the same results for Lexington. He said city government needs more visionary leadership, more strategic planning and better and more transparent management of taxpayer money.

The "Fresh Start Plan" Gray is talking me through is his outline for doing that. "It is a road map, but not etched in stone," he said. "Plans are made to be intelligently changed, but they must be made and monitored."

Since Gray challenged Mayor Jim Newberry for re-election, both candidates have spent more time criticizing each other than telling voters what they would do as mayor over the next four years. Gray's plan gives voters something more to consider. Newberry plans to issue his own detailed plan, but campaign spokesman Lance Blanford said he did not know when.

Gray said his top priority as mayor would be creating jobs in Lexington. He says he has led Gray Construction in working with companies to create 21,989 jobs in 37 states through 831 construction and 74 site-selection projects.

"I come with a set of skills that are directly related to creating jobs," he said. "I know what makes a community attractive for economic development; that has been my business for over 30 years."

Gray's plan includes creating a one-stop shop to help people starting or expanding businesses, and he would encourage entrepreneurship by creating incentives and cutting city taxes and fees for small businesses.

He also said he would recruit three new corporate headquarters to Lexington; have the city purchase from local businesses whenever possible; align the city's economic development plan with the University of Kentucky's Top 20 initiative; and recruit former Lexington residents and students who have been successful elsewhere to come back and launch or expand businesses here.

Gray's plan also includes specific proposals in a dozen other areas, from open government and "running government like a business" to engaging diversity, protecting neighborhoods and the environment, promoting public safety and easing traffic congestion.

Among Gray's ideas for making the city bureaucracy more business-like is creating an "office of project management" to improve efficiency and accountability. He would create a commissioner for "preservation, planning and economic innovation" to oversee the city's land-use planning and development functions. "When everybody's responsible, nobody's responsible," he said. "That's the way it is now."

The only significant new city building the construction executive proposes anytime soon is a senior citizens center to replace the small, aging facility at Nicholasville Road and Alumni Drive.

"I want to make Lexington as inviting to seniors as it is to young professionals," Gray said, citing census figures that show the number of people 65 and older in Lexington will double in the next 20 years. He said better addressing the needs of older citizens, from services to the way neighborhoods are designed and developed, is an example of how city leaders should get ahead of the curve.

Gray's plan — available to read or download on Jimgray.org — offers a thoughtful and realistic vision for Lexington's future. I look forward to seeing what Newberry has to say about his specific plans for the next four years beyond the outline now on Mayornewberry2010.com.

Lexington is fortunate to have two solid, talented mayoral candidates. The more information citizens have about their visions, goals and strategies, the better job they will be able to do of deciding which one should lead Lexington for the next four years.

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