One of the most valuable things about Commerce Lexington's annual "leadership visit" is that it brings together nearly 200 people who spend three days looking at Lexington's strengths and weaknesses through the lens of another city.
Last week's trip to Greenville, S.C., was my fourth, and I found it the most useful. Perhaps that was because Greenville's relative size, assets and challenges are more similar to Lexington's than are those in Pittsburgh, Madison or Austin.
In many respects, Lexington is better than all of those cities. It was easy to sense some of Greenville's shortcomings, despite city leaders' positive spin. But the point of the trip was to learn from what they do better than we do.
The primary lesson was that beautiful, high-quality urban development can improve both quality of life and economic vitality. Since the 1970s, Greenville has transformed an ugly, car-choked downtown into a garden spot where people want to live, work and play. Economic prosperity has followed.
Greenville is more politically and socially conservative than Lexington, and much of what city leaders did was controversial. But they did it, and it worked.
The city transformed a Main Street the size of Lexington's from a sun-baked, four-lane highway into a pleasant two-lane, two-way gathering place. It is shaded by big trees and filled with shops, restaurants, sidewalk dining and plenty of parking in diagonal street spaces and artfully disguised garages. A neglected riverfront and waterfall became a gorgeous public park surrounded by new development.
Downtown is now beautiful, inviting, unique to Greenville — and twice as big as it was. Old buildings have been restored and adapted to new uses. Contemporary mixed-use developments have been built and are successful. There are a variety of performance halls, sports venues and museums. The renaissance is growing in all directions, and nearby towns are emulating it.
What can Lexington learn from Greenville? Here were my takeaways:
■ Articulate a simple vision that almost everyone can embrace. That is different from launching a task force or commissioning a detailed study that will gather dust on a shelf. Simply agree on a vision such as this: Lexington's urban and suburban spaces should be worthy of the beautifully unique countryside that surrounds them.
■ Leaders must lead. As the Lexingtonians saw in Greenville, that means taking risks, working together and figuring out creative ways to accomplish goals. It means entrepreneurial partnerships among government, business and nonprofits. It also means inclusive, transparent planning and long-term strategies.
■ Demand excellence. Greenville raised the bar for downtown development with design guidelines and an architectural review process. Developers know they must meet high standards — and that city officials will work with them to overcome obstacles to mutual success.
Remember when the developer who wanted to build a one-story, suburban-style CVS drugstore on Lexington's Main Street said the retailer wouldn't do better? Well, a two-story, urban-style CVS is under construction on Greenville's Main Street. When finished, it will look like it has always been there.
I asked Mayor Knox White to explain Greenville's redevelopment vision in a nutshell. "Downtown is all about the walking experience," he said. "The architectural guidelines, the landscaping, everything. It's a religion with us."
■ Build on success. Greenville's revitalization was an intentional, long-term process. Partnerships were formed to create world-class anchor projects and beautiful public spaces that would attract private investment around them. Civic leaders were not afraid to dream big and take risks.
Greenville leaders said they always have a "next big thing" on the horizon. Lexington achieved much during the three years before last fall's Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. We need a "next big thing" on which to focus.
This is a time of great opportunity for Lexington. Over the next couple of decades, Lexington will redevelop three huge tracts of urban land: the 46 acres around the Civic Center and Rupp Arena; the adjacent Distillery District; and the area surrounding the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus at the old Eastern State Hospital site.
Greenville shows what can be done, and the visitors from Lexington left talking like converts at a tent revival. But as we all know, even the most sincere believers can backslide when distracted.
Will Lexington stop being satisfied with good enough and try for great? Can those who went to Greenville help articulate a clear vision for Lexington and mobilize the community behind it? Will our leaders lead?