Last week Kent State hosted the Annual Fall Bowman Breakfast, bringing together the town and gown for good food, conversation and hopefully an insightful presentation from the featured speaker. This year, I was invited to join Kent State University President, Dr. Lester Lefton, at the podium to discuss the early results of all our collaborations and share some thoughts on what’s next.
I always write speeches before I give them, but anyone that’s seen me speak knows that I rarely follow them. I enjoy taking myself and the audience on a bit of an impromptu ride with my speeches — I personally think it’s more interesting to turn a speech into a conversation rather than a lecture from a script.
That works just fine when I’m the only speaker. The challenge at the Bowman Breakfast was tag-teaming with Dr. Lefton and not wandering so far afield that I’d lose him or likewise he’d ditch me. In hindsight, I hope my meanderings brought out the best in both of us as Dr. Lefton is a great impromptu speaker.
I thought I’d share what I had written in prepation for the presentation — keep in mind the caveat that once again I didn’t follow my script very well and the actual speech was a bit different. Plus, what you’ll read below doesn’t reflect Dr. Lefton’s remarks that were interspersed with mine as we took turns speaking. Still, I thought the sentiment was worth sharing.
Better Kent, Better Kent State, Better Community
Delighted to be here this morning.
I’ve sat out there with you for the last 6 years mingling, chatting and watching Dan Smith stuff his pockets with extra danishes while insightful speakers graced this stage and offered commentary on interesting Kent topics.
I’m not really sure how I ended up on this side of the podium, but I’m happy to be a distraction for Dan, and share the observations of a City Manager on my favorite topic, the future of Kent.
It’s not typical to have two speakers for the Bowman Breakfast – and that’s not a coincidence this morning, that’s the point.
We’ve learned a lot in the last 5 years – but the most important lesson of all may have been that we do our best work when we work together.
This morning we’re going to celebrate the re-awakening of the Kent spirit and the outrageous level of collaboration it has produced between us and our many community partners – the impacts of which are evident today and we hope for generations to come.
The great news is that we stand here today while bull-dozers and backhoes are digging the foundations of our Never Gonna Happen, Impossible, Not For Sale At Any Price downtown project.
But the best news of all is that we discovered that the more we do together, the better we get at it, so the more we do, and the better we get… Each step along the way we serve this community better and fulfill the promise of being that vibrant University City that we’ve all dreamed about.
Dr. Lefton and I are lucky enough to be able to stand up here and represent our institutions and all the people that make those organizations great. Our Boards, Council’s, staff, and supporters that are Kent.
We share a deep pride in our organizations, and a deep humility for the level of support we receive from the people that call Kent home – which is to say that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people that deserve our gratitude and thanks for everything they’ve done to get Kent to the point where our success is a topic worthy of the tradition of the Bowman Breakfast.
What we’re celebrating here this morning is leadership, but it’s not the solitary genius CEO; it’s the everyone in our organizations and our community acts like the CEO and does everything in their power to do their part to lead.
In a community of our size, everyone counts, no contribution is too small. And it all adds up into this crazy mix of synergy that makes it possible for one person to make a difference and 28,000 of our closest friends to transform a community.
Dr. Lefton is at the top of my thank-you list.
Not because he made downtown Kent revitalization a top priority,
Not because he delivered a new hotel & conference center,
and not because of his record setting re-investment in the campus.
He’s at the top of my list because he’s the guy that said Yes We Can — every time someone tried to tell us — No We Can’t.
Three small words – Yes We Can – with enormous consequences.
Just look at the numbers. The University measures have been off the charts as Dr. Lefton has re-written the book on how to achieve audacious ambitions for Kent State.
At the same time we’ve had our own record setting going on with record levels of private investment in the City at a time when the economy is dismal.
Kent State success…Community success…coincidence? I think not.
Given his track record, its clear that he’s pretty darn good as Dr. Lefton, but I want you to know that he’s even better as Lester.
Lester is contagious. He’s taught us that it’s not enough to have great ideas, you’ve got to have the kind energy and vision that can get people up out of their seats and rolling up their sleeves to help turn ideas into actions. That’s leadership. That’s what Lester has done for Kent in his first 5 years with us.
People like Lester are Kent’s secret ingredient. People with a sense of purpose, a passion, a vision and the hootspah to defy convention to do the unprecedented.
Today Lester and I get to be Lewis and Clarke, your community scouts, who’ve journeyed a bit further down the road less traveled and come back bearing maps and pictures of Kent’s future.
Given the prominence that the Excellence brand has taken on campus, it seems fitting to call this Lester and Dave’s Excellent Adventure.
Here’s what I know: the future is not what it used to be.
But if the center holds, it has a chance to be better than we imagined.
Maybe it’s an over-statement, but I think we’re in the midst of one of those defining moments in Kent’s history that will be a chapter in Roger Di Paolo’s sequel to Rooted in Kent.
These are the days to remember. We’re straddling a community event horizon – behind us lies a rich and storied legacy while in front of us is a promising and exciting future.
It seems like just yesterday that Lester and I had lunch at the Franklin Square Deli and we shared a bunch of Why Not Kent moments – why can’t we have a hotel downtown, why can’t there be more restaurants, why can’t we be a destination for people that share our love for vibrant university cities.
Call us the naive new guys in town who didn’t know any better but we thought we could do these things – and more importantly that we had to. This was our moon flight – failure was not an option.
So, over a Turkey sandwich began a new era in the City University relations where the partnership was to take precedence over the partners.
With a newfound confidence in collaboration we started some Strategic Doing. The community liaison, joint facility studies, esplanade extension, Summit Street improvements, community bulletin board and our little downtown project.
Flash Forward to September 2011 and the community horizon has changed. Everywhere you look construction dirt is flying. Kent, on and off campus, looks better than it has for years and we’re just getting started.
