In December, I was honored when Lexington Mayor-elect Jim Gray asked me to join one of his economic development transition teams. In preparation for our first meeting, we were given a packet which described the state of economic development in Lexington.
As I reviewed those materials, I noticed several references to “the” strategic plan for Lexington’s economic development; Yet that strategic plan wasn’t part of our materials. I scanned the city government website for the strategic plan, and came up empty.
At our first meeting, I mentioned that we needed to get our hands on that strategic plan.
But Lexington didn’t actually have a strategic plan for economic development. Despite having a Mayor’s Office of Economic Development and a staff of economic development folks at Commerce Lexington, we hadn’t developed a comprehensive approach to Lexington’s development.
Instead, the city and Commerce Lexington co-sponsored a $150,000 engagement with Angelou Economics, an Austin-based economic development consultancy. The final Angelou deliverable would include an economic development strategy for Lexington.
I was stunned. Not only did we not have a coherent economic development strategy, but we had seemingly outsourced the formulation of that strategy to an out-of-town consultant!
Angelou released a draft of Lexington’s economic development strategy last week. In the process, they unleashed a torrent of criticism after Ben Self showed that Angelou essentially recycled reports they had provided to other cities, often copying entire paragraphs and even pages.
The recommendations that Angelou makes aren’t bad. They recommend creating a better support network for entrepreneurs. They recommend setting up a minority business accelerator. They recommend setting up a comprehensive marketing plan for Lexington to help recruit new businesses.
The trouble with Angelou’s report (as might be expected after Ben’s analysis) is that “Lexington” is missing. Much of what makes Lexington special and unique – our history, our geography, and our culture – is largely absent from the Angelou strategy.
There’s no significant mention of downtown. Of the Distillery District. Of our neighborhoods. Of our unique individuals and personalities. Of our history. There’s only a passing mention of our horse farms and our rural landscape. There’s no mention of the World Equestrian Games.
As a result, Angelou fails to identify what gives Lexington a competitive advantage in the global competition for businesses, jobs, and talent. So while the recommendations aren’t bad, they just ring hollow. They are bland and generic. They don’t feel special to Lexington.
When Angelou recommends focusing on “Clean Technology”, for instance, that sounds like a good idea. But what gives Lexington any special advantage over any other city in pursuing clean tech (Especially when every other city is pursing such a “hot” industry)?
These kinds of questions arise with most of the Angelou recommendations. What would a marketing plan for Lexington look like? What would it build upon? What – specifically – would give Lexington the ability to create a best-in-class workforce?
We have the beginnings of a very solid economic development plan. It just didn’t come from Angelou. It came out of the two economic development transition teams that Mayor Gray appointed. (You can download PDFs of the two “Economic Opportunity” reports from the mayor’s transition website.)
The two teams – made up of leaders from across the city – developed recommendations for how the mayor should approach economic development in Lexington.
And the transition teams recommended many of the same actions that Angelou did. The difference? The ideas contained in these reports are far more actionable than the ones we received from Angelou. They are far more interesting. They are far more relevant. They are far more tailored to Lexington’s specific challenges and opportunities.
Like Angelou, the transition teams recommended enhancing support for entrepreneurs. But the transition teams went further, and offered much more specific examples. These included: Having the mayor visit 5 entrepreneurial events each year (along with a list of suggested events); Having the mayor organize an annual innovation conference, along with specific suggestions on structure and format; and, having the mayor’s office produce “The Lexington Entrepreneur’s Guide” online and in print.
The transition teams’ suggestions for a marketing plan for Lexington included specific, actionable ideas on who to include and how to approach marketing our city. We could get testimonials from Jess Jackson (of Kendall Jackson Wineries) or Elizabeth Arden (Note the Streetsweeper’s comment below), who happen to own horse farms here. The transition reports recommended building databases of local resources which could be called upon when recruiting new businesses to Lexington.
The transition teams also offered suggestions on how to better utilize downtown, our horse farms, and the Distillery District. They offered specific ideas on building upon our health and educational systems.
And unlike Angelou, the recommendations contained in the transition team reports are much more tailored to Lexington, and – as a result – the recommendations are much more actionable. They form the foundations of a real economic development plan for our city.
Somehow, about 25 volunteers – in the span of a few meetings across a few weeks – leveraged their knowledge and experience to produce some innovative ways for Lexington to pursue economic development. And the final product is more valuable than the report the consultant provided. And it didn’t cost $150,000.
There are a lot of great ideas in these transition team reports. That said, those ideas don’t yet form a cohesive economic development plan. That work remains to be done.
Given how productive the transition teams were in such a short time, why not let leaders from throughout the community develop the strategy for Lexington’s economic development? Why not let them recommend the structure, the direction, and the financing of Lexington’s economic development efforts?
All it took to create these transition reports was leadership from our mayor. Likewise, our mayor should initiate the process of building an economic development strategy for Lexington, created by us.
We should use the Angelou fiasco not only to penalize Angelou for doing poor consulting work, but also to learn how to do our own economic development better.