Marching band about more than winning contests

October 31, 2008

I’m attending the state high school marching band championships Saturday in Louisville, so I thought I would get ready by stopping by a Lafayette Band rehearsal earlier this week.

It didn’t take long to feel as if I were in a time warp. It was a cold, crisp afternoon, and the setting sun cast long shadows across the school’s blacktop practice field where I had spent countless hours as a teenager.

The equipment, drill and music were more sophisticated than I remembered. The show featured themes from Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen and Maurice Ravel’s Boléro. What looked familiar was the sight of 200 teenagers intensely focused on achieving perfection.

Like a handful of other states — Texas, Indiana and Georgia, among them — Kentucky has long had some of the nation’s best high school marching bands. Lafayette has been a dominant player for decades, and it gave birth to its strongest rival, Paul Laurence Dunbar.

When Dunbar opened in 1990, its district was carved from Lafayette territory. Many Dunbar band parents are Lafayette alumni, and the band’s first director was my Lafayette classmate Craig Cornish. (He is now the director at Middle Tennessee State University, whose 300-member band rocked Commonwealth Stadium during the Sept. 13 halftime show.) For the past dozen years, Dunbar’s program has thrived under director Jeff Hood.

Since 1990, the state championship trophy for the largest high schools has gone either to Lafayette (13 times) or Dunbar (five times). Among their competitors Saturday at Papa John’s Stadium will be Lexington’s Tates Creek and Bryan Station. Lexington Christian Academy is competing in the smallest-school category.

Kentucky schools of all sizes have had a tradition of excellent marching bands — Adair, Clark, Harrison and Bourbon counties among them. Why is that? “There was a perfect storm of some really great teachers who set high standards and expectations,” said Charles M. Smith, Lafayette’s director for the past 13 years.

Lafayette’s dynasty began in the 1960s with Walter Hall and then Leslie Anderson, who went on to build Tates Creek’s band. J. Larry Moore laid the foundation of success in modern drum and bugle corps-style shows that was built upon by his son, Steve Moore (now director at Colorado State University), Pat Dunnigan (now director at Florida State University), Smith and his longtime assistant, Terry Magee.

“And, of course, the parents are the ones who really make the program go,” Smith said. “They raise the money and provide so much support. We couldn’t do it without them.”

To understand the significance of marching band competitions, you must understand this: While it’s about music, and it’s about winning, it’s not really about either.

“Band, more than anything, teaches you to be a self-starter,” said Larry Moore, the former Lafayette director who remains one of the most inspirational people in my life.

“It teaches teamwork, sacrifice, the discipline of cooperation and responsibility,” he said. “I used to say that, if you missed English class, you hurt yourself; if you missed band, you hurt everybody.”

Moore’s former students are now his doctor, dentist and accountant. “All you have to do is look around our community and see how many people have prospered because of the self-discipline they learned in band,” he said.

While every band wants to win first prize, Smith points out that contest judging is inherently subjective.

On the tall, metal tower beside Lafayette’s practice field that gives Smith a judge’s-eye view of rehearsals, there’s a big sign: “It’s easier to be better than somebody else than to be the best we can be.”

Students memorize music and complex drills and hone them to perfection over months of daily practice. That teamwork forms bonds that often last a lifetime. Success provides a shared sense of accomplishment that’s hard for outsiders to fully appreciate.

As I was shooting pictures during Lafayette’s rehearsal, I heard someone call my name. I turned around, and before I could make out the backlit figure walking toward me, I knew it was David Cole. I’ve seen him maybe three or four times since we graduated from Lafayette 32 years ago.

“You only recognized my voice because we’re here,” he laughed. “Anywhere else ….”

David said he had done volunteer audio-visual work for the band for years, and that both of his daughters had been band members. The younger one graduated last June. “I can’t stop coming back,” he said.

We talked for a few minutes about how marching band had influenced our lives, and the lives of his daughters. We searched for words to adequately explain it.

“Just say this,” he said as we parted. “It’s a way of life.”

Voters should listen to facts, not fears and smears.

October 29, 2008

Some Kentuckians will believe anything, unless they hear it from a person well educated on the subject.

Historians have long noted Kentucky’s anti-intellectual streak, which has helped keep the state near the bottom of national rankings in education, income and other measures of progress.

Some Kentuckians fear change and scorn “elites,” who are generally defined as anyone better-educated or more broad-minded than they are.

I happened upon an interesting example last week while driving back from an interview in London. I was flipping through the radio channels and heard WVLK talk-show host Sue Wylie introducing Charles Haywood as her guest that hour.

Haywood is a Ph.D. economist and retired dean of the University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business and Economics. He was Kentucky’s first economic development secretary and is a former research director for Bank of America. He has appeared on Wylie’s show several times recently to discuss the economic crisis.

Wylie framed that morning’s show around this question: Are Barack Obama’s tax proposals socialism?

