Jim Gray reflects on his two terms as mayor of Lexington, and what’s next for him
The praise for Jim Gray, who turns over Lexington’s mayor’s office to Linda Gorton on Sunday, is well deserved; there’s not much to add, though we will stress one point: Gray’s “big dreams” became reality because he’s a strong manager who was eager to listen and learn.
The competence and consensus-building in Gray’s city hall stand in sharp contrast to the governments in Frankfort and Washington, where ideology, sycophancy and conflict reign.
Lexington’s nonpartisan government gives its mayors an advantage, to be sure. But Gray deserves credit for assembling a skilled team to carry out the city’s many responsibilities. He nurtured a productive relationship with the elected council and leaves a government that’s hardly perfect but works better than when he took the reins eight years ago.
Many will see his legacy in brick-and-mortar — a restored Old Courthouse, a new Lexington Senior Center, Town Branch Commons, the re-imagined Rupp Arena/Lexington Center now undergoing a $241 million expansion and facelift.
But Gray also tended the city’s human side. Standout accomplishments: A coordinated, more effective approach to alleviating homelessness and a good start on ensuring that people who work in Lexington can afford to live here.
By putting $11 million into an affordable housing trust fund, the city has leveraged more than $100 million in outside investment that has created or rehabbed 1,431 housing units. Typically, Gray spreads the credit around — that’s what smart managers do — to BUILD’s advocacy, Vice Mayor Steve Kay’s commission and Rick McQuady’s management of the affordable housing fund.
Gorton and the new council still face big challenges as too many Lexington residents are left out of the city’s prosperity. Sadly, the state Supreme Court nixed a Gray-signed increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.
But Lexington’s economic prospects brightened when the University of Kentucky agreed to sign over 250 acres to the city in exchange for control of some streets near campus. Considering that it took 20 years to build out the 100-acre Bluegrass Business Park, Gray predicts this addition will create plenty of room for future manufacturing and research needs.
After listening — this time to the compelling activists of Take Back Cheapside — Gray removed Confederate monuments from a public square that was once the site of a slave market. The hardest part was finding a new site that wanted the statues; Gray is rightfully grateful to the Lexington Cemetery, where the monuments now appropriately reside.
Oh, we almost forgot to mention that Gray is gay, a fact that was pretty much irrelevant, other than burnishing Lexington’s image as a welcoming, progressive city.
Gray governed Lexington through a deep recession and a robust recovery. Throughout an odd misperception clung — that he was a “vision guy” bored by the nitty-gritty, as if the two are mutually exclusive. Gray’s decades in his family’s construction firm steeped him in management principles, including the Toyota philosophy of kaizen or continuous improvement.
Those who would govern could learn a lot from Gray. After losing a race for mayor he ably served a term as vice mayor and two terms as mayor, seeming always to learn from his mistakes.