Help choose the Legacy Trail’s logo

July 31, 2009

Organizers of the Legacy Trail, a 9-mile bike and walking path being developed from Lexington’s East End to the Kentucky Horse Park, are seeking your help in choosing a logo.

The public is being asked to vote among three logos. Register and cast your vote at Or you can text your chosen logo’s name (see chart below) to (859) 797-4900.

Those who register will be included in drawings for a $500 gift certificate from Pedal the Planet bike shop, a $250 gift certificate from John’s Run Walk Shop and a $100 gift certificate from J&H Outfitters.

Voting began yesterday evening at Thursday Night Live at Cheapside downtown and will continue through Aug. 13. The winning logo will be announced at Thursday Night Live on Aug. 20.

Appalachian writers find family, home at Hindman

July 30, 2009

HINDMAN — This is the season for family reunions in Appalachia, when people come home to celebrate kinship, community and the mountain culture that shaped their lives.

There’s a big reunion in Knott County this week. Many of the 100 people there have been attending for years, if not decades. Few are related by blood, but they’re family just the same, bound together by Appalachia’s storytelling tradition and the magic of words.

Ask participants at the 32nd Appalachian Writers Workshop what it’s like, and they use the word “family” a lot. They come for inspiration and advice on the craft from some of the best writers these mountains have produced.

The workshop was started by two Knott County writers, novelist and folklorist James Still, and poet Albert Stewart. Others associated with the annual gathering have included poet Jim Wayne Miller and novelists Wilma Dykeman and Harriette Arnow, author of the 1954 classic The Dollmaker.

“It’s a central part of my year that I never want to miss,” said novelist Silas House, who was a participant from 1996 to 2001 and has been on staff ever since.

Participants apply and submit writing samples in May. There are always more applicants than spaces; the 102-year-old Hindman Settlement School’s cabins can hold only so many people.

Each morning, participants gather in small groups according to interest: poetry, novels, short stories, nonfiction, memoir and children’s literature.

When I visited the workshop Tuesday, poet and writer George Ella Lyon was in one room talking about the challenges of publishing books for children. In another room, novelist Karen McElmurray discussed using memoir to explore universal themes. In another, novelists Ann Pancake and Laura Benedict explained storytelling techniques.

Afternoons are for group readings and individual coaching from the staff of published writers. Everyone eats together, then washes dishes. There’s writing time throughout the day, and bull sessions late into the night.

“It’s an intense week,” said journalist Jason Howard, who is here for a fifth year. “There’s a great sense of family, and a lot of spiritual detective work going on.”

Mike Mullins helped start the workshop in 1978, soon after he became director of the historic settlement school that now provides literacy and cultural enrichment programs. He marvels at the workshop’s success.

“I think there’s always a crying need for all of us to express ourselves, to tell our story, or a story we’ve made up,” said Mullins.

A few of this year’s participants are college students, but most are much older — academics and blue-collar workers, business people, housewives and retirees. Some are beginners; others have published several books.

Mountain life has always been a popular subject in Appalachian literature. But many now write about the mountains themselves and what has been happening to them over the past half-century. Hundreds of thousands of acres have been leveled by mountaintop-removal coal mining or scarred by strip-miners.

“What we do to the land, we do to the people,” said Don Askins of Clintwood, Va., whose poetry focuses on the coal industry’s environmental destruction.

House and Howard, who both come from coal-mining families, recently wrote the book Something’s Rising about opposition to mountaintop-removal within the region. Howard also edited a collection of essays, poems and songs called We All Live Downstream.

Many writers here are women who have raised families or had careers. “They come with this full lifetime of experience and a passion to write about it,” McElmurray said.

Benedict first came to the workshop 20 years ago. “I had only been writing for a year or so and I was looking for a cheap vacation,” she said. What she found was a calling – and a husband, Pinckney Benedict, who was on the workshop staff. “We didn’t start dating until after the conference, but I gather we scandalized a few people,” she said with a smile.

The Benedicts were back this week as staff members. He is a novelist and short story writer who teaches at the University of Southern Illinois and at writing workshops across the country. She recently published her second novel.

“There’s a sense of community, a spirit of cooperation here,” she said. “They read a lot, and they all take their work very seriously.”

But unlike some other workshops, Benedict and McElmurray said, the writers here don’t take themselves too seriously. There’s no “staff table” at meals, no caste system based on publishing success.

But Benedict has discovered one advantage to being on staff: “I don’t have to do dishes.”

Click on each photo to enlarge.

Hitting the road to help save an old theater

July 29, 2009

There seems to be a fund-raising walk, run or bicycle ride for just about every cause, charity and disease.

So when Ed Stodola was looking for a way to raise money to restore the Grand Theatre in downtown Frankfort, the avid cyclist decided to organize a ride.

But what a ride.

