Who's Who: Mayor Jim Gray
“I’ve always believed that if people wake up in the morning feeling better about their city, then they’ll feel better about themselves, and if that’s the case then we will have done our jobs as public servants. I feel good about that,” Gray said.
His first day in office he faced financial hardships. The city 9-million dollars in the red with a 27-million-dollar projected shortfall
for the coming year. Not only was he able to turn that around, under Gray’s leadership the city saved money. The Rainy-Day fund has more than 31-million in it, nearly double what it was when Gray took office.
“We controlled spending and created surpluses in each of the last seven years. That’s a big deal and I’m proud of it. You’ve got to have
your financial house in order to get big things done. I learned that in business. It’s true in government too,” Gray said.
The success did not come without challenges. Lexington manages the only independent pension system in the state, one for police and one for firefighters. It was critically underfunded. It took teamwork to save the pensions.
“Working together, we found a compromise that secured their pensions and saved millions for our city. It has been described as the most effective pension reform in the country,” Gray said.
With the city’s financial house in order, the mayor has been able to turn his attention to many quality of life investments. Among them, Town Branch Commons which is a winding park and trail system that follows the path of the city’s first water system. The project is still in the construction phase, but when it is finished it will include scenic bike and walking paths through downtown. Town Branch Commons will link the heart of the city to the picture perfect rural landscape of the bluegrass with 22 miles of uninterrupted trails.
The restoration of the Historic Courthouse was completed just last month. Built in 1899, it has been architectural and cultural landmark in the heart of the city. The 32-million dollar project was made possible through public and private sector partnerships and tax credits. It stands as a testament to what adaptive reuse can look like. The mixed-use office and event space is also home to a highly interactive visitor’s center.
An expanded convention center and reinvented Rupp Arena also top the list of Gray’s greatest successes.
“These projects will create jobs, animate our downtown, and add to the Renaissance spirit of our city,” Gray said.
It’s that spirit that Gray believes allows the people who live here to feel good about their Kentucky home and themselves.
“Our city employees work hard providing the services citizens need. We’re on sound financial footing. Our economy has grown. More people are working than at any time in history. We are a diverse, welcoming community,” he said.
Under Gray’s leadership, Lexington has been recognized as the 4th best run city in America. Affordable housing has increased. $12.2 million dollars has been invested to leverage $112 million worth of private development funds. More than 1,400 affordable housing units have been created or preserved. It’s a foundation Gray would like to see built upon as the city moves forward.
“Growth is good for our city, but as we grow, we should make smart decisions and continue to protect the working farms and countryside that surround our city. That’s our signature brand,” Gray said.
Safety is also signature of the city. Lexington is known as a safe place to live and raise a family. As the nation faces challenging times, Gray believes the people who live and work here have set an example.
There have been increased investments in public safety with attention on prevention. Neighborhoods, churches, the city and citizens are working together through One Lexington. Created in the summer of 2017, the group has mobilized to address neighborhoods where violent crime is more prevalent. Part of the outreach targets children. The Youth Engagement Summit pairs the city’s youngest residents with mentors to keep them inspired and engaged. The networking of One Lexington is helping to ensure the city remains ranked as one of the safest cities in the country.
Fairness and inclusion have also been hallmarks of Gray’s time in office. Rainbow crosswalks were painted at Short and N. Limestone.
“This may seem just symbolic to some, but symbolic acts are far more important than we sometimes think,” he said.
In October of 2017 the two confederate statues that have been in front of the old courthouse for more than 130 years were removed and relocated. Lexington made national headlines along with other cities faced with a public outcry over public memorials to confederate soldiers in the wake of the deadly conflict in Charlottesville. VA two months earlier between white nationalists and counter-protesters.
“We’ve made some tough decisions, but we’ve done them Lexington style with civility and respect for all viewpoints. By relocating Confederate statues for example, Lexington showed the nation how to move from a controversy to a solution,” he said. “I say proudly that these symbolic acts were all about creating a city where everyone feels welcomed and encouraged.”
As Gray prepares to leave office he has one piece of advice to the incoming mayor and newly elected council members.
“Think big. Start small. Move swiftly,” he said.
Gray is returning to his business background armed with a new perspective.
“Just like public service, business has always fascinated me. Service and problem solving fascinate me. I took lessons from business into government and I’ll be taking lessons from government back into business,” he said.
It’s a future that he will continue to focus on what matters: people.
“Our ability to learn and solve problems, to adjust and adapt is part of what makes life rewarding, always remembering that the more we give the more we get,” he said. •