LEXINGTON TO LAFAYETTE

Lessons of tough love from the Bluegrass State

A confession: The years I spent as a print journalist covering government and politics acclimated me to being comfortable saying things that make some people uncomfortable. My wife thinks I even enjoy it.

So here it goes: Compared with some other cities, Lafayette is just not that special. We’re good, not great. We’ve got a lot of work to do to get to great, and we are going to have to fundamentally change the way we do a few things before we can improve.

In late April, I returned from a canvass trip to Lexington, Ky., sponsored by One Acadiana. The idea of a canvass trip is to visit another city, talk to its leaders, see the sites, and figure out what you can learn from the successes those cities have had. We’ve taken similar trips to Oklahoma City and Charleston, S.C.

And every time I get back to town, I worry that Lafayette leaders see the great success these cities have had — Lexington is pretty awesome, y’all — but don’t fully grasp the pain and hard work it took for those cities to get there.

And I also worry that those of us who love Lafayette gloss over our faults with heavy doses of festivals, food and culture.

But self-delusion isn’t pretty or useful — consider those disastrous American Idol tryouts from adults whose parents always told them they had a beautiful singing voice. Just because you love something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be honest about its faults.

I will use Lexington/Fayette County as a comparison (it also has a city-county consolidated government with a population of 318,000 compared to Lafayette’s 241,000):

Lexington’s population growth rate was more than twice Lafayette’s in the last five years and has almost half Lafayette’s unemployment rate. Lexington has higher rates of educational attainment — more than 40 percent of its adults have a bachelor’s degree and an additional 19 percent have an advanced degree (compared to 20.8 percent and 9.2 percent for Lafayette, respectively). That’s, in large part, because a high number of graduates of the University of Kentucky decide to stay in town after graduation, drawn to the quality of life the city offers.

Lexington’s urban core is growing and thriving, with new high-rise residential projects underway, a great restaurant and nightlife scene, and large, ambitious city projects like a linear park that runs through Downtown and the renovation of an old courthouse building.

We are stumbling by comparison. We all agree that Lafayette needs residential living Downtown, but haven’t figured out how to get there. The old federal courthouse building is an eyesore, but successive renovation or tear-down plans have foundered over the years.

Where Lexington recently passed a new tax initiative to improve school facilities, we resoundingly voted one down. Where Lexington wins awards for good government practices, our voters decided to stop funding the courthouse and jail.

And let’s face it: The debate over the I-49 Connector, which will run through the middle of the city, Downtown and historic neighborhoods, has taken a lot of oxygen out of the room, overshadowing a lot of other necessary work for the last two years now, and possibly for years to come.

And so coming back home from a visit to a place like Lexington (or Charleston, or Oklahoma City — heck, even Lake Charles is building tons of residential spaces Downtown) can be a little deflating and depressing.

This should make you uncomfortable; we should all be.

But we shouldn’t despair, because a willingness to be uncomfortable may be just what a city needs to tackle its challenges.

The debate over the I-49 Connector has taken a lot of oxygen out of the room, overshadowing a lot of other necessary work for the last two years now, and possibly for years to come.

Lexington has seen its fair share of discomfort and discord. In 1958, Lexington adopted the country’s first Urban Growth Boundary, which can be explained at its most basic level by saying the city drew a circle around its urban core and said, “You can’t develop outside of this circle.”

Why? Lexington is beautifully-situated in the rolling hills and sprawling horse farms of Bluegrass Country — but that bucolic setting is also the site of big business: The horse racing industry is one of the main drivers of the region’s economy. Only about one-third of the county, as a result, is allowed to be developed in a traditional manner.

And so every five years, the people of Lexington debate whether to extend this growth boundary and allow for more development. And by debate, I mean argue. There are special interest groups on both sides. One year a popular bumper sticker read: “Growth Destroys Bluegrass Forever.”