Haywood politely explained that returning tax rates for people earning more than $250,000 a year to pre-Bush administration levels was hardly socialism. Using that measure, he joked, you would have to call the tax policies that prevailed during Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration in the 1950s communism.

But Wylie and her audience were having none of it. She justified the assertion by repeatedly saying “a lot of people are talking about this.” Of course, she didn’t explain that those people are McCain and his surrogates.

Many people who called in to the show argued with Haywood and dismissed his expertise. At least one called him a liberal — talk radio’s favorite insult.

“I was surprised that so many people just didn’t really understand what’s going on, and certainly are misinformed about some things,” Haywood said when I called later to ask him about the show.

“I was trying to explain it to my wife, Judy, too,” Haywood said. “I said, well, there is just a lot of anti-intellectual sentiment out there. … It’s awfully hard to explain irrationality. It is a curious reaction from people who are obviously in a fairly low- to middle-income group and would benefit from a tax change.”

Haywood favors Obama’s economic proposals over McCain’s, although he didn’t say so on the air. He’s not alone.

An informal survey of academic economists by The Economist magazine found that “a majority — at times by overwhelming margins — believe Mr. Obama has the superior economic plan, a firmer grasp on economics and will appoint better economic advisers.”

Haywood went on: “The thing that’s so shocking to me is really the extent to which McCain has played fast and loose with the proposals of Obama.” Actually, it is in complete character with McCain’s increasingly shrill and desperate campaign.

For me, this election was an easy call. George W. Bush’s presidency has been a disaster. His tax breaks for the wealthy, giveaways to big business and aversion to government regulation have wrecked the economy and racked up a staggering public debt. The cake was iced with a huge bailout for the financial-services industry, which seems more interested in using public money to buy up weak rivals than in easing the credit crunch.

Rather than finish the job in Afghanistan, Bush led the nation into a senseless war in Iraq. Now we’re bogged down in both places, and Osama bin Laden still runs free. Bush has ignored the Constitution, embraced torture and government secrecy and seriously damaged America’s image among our allies. His administration has favored ideology over science, and it has consistently played to fear rather than reason.

The last thing America needs is another four years of the Republican policies that got us into this mess. And McCain’s decision to put Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin a 72-year-old heartbeat away from leadership of the free world says all I need to know about his judgment.

I find it interesting that people such as Warren Buffett, one of America’s most successful capitalists, and Gen. Colin Powell, Bush’s former secretary of state, have endorsed Obama’s ideas and leadership over McCain’s.

Many intelligent Kentuckians I know and like are supporting John McCain. Many are more comfortable with Republican ideology, or they prefer McCain’s résumé and leadership to Obama’s. I respect that.

What I can’t respect, though, is the gullibility and willful ignorance of Kentuckians who buy into and perpetuate right-wing fear-mongering.

How else to explain recent poll results that show 14 percent of Kentuckians — and 28 percent of Kentucky Republicans — think Obama is Muslim, even though it’s a well-publicized fact that he’s Christian. Like Obama’s race, it shouldn’t even matter. But we all know that it does to some people.

We must replace fear with hope, ideology with logic and ignorance with education. The stakes are simply too high.

Lifting Kentucky, one entrepreneur at a time

October 26, 2008

LONDON — Rex McDonald was born and raised in Corbin, went to Eastern Kentucky University and the University of Tennessee, worked for the U.S. State Department and lived for a time in the former Soviet Union.

But when it was time to settle down, McDonald wanted to come home. He started a company that provided a comfortable living for his family. But Bob Wilson, an entrepreneurship coach for Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., thought the company could be more than it was.

McDonald and his partner, Hank Gevedon, moved their operation into Kentucky Highlands’ business incubator, took business-development classes and got hands-on coaching from Wilson and others. Kentucky Highlands also provided equity and debt financing to the company, PD3 Inc., which helps inventors bring their products to market.

Rex McDonald of PD3 Inc. shows U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, this company's emergency underground mine rescue chamber last Thursday. Photo by Tom Eblen

Rex McDonald of PD3 Inc. shows U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, this company's emergency underground mine rescue chamber. At right is his entrepreneur coach, Bob Wilson. Photo by Tom Eblen

Now, 14 months later, PD3 has its own plant in nearby Rockcastle County. It has grown from six employees to 26. Thanks in part to a new product the company has designed and will soon manufacture — a portable emergency shelter for underground miners — McDonald expects to hire an additional 29 workers early next year.

PD3 is performing at a level McDonald never thought possible. It pays employees better-than-average wages and provides insurance benefits and a retirement plan. “We’ve built the foundation for a sustainable company that will survive beyond the founders,” he said.

PD3 is the latest success story to come out of Kentucky Highlands, a non-profit agency set up in 1968 to create badly needed jobs in southern and Eastern Kentucky by training and investing in local entrepreneurs. Over the past 40 years, Kentucky Highlands says it has created more than 10,000 jobs in its 22-county service area.