The Grand Autumn Bicycle Ride Across Kentucky is a three-day trek that covers 11 counties and more than 200 miles, from the Ohio River at Carrollton to the Tennessee line at Dale Hollow Lake. Dip your wheels at each end.

In each of the past five years, the ride has attracted no more than 35 riders, but Stodola is hoping for the maximum 60 this year. For more information, go to

So far, the GABRAKY has raised more than $68,000 for the Grand Theatre’s $5 million renovation. It has not been a lot of money in the Grand scheme, Stodola admits. But it has provided cash flow at critical times during the seven-year effort.

“The ride also helped keep the Grand efforts in the public eye,” he said, explaining that the first ride, in 2004, came when other fund-raising efforts had plateaued.

Organizers are planning the sixth ride for Oct. 9-11, with a couple of differences.

Instead of “Grand,” it’s now the “Governor’s” ride, reflecting its designation as the Beshear administration’s first Kentucky Adventure Tourism bike tour. Also, the theater’s renovation is almost finished. An open house is planned Aug. 7.

The Grand on St. Clair Mall was built about 1910 as a small vaudeville house and enlarged as a movie theater in the 1940s. It closed in 1966, and the building was put to other uses, from a dollar store to an auction house.

There was an effort to restore the Grand in 1983, but it failed. Then, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a group of Frankfort citizens began looking for a project to build community spirit. They remembered the Grand.

Since then, several other restoration projects have begun in downtown Frankfort, which has many beautiful old buildings. “I think it’s going to have a transformational effect,” Stodola said.

The renovated Grand will show movies, host concerts and be a venue for small stage shows. None of its 420 seats is more than 50 feet from the stage.

“We’re going to market it as Kentucky’s most intimate performance venue,” said Bill Cull, chairman of the non-profit Save the Grand Inc., which owns the building and is managing the restoration.

Cull and Stodola gave me a tour of the theater last week as workmen were installing seats and putting on other finishing touches. Sections of original plaster from the 1910 vaudeville house and 1940s theater have been preserved as part of a beautiful, modern theater that includes a small art gallery upstairs.

A mid-1800s house that shared a wall with the theater also has been restored. It will be used for administrative offices and performers’ dressing rooms.

The project was put together with a patchwork of government money, grants, corporate and private donations, volunteer labor and, of course, money raised from the bicycle ride.

A concert by R&B groups The Platters and The Coasters is planned for the theater’s grand opening on Sept. 25. Other bookings so far include the New York Theatre Ballet’s production of Sleeping Beauty.

Singer John Sebastian will perform at the theater during the Alltech Fortnight Festival on the first night of this year’s GABRAKY. And when the cyclists ride south the next morning, they can take a little pride in having helped the Grand’s marquee light up the Frankfort sky again.

Neighborhoods should welcome, not fear trails

July 26, 2009

One of the biggest obstacles faced by communities trying to develop bicycle and pedestrian trails is the attitude of NIMBY: Not in my back yard.

Some people fear trails will bring crime into their neighborhoods, even though common sense would tell them that criminals prefer to travel in vehicles on their already plentiful roads.

Some homeowners worry that trails will hurt their property values, even though the experience nationwide is that trails actually raise property values. Why? Because, once built, trails become a popular neighborhood amenity.

A great example of NIMBY is playing out in the Madison County city of Berea. Since the 1970s, there have been plans for a trail linking the city to Indian Fort Mountain, site of some great hiking trails and an outdoor theater.

The Indian Fort Shared Use Trail would be about four miles long and restricted to pedestrians and non-motorized vehicles. It would be built on land owned by the city or Berea College, which is donating an easement. No private land would be used.

However, a 4,000-foot section of the proposed trail has become controversial because, although it would be on college-owned land, it would pass near some suburban homes.

Berea’s City Council was to vote on the trail last week, but there wasn’t a quorum. For more than an hour, though, citizens commented on the trail. Most lived in the suburban homes, and they opposed the trail.

There were many reasons: They wanted the money spent on other things. They didn’t want strangers near their homes. They didn’t want any development that might disturb wildlife on the college-owned land.

“They’ve had this uninterrupted view and, you might say, use of the college property, and now some other use might be made of it,” said Paul Stolte, a Berea resident who supports the trail.

In addition to helping people get from Berea to Indian Fort, the trail would help residents in that growing suburban area have a way to get into town that doesn’t require a motor vehicle.

“I think it’s going to be an important transportation network,” Stolte said.

Neighborhood trail opponents have proposed an alternative route that would take the trail on the other side of the college property — near other homes instead of theirs.

“That is not the solution; I’ve already started getting calls from those people saying ‘we don’t want it behind our back yard,'” said City Council member Violet Farmer.

“I don’t think (the trail) would be the problem people perceive it to be,” Farmer said, although she understands the concerns.

