The city population of Lexington, Kentucky, has risen nearly 25% in almost 20 years, but as a Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce-led delegation to the Bluegrass State recently learned, that’s not always a good thing.
Conversations about growth, its benefits and challenges, were covered during the chamber’s 26th annual Community Leadership Visit, held Sept. 19-21 in Lexington. Delegates previously visited the city, nicknamed The Horse Capital of the World, in 2003.
Chamber President Matt Morrow, one of 84 businesspeople from the Springfield area on the trip, said the city’s growth conversations were candid. The city limit population of 323,780 is impressive, he said, but noted Lexington’s growth boundary hasn’t expanded in 20 years, according to city officials. The city is out of land where it can build housing and industrial space, he added.
“It’s gotten to the point where in Lexington it’s kind of a dirty word to say we’re going to grow,” he said, noting the city’s industrial park is at capacity. “They’re at this crossroads, where they have to decide if they’re going to make some decisions that would expand the growth boundary. If you’re not going to expand out, you need to give an opportunity to build up, and there’s a lot of resistance to that also.
“It’s not unique to Lexington, but is certainly something that is a storm cloud on the horizon.”
Comparatively, Morrow said Springfield still has land on which to build and available space in its industrial parks. Arguments arise in communities when a significant development is contemplated or proposed, he said, usually by people who are nearby where it’s going to be built. Springfield is no different, he added.
“While I understand the emotions of that, the cumulating effect of that can be the ways communities become ‘no growth,’” he said. “That’s a cautionary tale to us.”
The CLV itinerary was filled with panel discussions covering topics including Lexington’s branding, downtown transformation, commitment to public education and building community.
Even though Lexington’s growth has run into challenges, there are aspects where the city is excelling that impressed the delegates.
One of the most notable areas is the commitment to developing its downtown, said Springfield City Councilman Richard Ollis. He was also a member of the 2003 delegation.
“They’ve come a long way in the development of downtown and the beautification of it,” he said.
A large part of that development is tied to its ongoing $300 million investment in improvements and expansion to the Lexington Convention Center, Morrow said. The project is set for completion in 2022.
The delegates say Lexington is well ahead of Springfield in this area.
“We’re having conversations in our community about a convention center,” Morrow said. “None of the conversations we’ve had are $300 million conversations.”
A feasibility study completed in February by Chicago-based Hunden Strategic Partners included recommendations for a convention center and hotel package near Bass Pro Shops, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting. The Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau requested the study, as well as a 2016 Hunden report that favored downtown as a viable convention center option.
Morrow said discussions among chamber, CVB and city officials have been a “gradual process,” noting many steps will have to take place in the convention center development process. Among them would be securing the authority to go to voters for a hotel/motel tax to help fund it. He said Bass Pro and downtown are both still in the mix as convention center possibilities.
Ollis, also the CEO of insurance agency Ollis/Akers/Arney, said he also was impressed by Lexington’s branding, known for “basketball, bourbon and horses.” Springfield needs to do the same, he said.
“We need to be more assertive in how we move forward as a city and community,” Ollis said. “I came back with, for lack of a better word, restlessness. If you ask 20 different people about our brand, you might get 20 different answers or just a puzzled look.”
Much like Springfield, Lexington has a heavy college presence. Springfield has 11 universities or colleges to 14 in Lexington, which counts University of Kentucky as its largest higher education institution with an enrollment of over 30,000. Each city has recorded at least a 30% increase in the college graduate populations 2007-17, according to Springfield chamber data.
The large student enrollment also extends to public schools, said Alina Lehnert, Springfield Public Schools Board of Education vice president. Over 41,000 students attend public schools in Lexington, compared with nearly 26,000 in Springfield, according to chamber data. She said the school district boundaries aren’t as compact in Lexington as they are in Springfield, which helps fuel its higher enrollment numbers.
Lehnert, who owns leadership development business Lehnert Leadership Group LLC, was among a handful of delegates who visited Bryan Station High School in Lexington. She talked with administration and students about the academy structure that has been in place for four years.
Career academies link students and teachers into small learning communities within a structured environment, according to the National Career Academy Coalition. They’re designed to prepare students for both college and careers.
“They just graduated their first senior class this year, so they’re about three years down the road,” Lehnert said of Bryan Station, noting SPS established academies in 2018 at Glendale and Hillcrest high schools.
Among college and career pathways being offered for students at Hillcrest are cybersecurity, business management and engineering. Glendale options include computer science, legal studies and biomedical, according to the SPS website.
“Hearing their stories was important,” she said. “We got some good communication strategies.”
Lehnert considers the CLVs provide actionable takeaways. One of those was the advocacy effort by Friends of SPS for passage of the $168 million school bond issue in April. She said the idea for the group came from the chamber’s 2017 visit to Boise, Idaho.
Morrow said chamber officials regularly revisit trip takeaways.
“Some can take a year or less, while others take a decade or more,” he said of possible actions. “I’m a big believer that what a lot of people call good luck is where preparation meets opportunity. This is the preparation part.”
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