"What if" can be an interesting and instructive game.
Let's play it with the cut-and-paste report on Lexington's economy produced by AngelouEconomics.
What if Ben Self, a board member of citizen group ProgressLex, hadn't pointed out on the organization's blog that big chunks of the $150,000 report appeared, word for word, in other reports about other places?
Since this revelation, people involved in hiring Angelou have been tripping over themselves to express their shock and horror.
Angelos Angelou, the founder of the firm has, to his credit, come to Lexington, vowed to oversee a rewrite himself and promised to return the $75,000 the city put into the report. Commentators have moaned that a one-size-fits-many strategy won't help Lexington. All good.
But how people react when something is publicly staring them in the face is one thing. How they react in the much more common situation where the gloom of obscurity hides unpleasant facts is another.
It's in that second scenario where Lexington's future will be decided. It's hard to believe economic development executives involved in hiring Angelou would have looked at the report, noted it seemed both generic and too vague to be very useful, and gone public with the news that they'd just paid $150,000 for something of little use to the community.
(Indeed, Commerce Lexington CEO and President Bob Quick said in the initial Herald-Leader story on this topic — nine days before a touted event to release the final version — that he hadn't even had a chance to read the draft.)
More troubling, though, is that most who looked at the draft report thought it made good points but asked, "What's new?"
Its most important finding — supported by survey responses, interview and focus groups — was that the "Bluegrass region must break down long-standing silos and work collaboratively towards a common economic vision"
That's what Bluegrass Tomorrow and former Mayor Jim Newberry were saying four years ago. They more or less gave up, so, no news, that's still a problem.
Then there's this: "Fully leverage regional higher education institutions." Is there any economic development scenario in which we wouldn't want to leverage our higher education institutions?
The list can go on and on. We know our problems. Sometimes we hire people from other places to repeat them back to us, because that might have more impact or because it makes it seem like something's being done.
Even if AngelouEconomics produces a dynamite report that addresses our unique issues and opportunities, it won't make any difference unless we in Central Kentucky are willing to suffer the discomfort of change, for a long time.
That's when the "what ifs" become interesting:
What if our community decided to really listen to those educated young people we say we're trying to attract or retain?
What if we developed an economic development strategy that took into account both our educational capital and our spectacular rural agricultural environment?
What if that economic strategy included the tactical importance of development decisions, affordable housing, downtown revitalization, public transportation and lifelong recreational opportunities?
What if we kept brutally honest track of our economic development efforts and successes, and held someone or some institution accountable?