Business incubation is one of Kentucky Highlands’ many ventures, and the agency announced plans last week to expand that role by building a 9,600-square-foot center next to its London headquarters to mentor start-up companies.

Kentucky Highlands has created for-profit subsidiaries to supplement the private and government grants it receives. It has started two venture capital funds, a tax-credit program, and an agriculture loan fund. It has formed partnerships with a variety of schools and other organizations. It also has worked with local companies to build affordable housing in the region.

“We’re a catalyst,” said Jerry Rickett, a Corbin native who has been president of Kentucky Highlands since 1989. “We’re trying to find ways to facilitate the creation and retention of jobs.”

Economic development has always been a challenge in Appalachia. The region has a history of failed efforts and squandered resources, from empty industrial parks to millions of dollars in tax breaks and incentives given to companies that came to the region for a few years, then left when cheaper labor could be found elsewhere.

Kentucky Highlands has succeeded by doing things differently and by playing to its region’s strengths. The agency invests relatively small amounts of money in local people and businesses that can gradually create sustainable jobs.

Rickett points to census data that show there are 40,000 “micro-enterprises” in the 22-county region, which has a population of about 550,000. Nearly 87 percent of those enterprises have no employees except the owner.

“If over the next few years we could get 10 percent of them to hire only one employee — through training or micro-lending — that would be 4,000 additional jobs,” Rickett said. “And if one of those companies goes out of business, a community loses a job or two, not 200 jobs.”

Kentucky Highlands focuses on home-grown companies that can bring new revenue into the region. One example, Rickett said, is an electrical engineer in Harlan who likes to fly airplanes. His small business installs runway lights at airports around the country.

“His pickup truck is a twin-engine aircraft, and each week he loads up a bunch of Harlan County electricians and they go wherever it is in the United States they’re putting in runway lights,” Rickett said. “Then, on Friday night, they come back to Harlan. It’s not a big employer; maybe 12 people. But that money comes back to Harlan.”

For generations, Appalachia’s best and brightest have often had to leave to find work and opportunity. A theme of Harriette Arnow’s classic novel The Dollmaker was the anguish people felt when they had to leave the mountains after World War II to find work in Northern factories.

Thanks to digital technology and high-speed communication, a lot of work can now come to the workers, wherever they are. Rickett knows a mechanical engineer who designs heating and cooling systems for big retail developments. He lives in Eastern Kentucky, but does work all over the country via the Internet.

“He’s getting to raise his children in a rural community that has the values he wants his family to have,” he said.

“The best thing we have to market here is the creativity of our people,” Rickett said. “Appalachian people have always been resourceful.”

It’s a strength Kentucky could exploit in the 21st-century economy, along with a low cost of living, improving schools and strong vocational training programs.

“If we could just add a little bit of entrepreneurship to that curriculum,” Rickett said. “If you’re going to be an electrician, why not start your own business and hire the three best guys in your class to work for you?”

But success will require some culture change. Generations of Appalachians have grown up with a mind-set that work means working for someone else. “There is a lot of latent entrepreneurial capacity in Eastern Kentucky, but there are not many role models,” Rickett said. “We need to get kids in grade school thinking about being an employer rather than an employee.”

More than 100 come out for the Legacy Trail

October 25, 2008

Saturday morning was cold and gray, but more than 40 people came to Cheapside before 8 a.m. for a five-mile bicycle ride on the first section of the proposed Legacy Trail from downtown to the Kentucky Horse Park.

The group rode five miles out to Coldstream Park, where another 50 or so people came out to comment and offer suggestions to developers of the nine-mile bicycle and pedestrian trail.

“You go to these things and you always see the bikers and walkers, but we’re getting support from everybody,” said Keith Lovan, a city engineer who is project manager for the trail. “They all see something in it for them.”

The city is building the trail almost as a linear park to provide recreation and education about Lexington’s history and culture. The Bluegrass Community Foundation’s Legacy Center is supporting the effort as one of two things it hopes will be tangible legacies to Lexington from the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

More than $3 million has been raised to build the basic trail from Newtown Pike at Citation Boulevard through Coldstream and Maine Chance farms to the Horse Park before the equestrian games. A site plan will be completed by January and construction will begin next summer. In later years, the trail will be completed in and around existing streets downtown to Cheapside.  For more information about the trail, go to:

(Click on photos to enlarge and see captions.)

Legacy Trail would improve health, community

October 24, 2008

Something exciting is about to happen along the Newtown Pike corridor between downtown and the Kentucky Horse Park.

It will happen in nearby fields and just over the hills. Along Cane Run Creek. Up through the Lexmark campus and Coldstream Park, across the University of Kentucky’s Maine Chance Farm and past the Vulcan limestone quarry and Spindletop Farm.

In the 700 days left before the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, the city of Lexington will build a basic version of the Legacy Trail, a nine-mile bicycle and pedestrian path that is a key piece of the city’s Greenway Master Plan.

What will the Legacy Trail be? Planners see it as a human connection between urban and rural Lexington, a place for recreation, art and education. But they really want to know what you want the trail to be.

