To-Do List for Lexington: 1. Get Real

(Part of the To-Do List for Lexington series.  Click here for an overview and links to the rest of the series.)

Lexington suffers from a booster mentality.  That mentality dictates that we must constantly paint our city in the most favorable light.  And, often, the booster mentality buys into its own hype: “Everything is great; Everything is wonderful; No problems here!”  Boosters often champion ego-enhancing feel-good projects with questionable economic value.

The trouble with such unrelenting optimism is that it frequently crosses into rampant self-deception.  When things are going badly, the booster cannot admit it; Doing so would destroy their carefully-constructed mental image of the perfect city.

The booster mentality partly stems from wanting to look good for others, for outsiders.  And, from an economic development standpoint, boosters look to attract commerce (businesses) from outside the city.

The trouble with such primping and preening is that an obsessive amount of effort is spent on cosmetic rather than substantive improvement.  By spending so much time trying to look good for the outside world, boosters often neglect very real problems at home.  And their self-deception means they have trouble even acknowledging the existence of such problems.

Boosterism takes a number of  forms, but follows a pretty standard recipe:

  1. Hold out the promise of a vague future reward
  2. Leverage that promise to justify current sacrifices
  3. Question the patriotism, loyalty, intellectual ability, credibility, and / or intentions of all who question either the extent of the reward or the merit of the sacrifice
  4. Never, ever admit that maybe the reward wasn’t worth the sacrifice

We see this all over town.

With CentrePointe, there was the promise of the state’s tallest building, containing a J.W. Marriott and a fictionalized Hard Rock Café.  Lexington would have status.  If it meant destroying some historic buildings and taking some gigantic leaps of faith, so be it.  And, if folks make too much of a fuss over the historic buildings, marginalize them and the block the buildings stood on.  And never, ever admit that the whole speculative venture was a mistake.

With streetscape projects, there was the promise that we’d look good for our out-of-town visitors while the world’s eyes were upon us during the 2010 World Equestrian Games (WEG 2010).  By looking good to the world, Lexington might be able to attract more tourists. Or maybe businesses.  Or something.  If it means severing the most significant southside artery (South Limestone) for over a year and losing some downtown businesses along the way, so be it.  And, if folks make too much of a fuss over the cost ($88 million), dismiss their calculations without offering any of your own.  Or use silly diversionary tactics like forcing them to remove their logos from key presentations.  And never, ever admit that the project’s execution and timing were poor.

Sport is a common justification for such development projects.  For the promise of “major league status”, cities have destroyed historic neighborhoods or paid huge ransoms to attract (or keep) a major sports team or event (such as the Olympic Games).  Boosters cite the added visibility and prestige that comes with such status as justification enough.  But most such “investments” rarely pay off.

With WEG 2010, we have such an example of sports-led economic development right here at home.  And the promise of the world’s attention and the event’s prestige have become their own rationale for action – without regard for whether such action is truly justified by a real-world reward.

Boosters assert that today’s torn-up streets, empty blocks, disrupted commerce, and vast new facilities – often paid for with tens of millions of public dollars – will all be worth it…


They hold out the vague and unmeasured promise of future visibility, prestige, tourists, businesses, investments, and commerce.  In the meantime, they drain significant economic vitality from the city while pursuing future attention and dollars.  But the boosters of CentrePointe, streetscapes, and WEG rarely do a realistic accounting of the true value (or value destruction) of their ventures.

In essence, boosterism is an incredibly expensive and inefficient form of untargeted advertising: Hundreds of millions of dollars thrown at the rest of the world in the faint hope that someone – anyone – will throw some of it back into our economy.  And, as we’ve written before, Lexington needs to focus less on advertising and promoting how great it is and focus more on actually being great.

Lexington needs to get real.

We need to get real about which community investments will actually pay dividends.

We need to get real about what is wrong (and what is right) with our community and about what it will take to craft a better Lexington.

We need to get real about the destruction wrought by unbridled boosterism.

Getting real isn’t about ceasing to support our fine city.  It isn’t about becoming negative – ‘nay-saying’ every project or bad-mouthing Lexington.

It does mean that we start openly discussing and debating the merits and shortfalls of the investments our community makes.

Only by acknowledging that we have significant problems can we begin to wrestle with them.  I’ve written before that Lexington is too polite.  In conversation, we are so indirect that we avoid confronting our difficult issues.

But we must.  We must begin to engage and debate our city’s future.  We must get a full accounting for the folly, waste, and fraud which accompanies such unbridled boosterism.  We must redirect effort and attention from this
glamorous-but-questionable boosterism to projects and investments
which, while far less ego-boosting, will yield tangible economic
benefits for our city.  And we must get real about the present state and future possibility of our city.

And getting real is what the rest of this series is about.

Next: 2. Stop seeking saviors. Start making them.


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