Most of the officials we talked with on the trip openly discussed the issue from their respective viewpoints — from the economic development official who described herself as “all growth” to the Downtown developer/horse industry attorney who talked about the need to “build up, rather than build out.”

Mayor Jim Gray, a former construction company CEO, described it as “a balancing act between development and preservation.” And the urban growth boundary has helped promote the vibrant urban development that’s happening today.

The planning commission is considering expanding the boundary right now, and who knows what Lexington will decide. That’s not really the point, anyhow.

The point is that all of these public officials, despite their differences of opinion on a very contentious issue, are still capable of working together for the common good. Despite their definite urban/rural split — like a happy, old married couple — they’ve gotten good at disagreement.

And as a result, things are really clicking the last few years in Lexington. A linear park Downtown, a public-private partnership to renovate the old courthouse, a new convention center and an effort to build affordable housing are all moving forward under the mayor’s leadership.

Mayor Gray acknowledged it wasn’t always great in Lexington either. “Things weren’t going well,” he said. Some of the projects underway now had been floundering for 20 years and had become “impossible.”

“But when citizens really, really want something, then public officials will do their best to get it done,” Gray said. “We needed to put our nose to the grindstone and materialize on the vision of these projects.”

The people in Lexington don’t necessarily have more common sense than we do. There wasn’t a magic bullet. They have just developed what Mayor Gray called the right “attitude.” An attitude developed over years of honest disagreement and push and pull, followed by compromise, consensus and resolute action.

We can do that, too. We can band together to find a solution to the federal building site Downtown. We can finish building the Horse Farm into a world-class passive park. Let’s start investing in our oldest neighborhoods. Let’s invest in our public schools.

Will we start labeling each other as “pro-interstate” or “anti-interstate” based on our views and philosophies about design? Will we get increasingly uncomfortable talking about the hard decisions? Or will we respect our differences and find compromise?

Let’s tackle the elephant in the room.

In late March, the executive committee that makes decisions about the I-49 Connector decided to scrap an idea to partially cap the interstate and instead focus on building an elevated interstate through town.

A couple of citizen groups working on the project expressed concern that the decision was premature. I have good friends — people who are leaders in this community, people who love Lafayette — with very different views.

Some think the idea of an elevated interstate through an urban area of town will replicate the mistakes of the past, when bulky, disruptive infrastructure projects tore through the fabric of mostly poor neighborhoods — the way the Evangeline Thruway did decades ago.

Others just as passionately believe that any investment is better than nothing, that the Thruway corridor can’t get worse, and that we know more now about how to build a more “context sensitive” interstate.

For the record, I believe that you cannot “build it right” without having a community-wide consensus on what “right” means. And we aren’t there yet.

I don’t know anyone involved who doesn’t hope for the best outcome, and who doesn’t want for this project to be a net positive for the community.

But we have to get better at arguing. Over the last months, the public discussion has been disappointing and frustrating. Some folks don’t feel like they are being listened to. Friends on opposite sides of the fence feel uncomfortable having the discussion together.

We can’t avoid the conversation any longer. In a month or two the design process will pick up again. Will there be a signature bridge? How will we clean up widespread contamination in the project’s right of way? Can we be imaginative enough to not just treat the remaining sections of the Thruway like a frontage road, but to transform them it into a safe, pedestrian-friendly street?

Those are all hard decisions. They involve competing interests. There are funding considerations. The only certain thing is that we will all not agree.

Will we start labeling each other as “pro-interstate” or “anti-interstate” based on our views and philosophies about design? Will we get increasingly uncomfortable talking about the hard decisions? Or will we respect our differences and find compromise?

Will we acknowledge our challenges and tackle them head on, or will we let those challenges overwhelm us into inaction?

Lafayette can be the next great American city — a city that other cities take canvass trips to — but only if we recognize that we can’t build consensus in a vacuum. It takes hard work. It takes honesty. And it takes a community-wide willingness to engage with people with whom we disagree and to compromise.

Kevin Blanchard served as Lafayette’s public works director.

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