This week, a series of public meetings are being held with “stakeholders” — more than 300 nearby property owners, neighborhood groups, community and arts organizations.

Beginning at 8:45 a.m. Saturday, there will be a public event called “Party on the Trail” at Coldstream Park to start publicizing the route and to ask for suggestions about what amenities should be developed around it.

“It has got to be more than a ribbon of asphalt,” said Steve Austin, director of the Bluegrass Community Foundation’s Legacy Center. “It’s got to be a story about who we were, and what this place was and is. It’s a story about where we’re going to go and who we’re going to become in the 21st century.”

The idea of a trail from downtown to the Horse Park has been batted around for years. David Mohney, a UK architecture professor, had noted that much of the property between the two was in very few hands. The major landholders are Eastern State Hospital (soon to become the Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus), Lexmark, the University of Kentucky and Vulcan Materials.

Commerce Lexington’s 2007 trip to Boulder, Colo., showed local leaders how important bicycle and pedestrian trails could be to improving a community’s health and quality of life. Mayor Jim Newberry made the Legacy Trail a priority. Activist Marnie Holoubek, Urban County Councilman Jay McChord, UK Agriculture Dean Scott Smith and others started making things happen.

Keith Lovan of the city engineering department is overseeing the project. And its unofficial cheerleader is the Legacy Center, which is using money from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and other sources to see that the trail and an East End neighborhood revitalization project are accomplished as legacies of the 2010 Equestrian Games.

So far, more than $3 million has been raised to begin trail construction between the Horse Park and the intersection of Citation Boulevard and Newtown Pike. Initially, at least, much of the rest of the trail into town will run on existing pavement.

Austin took me on a tour of the route earlier this week. Several of us plan to ride it on bicycles before the party Saturday morning — if it isn’t raining too hard.

The Legacy Trail would begin downtown at Cheapside Park, go west on Second Street to Jefferson Street and north through what is now the Eastern State property to the Northside YMCA on Loudon Avenue.

Austin said planners are working with Lexmark on a formal agreement to have the trail go through its campus. “Lexmark has been a good partner so far,” he said.

Lexmark’s property holds one of two keys to the trail’s success: a private bridge that crosses New Circle Road. After crossing the bridge, the trail would run through Lexmark property along Cane Run Creek and other property near Newtown Pike to the intersection with Citation Boulevard.

Eventually, planners hope to build a bridge across Newtown Pike so the trail can continue seamlessly through the Coldstream campus and city park, which would have additional trail loops.

Once the trail leaves Coldstream Park and goes onto Maine Chance Farm, it meets another obscure piece of infrastructure that has been a godsend to trail planners: a small box tunnel under Interstate 75 that connects to the north end of the farm and the Spindletop property. The trail would probably enter the Horse Park at the campground.

Eventually, planners hope to connect the Legacy Trail to other trails and to the proposed Isaac Murphy Park in the East End neighborhood. McChord would like to see it go south from downtown, all the way through Jessamine County to the Kentucky River. To the west of downtown, Van Meter Pettit is planning the Town Branch Trail through the proposed Lexington Distillery District, another potential connection.

Linking Lexington’s urban and rural neighborhoods in ways that don’t require motor vehicles would be good for our health and sense of community. It also could help us and our visitors learn more about Lexington — and not just the usual history lessons from the 18th and 19th centuries.

More than 1,000 years ago, Fayette County was home to the Adena people, who left behind a huge mound of earth not far from the Horse Park. “Could we tell the story through landscape architecture and earthwork?” Austin wondered. “Could we tell the story of the pre-settlement environment — what trees and grasses were here?”

Austin also would like the trail to have kiosks explaining more recent history, such as how Lexmark’s forerunner, IBM, led an economic shift toward manufacturing in Lexington in the 1950s at the campus that gave the world Courier typeface and the Selectric typewriter ball.

Who knows what you might be able to learn about your city someday, simply by lacing up your shoes or climbing on a bicycle.

TIF financing a long-term bet, not a free ride

October 22, 2008

If Tuesday’s public hearing had been at Keeneland instead of the Urban County Council chambers, here’s how I would have handicapped it:

The Lexington Distillery District project was the clear favorite. Everyone spoke of its good breeding and conformation, and they thought it was a great bet with the promise of a big payoff.

The CentrePointe development was a more complicated wager. Many speakers thought it was a beautiful horse, a sure thing. A few were skeptical, criticizing it as too big, ugly and lame to be a winner. Most, though, were willing to take the gamble, because the potential payoff seemed worth the risk.

Of course, horse races are over within two minutes. This one will last three decades.

What the Urban County Council and state officials must decide before the end of the year is whether Lexington can and should use tax-increment financing for these projects — two of the biggest developments proposed for downtown Lexington in a generation.

Tax-increment financing, or TIF, would allow Lexington to use 80 percent of new tax revenues generated by a huge private development in a blighted area over 30 years to pay for the infrastructure needed to make the development possible.

