“Serving as home to an SEC university is the first thing that comes to mind,” Page said. “Both communities have a focus on higher education, and a strong commitment to entrepreneurship and innovation.”
Page and more than 90 business leaders, elected officials, and community members traveled to the Bluegrass state in June as part of the Chamber’s second annual benchmarking trip. In 2017, the Chamber took a group of more than 70 to Greenville, South Carolina.
“Benchmarking is a unique and valuable experience for attendees, because it gives you the opportunity to see first-hand the results of the decisions other communities have made,” Page said. “Not only does this process enable you to apply lessons they’ve learned to your own city, but it allows you to demonstrate the areas where you are on the right path, and why, and what makes your own community a great place to live.”
Page said Lexington was chosen because of its growing economy, public-private partnerships, and it’s focus on the cultural arts.
“One thing that was key in our selection was that Lexington is an SEC city accustomed to an enthusiastic fan base, and we were able to examine the University of Kentucky's relationship with the City of Lexington. We also wanted to take a look at how they develop and encourage an entrepreneurial, technology-based economy, which is a goal for West Alabama,” he said.
Tripp Powell, president of Kuykendall & Powell Oil Company, was impressed with Lexington’s economic development, and believes it could serve as a roadmap for future economic growth in West Alabama.
“I like what Lexington has done with job-based grants that encourage higher pay,” Powell said. “I also like what they have done with angel investing, and entrepreneurship cultivation.”
“One of the things that Tuscaloosa will have to embrace, going forward, is the trend towards knowledge-based industries, and transitioning towards technology-based investing and industry. The days of property tax abatements as a determining factor for location are coming to an end, because a multimillion dollar company, at least one that does it smartly, can exist in an extremely small footprint with a small, highly educated employee infrastructure,” he said.
To better understand how Lexington officials increased tourism and downtown development, the group heard from Bill Owen, president and CEO of the Lexington Center Corporation, which is a public-private partnership. The Lexington Center includes a convention center, shopping area, and Rupp Arena, which hosts, among other events, University of Kentucky basketball games.
Page said some of the ideas that were shared could be used here.
“We know we want to bring more conventions and conferences in to our area, and we have to make sure we get the formula exactly right,” Page said. “It’s not an overnight process. There will have to a thoughtful discussion about the area’s needs, with respect to convention versus exhibit space and capacity.”
Powell said he was most impressed by the boldness of the people of Lexington to see a brighter future for their city, and to work toward those goals.
“I think that the most important take away from the trip is that Lexington saw itself at a turning point in the 70’s, and the community was bold and decisive in where it saw its future,” Powell said.
“As they put it, they decided to evolve from a ‘college town to a university city,’ and researched similar sized cities with Universities to set benchmarks. What they found, as Tuscaloosa will find if it does the same study, is that all of the pieces they needed were in place, and what they actually needed was a unified approach to achieve the same goals,” he said.
Page agrees that a unified approach is what’s needed to move West Alabama forward.
“The one lesson I think all 92 of us learned? Work together. In every single instance of success we've seen, even people who weren't on board to begin with eventually climbed into the boat and started rowing in the same direction as everyone else. Without a consensus, positive change doesn't happen,” he said.
Page is pleased with the change in the mindset he has seen in the community just after the first two benchmarking trips. He believes city leaders from both Tuscaloosa and Northport are already putting ideas into place, and points to committees that have been formed to discuss everything from infrastructure to housing to public art as examples. He said the first pieces of public art are being installed in the coming weeks and months.
Next year, the Chamber’s benchmarking trip will be to Chattanooga. According to Page, leaders plan to take a close look at how the city developed their riverfront in hopes of bringing some of those ideas back to Tuscaloosa.
“We know next year’s trip will be even bigger, and I encourage anyone who is interested in positively impacting the future of our community to join us,” Page said.