Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Teams urge mayor to be 'face' of the city

Tom Eblen
Tom Eblen

One of the smartest things Jim Gray did after being elected mayor was create diverse transition teams of local citizens to study and make recommendations on key issues facing Lexington.

The team reports, which started coming out late last week, offer the new mayor a great source of free advice. They also could help generate buy-in for initiatives Gray chooses to pursue.

The first reports I wanted to read dealt with economic development and job creation. Those are two of the biggest issues facing Lexington, and they were central themes of Gray's campaign.

Gray appointed two groups to study economic development. Both were diverse, ranging from economic development professionals and corporate executives to small-business owners and interested citizens.

"I deliberately tried to create an environment where different points of view would be expressed," Gray said.

After a healthy amount of debate and dissension, the two groups produced very different reports. But there were many common themes. Both said Lexington needs:

■ Better coordination among local economic development groups, and better measurement of results.

■ More effective marketing of Central Kentucky as a place for entrepreneurs.

■ Closer relationships between Lexington and surrounding communities, Louisville and Northern Kentucky, as well as between the city and University of Kentucky.

■ Streamlined bureaucracy to make it easier for businesses to get permits, approvals and information.

The strongest common theme, though, was a call for Gray to focus much of his personal time and attention on economic development.

"The mayor should initiate and drive Lexington's economic development strategy and execution," one report said, adding that he should be the "face" of Lexington to the world.

That makes sense. As an executive of family-owned Gray Construction Co., Gray spent more than 30 years working with companies on site selection and business development.

"That's my DNA — selling and marketing," Gray said Friday, adding he had spent much of that day meeting with executives from a company, which he declined to name, that is considering moving to Lexington.

One economic development transition team was led by Kim Menke, a Toyota executive and former Commerce Lexington chairman. Its report recommended many traditional strategies, such as a professional marketing campaign and economic incentives.

It suggested the mayor create a small but diverse business advisory board, as well as roundtables of chief executives from small and large local companies to give him advice. Gray said he was already planning such a CEO roundtable and will have an announcement soon.

The other team was led by Alan Hawse, vice president of information technology for California-based Cypress Semiconductor. Its report suggested many less conventional — and less costly — approaches, such as targeted recruitment of successful Kentucky natives and UK graduates elsewhere who might want to move back to Lexington to work, create or expand companies.

That group's report emphasized the growth potential of several development-related initiatives Gray already supports. Those include full implementation of the Downtown Master Plan, funding infrastructure for the Lexington Distillery District and creation of a "land bank" to encourage redevelopment of blighted urban property.

(It is worth noting, though, that while some members of that team wanted to give the city condemnation power as part of land bank legislation, the mayor is against that. "There are creative paths that don't require eminent domain," Gray said.)

That team put especially strong emphasis on Gray using his personal skills to promote economic development: setting vision and strategy, building relationships, cheerleading local entrepreneurs and selling Lexington elsewhere.

"A lot of the things that need to be done are leadership things that Jim could be really good at," Hawse said.

As mayor, that is perhaps Gray's biggest opportunity — and challenge.

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