TIF will be a great deal for Lexington if the private developments succeed. Not only will the city get the developments, but it will get to keep tax revenues that would otherwise be shared statewide.

The Lexington Distillery District project is a textbook example of why the TIF law was created. The project would rehabilitate two former distillery complexes on Manchester Street and convert 28 of the most neglected acres in Fayette County into an entertainment, arts and multi-use neighborhood. Similar projects have worked wonders elsewhere.

The Distillery District’s developers are seeking $80 million in future tax revenues for such things as streets, sidewalks, utilities and parking. The developers plan $110 million in private investment.

The Webb Companies plans to spend more than $200 million in private financing to build Centre Pointe, a 35-story tower that would have a four-star Marriott hotel, 70 luxury condominiums, offices and restaurants.

Mayor Jim Newberry is working with the Webbs to use CentrePointe as the focus for a 14.25-acre, $48 million downtown redevelopment project that would include such popular amenities as improved streetscapes, a $16 million renovation of the old courthouse that houses the Lexington History Museum and a permanent home for the Lexington Farmers Market.

It also would include a lot of money for amenities that would directly benefit CentrePointe, such as an adjacent $10 million underground parking garage and two $1.5 million pedestrian walkways.

Architects have criticized CentrePointe’s design and size, preservationists opposed its destruction of historic buildings, and others have questioned its economic viability and secretive private financing. But most of the speakers at Tuesday’s hearing praised CentrePointe as a needed shot in the arm for downtown.

Unlike a horse race, these projects aren’t competing with each other so much as with global economic forces that have shifted dramatically since they were proposed.

As Lexington places its bets, we should keep this in mind: The payoff will come only if these projects can go the distance. There’s no such thing as a free ride, either in horse racing or in tax-increment financing.

Have your say this week about development

October 20, 2008

If you live in Lexington, you don’t need to wait until the Nov. 4 election to have your say about the future.  There are several opportunities this week to comment on three development projects that could have a big effect on our city’s future.

On Tuesday, in the Urban County Council chambers, there will be public hearings on proposals to use tax-increment financing (TIF) to support two private developments.

At 6 p.m., the public is invited to comment on plans by a group that wants to turn a long-neglected section of Manchester Street into the Lexington Distillery District, a multi-use and entertainment area.

I think the Distillery District is a visionary project that has a lot of potential to improve downtown.  It is a great example of what the state’s TIF law was designed to do. You can read some of what I have written about the project by clicking here and here.  See the project’s own Web site here.

At 7 p.m., the public is invited to comment on TIF projects related to the Webb Companies’ proposed CentrePointe development on the block bounded by Main, Vine, Upper and Limestone streets.

If you follow this blog and my column in the Herald-Leader, you know I don’t think much of CentrePointe or the TIF projects attached to it.  If you want to know why, click “CentrePointe” in the categories list at right. Click here to see CentrePointe’s Web site.

A different kind of project with a lot of potential to improve Lexington is the Legacy Trail, a nine-mile pedestrian and bicycle trail from downtown to the Kentucky Horse Park.

Organizers plan a series of information and listening sessions Thursday and Friday with area “stakeholders” and a party Saturday morning at Coldstream Park to gather comments and suggestions from the general public.  There also will be an information booth at Thursday Night Live at Cheapside.

I’ll be writing more about the Legacy Trail project later this week.  Click here for the Legacy Trail’s Web site, which has more information about the public event Saturday.

Bigger Kentucky highways are not always better

October 11, 2008

Kentuckians like to say they bleed blue, especially during basketball and football seasons.

We also bleed black. Some say it’s because of coal, but I have a different theory: blacktop.

Kentuckians love asphalt, and we have spent nearly a century putting down as much of it as possible.

Like everyone else, I want to get where I’m going fast. I hate to sit in traffic. And, as a cyclist, I admit to being a pavement connoisseur. There is nothing like gliding down a lightly traveled country road on fresh, smooth asphalt.

I’ve recently reveled in biking on resurfaced roads such as Ky. 57 west of North Middletown and Hughes Lane west of Paris Pike. And I couldn’t be happier that the paving crews finally found that last, long-crumbling mile of Armstrong Mill Road.

At the same time, though, I’ve always wondered about Kentucky’s obsession with turning two-lane roads into massive four-lane highways when wider shoulders and a turn lane would do just fine.

I remember driving 1,200 miles around Ireland a few years ago on a family vacation. Only twice — south of Dublin and around Shannon Airport — did I see a highway as big as the mostly empty five-lane stretch of Tates Creek Road near my house.

In one of the more sensible things I’ve ever seen a governor do, Gov. Steve Beshear recently announced a program in the Transportation Cabinet called “Practical Solutions.” It calls for a review of the state’s 600 pending road projects, and all future ones, to cut waste without compromising safety. A major focus will be identifying unnecessary four-lane highway projects.