Take a stroll with me and see for yourself.
Exit the Student Center – Rissman Plaza redo phase I. landscape, pedestrian orientation, people scaled, sense of place, themes you’ll see repeated in everything we do
Look to your left you’ll notice the library renovations, inside and out, including the oversize mural featuring the friendly faces of Kent students – who do indeed, belong here.
Admire all the new amenities on the plaza you’ll make your way to the Esplanade connection which will be your trusted companion throughout campus and soon off campus as well.
The esplanade will wind you through campus ending among the public artwork between the renovated Franklin Hall building and Fashion Museum on Lincoln Street.
And that’s where things are about to get interesting. Plans are done, land has been swapped, and money is secured to build the new Esplanade Extension which will carry the student body into the heart of the central business district.
Think of the Esplanade extension as a Kent version of old Route 66 and the Appalachian Trail — opening up a whole new town gown frontier by physically reconnecting Kent’s commercial district with Kent’s largest group of customers in a park-like setting that is full of its own surprises and amenities.
The Esplanade is meant to appeal to the age old need to stroll, absorb and contemplate. The Esplanade will get you where you want to go it will also show how the journey can be the best part of the trip.
This new pedestrian boulevard is designed to give the Esplanade its own sense of place. There’s been deep discussions of walkway width, color of pavers, landscaping elements, art opportunities, arches, pocket-parks, wi fi, and just about anything else that will make this a signature facility in Kent.
The Esplanade extension will pick up at the edge of campus on Lincoln Street and head west down what today is the Erie Street corridor. The street will be vacated and converted into a linear park like setting, ending at a new signature KSU gateway and great lawn area adjacent to SR 59.
After soaking in the collegiate sites and sounds of the great lawn area, our walkers will then cross-over SR 59 (at the shiny new intersection) where upon those walkers will then find themselves in the middle of a new hotel & conference center to their left and the new PARTA multi-modal building on their right that will also happen to include a great row of retail stores to tempt their credit cards.
If our walker doesn’t like those options, they can head west for one block and find themselves standing betweeen two great new dining options: a new Brico’s restaurant to their left and the new Liziza restaurant and Oak Room on their right. Another 50 feet or so west will put them at the cross-road where Acron Alley has a dramatic entrance on their right (with access to even more shops and an open plaza) or they can enjoy Aladdin’s restaurant and an outdoor plaza to their left as the alley concept jumps across the street and opens into a welcoming outdoor seating area that will include programmed events.
With a bit more westernly walking our walkers will see Ametek employees waving from the second story of the buildings to their left while they look through the storefront windows of even more dining and retail options on the ground floor. Similarly, the right side of the street will bring an enjoyable mix of more mom and pop stores, including a new coffee house that when walking isn’t an option includes drive thru service.
Arriving at Water Street, our walkers will be lured south by the signature new Davey Tree building at the corner of SR 43 and SR 59, or they can head north into the heart of downtown Kent’s shopping district, or even further west into Kent’s entertainment district.
Roughly 1/2 of a mile from the edge of campus, our walkers will be drawn in by the sites and sounds of the historic train station that has become the local favorite, Pufferbelly restaurant. If all goes as hoped, public art around the renovated train station will punctuate the end of our official Esplanade walk but well fed walkers need not stop there.
A short stroll over the historic Main Street bridge will take our walkers to the Kent Dam and with direct access to the Cuyahoga river trail network. With miles of trail connections heading east or west from the downtown trail hub, our walkers will not be disappointed as they are joined by fisherman, artists, visitors and kayakers that consider Kent’s stretch of river one of the best kept secrets in town — and with canoe and kayak rentals available a couple of hundred yards downstream at Tannery Park our walkers can give their feet a rest and enjoy the river up close and personal.
Our if our walkers are an ambitious lot, they can grab their bikes and ride the Kent hike and bike trail all the way to downtown Akron or even Cleveland if they were so inspired.
But never being one to settle, Lester reminded me that the real excitement isn’t what we’ve accomplished, it’s in discovering what we’re capable of accomplishing.
It’s a bit like having commencement day every day — the promise of tomorrow, the audacity to do the unprecedented.
This is our flip the tassel day that is already setting off a chain reaction of good things in Kent. Earlier this year we threw our hat in the ring to try to land a major manufacturer from the left coast and out of 150 cities nationwide we made the top 5. Sadly, we lost that one but 4 months later we landed another one that will turn out to be the largest manufacturer we’ve had come to Kent in the last 40 years.
We’re going head to head for new tech companies with places like Akron and Cleveland.
We’ll win some, we’ll lose some, but for the first time in decades, we’re in the conversation. Co-incidence? I think not.
Progress isn’t just about jobs and the dollars they bring but those dollars make it possible to do all the other things that we think make Kent special. We’re focused on co-creating a sustainable economic recovery right now so that we can broaden our collaborative horizon to make a difference in other areas of community priorities for decades to come.
Opportunities exist for Public Health, Clinics, Care of elderly, low income, special needs, cultural collaborations, international engagement, etc.
The value of these quality of life elements are priceless, and if we continue to get this collaboration thing right, those opportunities should be endless.
For me, this partnership has re-affirmed the notion that there’s strength in numbers — whether it’s tapping into the group’s cumulative brain-power to find work-around solutions for a seemingly insurmountable problem or sharing a mini-celebration moment when another milestone is passed on the journey.
Progress seems more likely to follow whenever we plan, think, talk, argue and cheer together.
We’re all familiar with tactical partnerships – I need something from you, you need something from me, we come together, do our thing, and walk away satisfied.
But I think we’re on to something bigger here. This is more. This is authentic. Like a good friend that has your back not just some time but all of the time.
It’s the people like Lester that made this happen, but it is our community that will come out the winner.