Lexington economy needs leadership, investment

Our Lexington economy — the soil that nourishes our lives, businesses, our children's education and our collective quality of life — needs watering. A lot of watering.

Not to mention fresh topsoil.

And good plant food.

And new seeds.

You name it, we need it. And we've been needing it for a while now.

Lexington's economic garden hasn't been drying up just because of our present recession — every drop of data shows Lexington's economic clay has been hardening for a decade, or two. We've been losing economic nourishment for a generation, in fact.

From 1990 to 2007, cities like Louisville, Nashville and Madison economically outpaced Lexington by 17 percent to 21 percent. That means average citizens in those cities — after adjusting for cost of living differences — have enjoyed more money each and every year than we Lexingtonians.

And new IRS migration data only hammers the point home. Between 2007 and 2008, folks that moved away from Lexington earned 24 percent more in their new cities than those who moved into Fayette County.

Imagine what you could do, right now, with a 24 percent raise.

Not to mention the cumulative effect of these numbers. When you remove tens of millions of dollars from our economy every year we all begin paying the steep price. Fire stations are temporarily closed, threatening our safety. Schools are not improved or not built, threatening our children's futures. Parks aren't kept up, reducing our quality of life. Streets and sidewalks aren't maintained (unless we go into debt for them).

So the question every good gardener must ask is: How do we get more water, better seed and richer nutrients into our garden? How do we revitalize our precious land, making it fertile once again?

The answer is in new economic policies, strategies and investments. Plain and simple.

As a former design engineer with Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Mich,, and founder of the nonprofit LeXenomics Group here in Lexington, here are some immediate action items I recommend for our government, business leaders and citizens:

■ Leadership: We must decide who is in charge of economic development and how the future will be strategically built. University of Kentucky men's basketball has recently taught us the importance of leadership at the top. We can't just leave it to the wind, hoping and praying for a rainy day. That's the definition of mismanagement, or no management. Right now, Lexington does not have an economic master gardener. And when nobody's tending your garden, things don't grow well.

■ Prioritization: We must make economic development one of our very top priorities — since money not only pays our individual bills but also funds everything we love as a city. We must purposefully invest in sound economic development leadership, new growth strategies, researched solutions, accountable implementation and transparent results.

■ Investment: You can't grow your financial portfolio if you never invest to start with. As a city, we pay for one good person to officially oversee economic development in all of Fayette County with 294,000 citizens. Austin, Texas, as one example, employs 45 full-time staff to continually build the economy.

By that yardstick, Lexington should have about 10 economic development specialists. And that should be in addition to the manpower and expertise of outside economic organizations like a Chamber of Commerce.

That is, unless we Lexingtonians enjoy losing tens of millions of dollars year in and year out to cities we need not be losing to.

As a native Lexingtonian, a product of Fayette County Public Schools and one who wears Kentucky proudly across my chest, I'll stand up first to declare that our beautiful garden needs some serious attention.

We need an entirely new irrigation system, because rainy-day funds are never permanent solutions.