“It’s an initiative that makes sense,” Transportation Cabinet Secretary Joe Prather told Herald-Leader reporter Beth Musgrave when the program was announced Aug. 4. “People who like to design roads like to design a showplace, but it doesn’t necessarily make traffic move better or make a road safer.”

After two months, those reviews are still under way, and no projects have been scaled back yet, Transportation Cabinet spokesman Mark Brown said Friday.

A lot of people are watching to see what happens. Some are skeptical. After all, no part of state government has a richer history of power politics, patronage and corruption than highway-building. Blacktop has long been Kentucky’s political currency, and calls for reform are nothing new.

Even in the 1920s, politicians such as “Boss” Ben Johnson used highway projects to reward friends and punish enemies, according to state historian James Klotter of Georgetown College. There has always been so much money at stake. In 1930, half of all state expenditures went to road construction.

Prather’s predecessor, Bill Nighbert, and Leonard Lawson, one of the state’s biggest road contractors, are now under indictment for allegedly tampering with the bidding process for $130 million in state road contracts.

Aside from politics and corruption, though, highway-building has always symbolized “progress” in Kentucky. The bigger the highway, the more “progress.”

Some of that has been true. Adequate roads are vital to the economy, especially in remote, rural areas.

But some of it has been the sort of “build it and they will come” economic development nostrum that has left Kentucky with a lot of big, empty highways and big, empty industrial parks.

The Transportation Cabinet’s budget this fiscal year is $2.16 billion, although high gasoline prices and the sagging economy are sure to take a chunk out of it. Last week, Beshear announced that gas-tax revenues used for road-building last month were 11.4 percent below September 2007 and are down 4.5 percent through the first three months of the fiscal year that began July 1. So some big “Practical Solutions” savings will be needed.

But beyond balancing budgets, Kentuckians should use Beshear’s program as an opportunity to rethink priorities. This is a poor state with a lot of needs, and it can no longer afford to build lavish highways rather than invest in education and maintain the social safety net.

I wish Beshear’s initiative could have come sooner. I would have liked someone to take a close look at the $29.7 million project that is turning six miles of U.S. 68 in Jessamine County from one of the Bluegrass’ most scenic roads into a super highway sure to bring unbridled suburban sprawl from Lexington all the way to Wilmore.

Sure, U.S. 68 is too narrow. It needs some straightening, some widening, some shoulders and a few turn lanes. But this project, which is 28 percent done and scheduled for completion in November 2009, has always struck me as a $5 solution to a 25-cent problem.

It’s the kind of extravagance Kentucky can’t afford and would be better off without. Just think what a big chunk of that $29.7 million could do to improve schools, make college educations more affordable or lower taxes?

Just as Kentucky will never pave its way to prosperity, it will never solve all of its highway safety and transportation problems by building bigger, wider, straighter roads that just encourage people to drive more and drive faster.

In addition to good, sensibly-scaled roads, Kentucky must invest more in buses, streetcars, light rail, sidewalks and bike paths. Otherwise, we will continue spending too much of our limited resources to create an environment for cars instead of people.

If there’s one thing I learned from living in Atlanta for a decade, it’s this: Highways are like closets. If you have one, you’ll fill it up.

This gift horse has been expensive

October 9, 2008

You hate to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially one as beautiful as the Flying Horse of Gansu.

But it sure is tempting.

The life-size flying horse, you may recall, is a reproduction of an 1,800-year-old Han Dynasty bronze sculpture.

The city of Xi’an and Shaanxi province in China gave the statue to Lexington eight years ago when the Kentucky Horse Park hosted the exhibit Imperial China: The art of the horse in Chinese History.

The city paid $15,000 to ship the statue from China to Lexington. For seven years it stood beside Chase Bank, across from City Hall, at the corner of Main Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Then, in the wee hours of June 7, 2007, the flying horse’s support leg cracked at the shin and the 1,200-pound statue fell forward.

Thus ensued a costly, complicated rescue mission worthy of a Keeneland veterinarian.

After a year’s worth of work that cost three-times more than initial estimates, the flying horse will soon be back on Main Street. City contractors plan to hoist it onto a renovated pedestal Nov. 1.

The good news: The horse won’t fall over again, that’s for sure. Thanks to a new internal skeleton of stainless steel, the flying horse’s one grounded leg can easily withstand the test of time, not to mention illicit midnight rides by drunken frat boys.

The bad news: Repairs have cost the city more than $38,000. And, despite improvements, the flying horse will continue to confirm stereotypes about shoddy Chinese manufacturing.

Most sculptural bronze is 95 percent copper, 4 percent manganese and 1 percent silica. But the flying horse is more brass than bronze, making it vulnerable to cracking and pitting.

“The metal that was used was, in essence, what they use for plumbing fixtures,” said Seth Tuska, whose art foundry and studio on Walton Avenue did the repairs. “It’s a low-grade material that’s very brittle.”

The statue had no internal support structure, just an extra-fat leg to hold all of that balanced weight.

