LEXINGTON, KY – Last week, an energized crowd nearly 600 infiltrated various locales across the Bluegrass region – primarily the Lexington Center, but also Triangle and Cheapside Parks, the Toyota Plant in Georgetown, Keeneland, and a variety of Lexington bars and eateries. The assemblage had essentially one thing in common: an affection for their cities, and a desire to see those cities reach unrealized potentials.
Approximately half of the crowd in town for the 3rd national Creative Cities Summit was from Lexington. The rest had traveled from as far away as Singapore.
Many of the discussions during the three-day event focused on topics that Lexington and many similar cities have struggled with – from attracting and retaining talent and accepting diversity, to sustainability, transportation and design.
But the conference also showcased Lexington’s finest assets before some of the nation’s most visionary leaders in city innovation.
Jim Butler, manager of creative development for the city of Austin and a panelist in the summit’s breakout session “Growing an Entrepreneurial Culture,” said that the event introduced him to a creative, intelligent side of Lexington that he had never known before.
“My impression of Lexington was greatly enhanced by the event,” Butler said. “I’m very hopeful that I will continue to work with several people from Lexington.”
Lexingtonian Phil Holoubeck, co-producer the event, confirms that was one of his goals.
“I wanted people from outside the area, attendees and speakers both, to travel around the country talking about how great Lexington is,” Holubeck said. “That is going to happen. And it’s going to happen not just because the conference was a success, but because of everything else that was going on in this town while the people were here.”
From the Downtown Lexington Corporation’s annual Bed Races and the off-center Here Come the Mummies show at Buster’s on Thursday, to a beautiful day at Keeneland on Friday, there was no shortage of local color. But the event also provided an opportunity to spotlight Lexington’s creativity and technological expertise. Many of the host city’s assets spoke for themselves, though Holoubeck admits that he and the event’s other organizers found themselves in a delicate situation when deciding how to incorporate local initiatives in the event’s programming.
“You can’t make it too much about Lexington, because people are paying a lot of money to travel from other areas,” he said. “With that said, we did want to showcase Lexington in the best light possible.”
One way that was accomplished was by interspersing art and performance by a wide variety of Lexington artists throughout the three-day conference, including sculptor Rod Lindauer, hip hop artist Devine Carama, fire spinners Amalgamation Fire Nation, and poet Bianca Spriggs, whose powerful reading of an original poem preceded Governor Beshear’s opening remarks, and was accompanied by an interpretive dance from Stephanie Pevec. Lexington’s biggest and zaniest music collective, March Madness Marching Band, kicked off the conference on Wednesday (much to the surprise of many of the attendees), and musicians Tee Dee Young, Farhad Rezaei and the Ford Theatre Reunion also performed at the summit.
Lexington was also represented by local presenters, moderators and panelists during the conference, including LFUCG director of economic development Anthony Wright, Business Lexington editor-in-chief Tom Martin, the Legacy Center’s Steve Austin, Herald-Leader columnist Tom Eblen, and Nathan Cryder of ProgressLexington. Lexington’s Ben Self, who served as Barack Obama’s Digital Strategist during the 2010 presidential election campaign, gave a keynote lecture on Wednesday – his first address to his hometown since he left Blue State Digital, the successful Internet publishing firm he co-founded, to work more closely with local projects and initiatives.
Though Holoubeck says these were attempts to subtly incorporate Lexington’s merits into the event, it was difficult to ignore the local energy that was present, which was described by attendees as inspiring and enthralling.
“I try to keep abreast of all that is cool and controversial in Lexington, but after attending Creative Cities Summit, I am truly in awe of all the amazing things that are happening,” said Lexington’s Donna Ison, who performed her poem ‘Mountain Gypsy’ during a multi-media Pecha Kucha session on Thursday, alongside eight other local presenters. “I am so proud to be right here, right now.”
Among the many featured speakers was Charles Landry, author of The Art of City Making. Landry, a Briton, had spent several days in Lexington prior to appearing before the final session of the Summit, moving about and making observations. Noting that while many of Lexington’s downtown buildings are studies in beige and gray and could use more color, he observed that the strength of Lexington’s high quality of life can also serve as its weakness – encouraging complacency. And then, with one brief sentence, he struck home: “People say about Lexington that they talk a lot and don’t do a lot.”
Now What, Lexington?
Despite the summit’s initial success, Holoubeck admits that the million dollar question has not yet been answered: what happens next?
“What happens up here is less important than what happens down there,” Creative Cities Summit co-founder and producer Peter Kageyama told the audience in his welcoming statement, and Holoubeck agrees: “The most important measure of the event’s success is what do we get done as a result,” he said.
As Creative Cities Summit founder Peter Kageyama wrote in an OpEd published by the Detroit Free Press following the Lexington event, “What moves these community makers? Not necessarily the traditional motivations such as money or influence. The next generation is intrinsically motivated to solve problems to make their communities better, to take on big challenges and to stretch their own capabilities. They want to see action, ideally action they helped to create. And thanks to the Internet and social media, these makers can have unprecedented impacts on their communities.”
To that end, the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning and new local non-profit Progress Lexington will co-host an event this Saturday that is specifically geared toward action on a local level. The event, which was created as a response to the summit and is aptly called an “unconference,” targets both those who were inspired by the summit and are ready for the next step, as well as those who did not attend.
“Whether you were able to attend the Creative Cities Summit and came off inspired about specific things, or whether you’re an organization that needs more help or just a person who’s passionate about making Lexington better – the point of Now What, Lexington? is to bring all of those and many other people together to figure out some concrete things we can actually do,” said Ben Self, one of the Creative Cities Summit’s keynote speakers and an organizer of Saturday’s event. The event will provide an opportunity for individuals and groups to share whatever local initiative they are passionate about, but the intention is not to get on a soapbox.
“The only limitation is that we do less talk and more action,” Self said.
The event’s Web site (which is a wiki, meaning anyone can update or amend it) features a list of sessions people would like to lead, from The Role of New Media in Lexington’s Transformation to a critique of the Creative Cities model offered by Creative Cities Summit keynote speaker Richard Florida. Because it is an un-conference, no agenda will be set until the morning of the event. At that time, a grid will be provided for people to pencil in sessions they want to lead, with six different time slots for 45-minutes sessions. The sessions can be about an idea you want to develop, a project you have already initiated, or any other idea geared toward getting people to walk the walk.