Tuska hired a structural engineer, who recommended taking the statue apart and fitting it with an internal skeleton. That required $5,000 worth of stainless steel that had to be carefully cut, shaped and welded.

Because the support leg was cast so thick, it had to be recast so a 3-inch solid stainless steel bar could fit inside. Then the horse had to be put back together, and many of its original welds had to be redone and ground smooth.

Cracks and pits not critical to the horse’s structural integrity were covered with high-quality auto-body filler and topped with brass dust so the statue would age evenly. The golden brass patina was then darkened to bring out browns, blues and greens by using water and such chemicals as sulphurated potash, cupric nitrate, copper nitrate and ammonia. The flying horse will continue to darken naturally for a year or so.

“We can’t believe it took as long as it did,” Tuska said. “There was a tremendous amount of work, and a lot of people’s hands in it.”

Ideally, Tuska said, the statue should have been recast in sculptural bronze, because the Flying Horse of Gansu’s brass surface will continue to crack and pit. But that would have been even more expensive.

New books of old photos offer window to history

October 9, 2008

I love looking at old photos of Kentucky. They offer a vivid picture of the progress — and mistakes — we’ve made in the past couple of centuries.  Two new books of old photos are especially intriguing.

The first is Lexington Then and Now, by Fiona Young-Brown, an Englishwoman who moved to Lexington in 2001.  Young-Brown tapped into several local archives to find great 19th century photos of Lexington’s landmark buildings and prominent locations. She juxtaposed them with her own photos of what those places look like now. It’s a great technique, which the Herald-Leader did for several years in the Communities section. It allows you to see what that familiar spot or neighborhood looked like long ago and how it has changed.

Although I noticed a few small errors in captions — one referred to Historic Pleasant “Grove” rather than “Green” Baptist Church, and another said Old Morrison at Transylvania University was built in 1933 instead of 1834 — Young-Brown provides a lot of interesting historical context to her photo pairs. I learned several things reading through the book. She’ll be signing copies Oct. 11 at 11 a.m. at Morris Book Shop on Southland Drive and Oct. 25 at 1 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Hamburg.

The small, $19.99 softbound book is a product of Arcadia Publishing of Mount Pleasant, S.C.  I didn’t use to be a fan of Arcadia books, which all work from the same template and offer little more than photos and captions.  But I’ve changed my mind over the years. Arcadia provides an economic publishing model that has allowed hundreds of American towns to showcase their history and heritage, and we’re all richer for that. Without that cookie-cutter model, most of these sorts of books would never make it into print.

Another good, new book is a collection of Eastern Kentucky photos being published by the Herald-Leader.  The book, Life in Eastern Kentucky, was put together by Bill Adams of Pediment Publishing and written by Herald-Leader reporter Andy Mead.  It follows two similar Life in the Bluegrass books that the Herald-Leader published of old Central Kentucky photos.

The 128-page, $29.95, hardcover book will be out by the end of November.  Advance orders are being taken through advertisements in the Herald-Leader and online by clicking here.   After advance orders are taken, a limited number of books will be available in selected bookstores in Central and Eastern Kentucky.

I’ve seen the final proof of the book, and it has a great collection of old Eastern Kentucky photos. Some were gathered from regional archive collections. But what makes this book special are that many of the photos were offered for scanning by citizens. I contributed a 1920 photo of my great-grandfather in his barbershop in Jackson. Like my photo, many of these images have never been seen before outside of family albums.

State parks also plan Second Sunday events

October 8, 2008

In addition to the Second Sunday road-closing events on Oct. 12 in 71 of Kentucky’s 120 counties, several free activities are planned at Kentucky State Parks.  Here’s a summary of them from a parks press release:

Barren River Lake State Resort Park, Lucas

Barren River staff will lead an interpretive hike along the 1-mile Connell Nature Trail.  This hike takes approximately 1.5 hours and goes through a heavily wooded area. Participants will see a variety of trees and possibly some of the wildlife, which could include our triplet and twin white tail deer fawns.  Participants should wear comfortable clothes, hiking boots or tennis shoes (no flip flops). Bring along drinking water and apply sunscreen.  Hikers should meet in front of the lodge at 1 p.m. CST.  Terrain is easy-to-moderate.

Blue Licks Battlefield State Resort Park, Mount Olivet

Blue Licks will close a major portion of the park to vehicle traffic from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Children and adults can enjoy walking the park roads, riding bikes, skateboards, rollerblades, etc.

Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park, Buckhorn

Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park’s first 2-mile Back to Nature Walk begins in front of the lodge at 2 p.m.  Most of the walk will be on blacktop, with a small portion on gravel.   In addition, local health departments and clinics will provide services and tips.

Columbus-Belmont State Park, Columbus

This is the weekend of the Civil War Days event.  Festivities will include a “ghost walk” on Friday night that goes through park trails, which are earthworks built by Confederates during the Civil War.

Dale Hollow Lake State Resort Park, Burkesville

Dale Hollow Lake State Resort Park will offer a guided hike to Eagle’s Point at 4 p.m. This is a moderate 1.6-mile hike out to a beautiful overlook of the lake.  Learn about park and lake history and native wildlife, and see the fall foliage.

Greenbo Lake State Resort Park, Greenup

A Fern Valley hike begins at the trail head at the Jesse Stuart Parking Lot at 2 p.m. The walk will be at an easy pace and last about an hour. Greenbo also has hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding trails for all levels of expertise.

As for almost every other day of the year, Kentucky’s state park system has more than 250 miles of hiking trails of various levels of difficulty.  Find more information at

Closing streets to cars, opening them to people

October 8, 2008

Kentuckians are among the nation’s least healthy people. All of the surveys show it. Many of us smoke, most of us don’t get enough exercise and almost all of us have a deep and abiding love for fried, salty and sugary food.

We also know Kentucky is a poor state, with little money available to build gyms, pools or trails for walking and biking.

All of that is why many people who attended Lexington’s first Bike Summit a year ago were struck by a presentation from Gil Peñalosa, the former parks director of Bogotá, Colombia.

“He said, ‘You have the best bike and pedestrian infrastructure in the world already in place. You just have cars running up and down it all the time,'” Urban County Councilman Jay McChord recalled.

Peñalosa is famous for starting Ciclovia, an event that since 1976 has closed 70 miles of Bogotá’s streets to motorized traffic for seven hours each Sunday so people can come out to walk, bike, exercise and socialize. (Click here to see a short video of former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa discussing these issues.)

Several American cities have followed Bogotá’s lead. On three Saturdays in August, New York City banned motorized vehicles from seven miles of Park Avenue, all the way from the Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park. Thousands of New Yorkers came out to walk and roller blade and to ride bikes, skateboards, strollers, wheelchairs and even grocery carts.

No state has tried such a thing — until Kentucky, this Sunday.

The event is called Second Sunday, and between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., at least 1 mile of a prominent street will be closed in 71 of Kentucky’s 120 counties for a street party that focuses on health and fitness.

In Lexington, Limestone will be closed from Third Street south to the Avenue of Champions. There will be a band playing at each end, and musicians will stroll through the crowd.

The courthouse square will be have a health fair and games for all ages. There will be stationary bikes for those who don’t want to ride in the street, and tandem bikes for those who want to ride with someone whose eyesight is better than theirs. There will be tai chi and bike polo demonstrations, a stroller workout and a dog bone hunt.

At 4 p.m., police will escort ambitious cyclists who want to ride out to Paris Pike — some even plan to ride to Paris and back.

“We want to make this a 21st-century parade where there are no bystanders,” said Diana Doggett, a University of Kentucky extension agent in Fayette County.

Lexington’s effort has been championed by McChord and Mayor Jim Newberry, with a lot of work being done by Doggett and Kenzie Gleason, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, among others. A dozen Lexington companies and organizations have signed on as sponsors of Second Sunday, and the Downtown Lexington Corp. has coordinated with businesses on and near Limestone to be open.

UK’s Cooperative Extension Service, which is coordinating the statewide effort, put out the challenge at a meeting in June that included teams of officials from 50 counties. Doggett said the response has been overwhelming, and many counties that couldn’t get something together for Sunday are already planning events for the second Sunday of October 2009.

The initial goal is to make Second Sunday an annual event. Or maybe a monthly event. In some places, it could even become a weekly event, giving small towns a hook to attract visitors.

McChord sees even bigger possibilities.

One of his interests is building more walking and bike paths. McChord, 40, grew up in the south Lexington suburbs and remembers how important the ball fields built at Shillito Park in the 1970s were to him.

“So I’ve thought, what could I do that my daughter’s generation would look back on?” he said.

McChord decided it was building recreational trails. His first effort has been a proposed 8-mile, multi-use path in his south Lexington district that he’s calling the HealthWay trail. It would connect Waveland State Shrine, Shillito and Wellington parks and major shopping centers in the area. He’s also among those working to create the Legacy Trail, which would connect downtown Lexington to the Kentucky Horse Park.

With the small amount of money now available, it would take forever to build a decent multi-use trail system in Kentucky. For example, McChord said, state officials last year had $13 million in various funds to build bike and pedestrian trails, but got requests for $75 million. And many counties didn’t bother to ask, because they knew funds were limited.

So, what if Kentucky could tap into more of the millions and millions of dollars that private foundations across America give each year to promote health, wellness and community life?

“What Second Sunday is designed to do is make a national statement that we are sick and tired of being sick and tired,” McChord said. He thinks Kentuckians could use Second Sunday “to cast ourselves as the lovable big loser” — like the characters in the popular weight-loss TV show.

“At the end of the day, we can take our biggest liability and turn it to our advantage,” he said. “We can make a statement that allows us to ask for help.”

So, think of Second Sunday as a first step — or pedal stroke — to a healthier Kentucky.