“I would like to see a network of bike and pedestrian shared paths in town and throughout town,” she said. “It’s a really good project. I don’t know if we can find a solution or not.”

It’s clear that the successful cities of the future will be those that provide residents with safe places to exercise as well as environmentally friendly alternatives to driving cars.

The Indian Fort Shared Use Trail will be back on the Berea City Council’s agenda on Tuesday. Will council members give in to the “not in my back yard” sentiment? Or will they vote for the greater good and the community’s future?

Tall flowers, big vegetables and local food

July 24, 2009

Cheyenne Olson of Berea recently sent me this photo of a giant sunflower in her garden. She said she has no idea how it got that big, but notes that it falls a bit short of the world record, a 25-foot sunflower grown in Norway in 1986.

If you want to ask Olson about her sunflower, she’ll be at the Third Annual 100-mile Potluck and Auction at Berea Community School on Sunday from 5:30-7:30 p.m. The event is sponsored by Sustainable Berea and the Berea Farmers Market.

Admission to the potluck is free, but bring a dish made with ingredients produced within 100 miles of Berea. Also, bring the recipe for inclusion in a cookbook of recipes from the first three annual potlucks that will be published in October.

The auction includes a variety of items related to local food. And it features seven of the ever-popular rain barrels painted by Berea-area artists. The auction benefits Sustainable Berea, an non-profit environmental organization. An auction booklet is on the group’s Web site.

Tall flowers, giant produce and big fish have long been a photographic staple of local newspapers. So, in that spirit, email me a photo of your outstanding specimen from this summer and I’ll post it on my blog. (No PhotoShop creations or wide-angle lens distortions, please. I can tell.)

Church turns old buildings into affordable homes

July 23, 2009

It was a puzzle with no easy answer.

Two buildings from the mid-1800s — former servants’ quarters and Lexington’s oldest apartment house — were in such bad shape they had been condemned.

Their demolition would have left another sad gap in the historic neighborhood between downtown and Gratz Park.

Meanwhile, there is a need for affordable housing downtown for low-income people and retirees. Officials estimate that more than 8,700 households in Fayette County spend more than half of their income on rent.

With a lot of work and creative financing — such as tax credits and grants — the puzzle was solved Thursday with the dedication of First Presbyterian Church Apartments on Market Street.

The two buildings were carefully restored into a studio apartment, two one-bedroom units and seven two-bedroom apartments that will rent for between $330 and $550 a month. Tenants must have incomes below $22,700 for singles and $26,000 for families. Even before the first residents have moved in, there’s a waiting list.

Not only are the apartments affordable, they’re beautiful. While adding modern closets, fixtures and appliances, the developers preserved the buildings’ exterior, as well as inside touches such as windows, woodwork, wooden floors and fireplace mantels.

The large project team celebrated the apartments’ completion Thursday with a ceremony next door in First Presbyterian’s chapel.

“This project has been both a joy and an honor,” said Holly Wiedemann, a church member and president of AU Associates, which specializes in converting old buildings into affordable housing.

“It can be done,” Wiedemann said. “Historic buildings can be saved. Affordable housing can be produced, and it is desperately needed.”

Clyde Carpenter, a University of Kentucky architecture professor and member of the church, spoke passionately about both Christian outreach and historic preservation.

“Preservation is as much about the future as the past … it is about environmental sustainability, not wasting, not consuming,” he said.

In addition to giving historic buildings new life, Carpenter said, the apartments will add vitality to the neighborhood.

First Presbyterian, which recently restored its circa 1872 sanctuary, has played an important role in keeping the neighborhood vital. Among other things, the church restored Henry Clay’s law office next door and built a magnificent contemporary chapel in the 1990s that Carpenter helped design.

First Presbyterian Apartments, Carpenter said, represents a new ministry for the church.

AU Associates led the project on the church’s behalf with a big cast of characters. Financing came from Central Bank, the city, the Kentucky Heritage Council and the Kentucky Housing Corp. Design was done by S+A Architecture, with construction by Churchill McGee LLC.

Behind the scenes were many more partners, from lawyers Robert Vice and Mac Deegan to Kentucky American Water Co., which replaced water lines so old that some of them were made of wood.

“This is a model we need to replicate for other projects,” Urban County Council member Diane Lawless said of the public-private partnership. “Not only is it affordable housing, it is quality affordable housing. That makes all the difference.”

Click on each photo to enlarge.

Cell phone driving bans only a matter of time

July 21, 2009

In the blink of an eye, I could become a killer.

You could, too.

Not intentionally, of course, but a killer just the same.

In the back of our minds, we’ve always known it. But the news this week has focused attention on the dangers of talking, texting and e-mailing while driving.

Two consumer groups, Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety, released documents Tuesday showing that since 2003, federal officials have suppressed research showing the dangers of drivers using either hand-held or hands-free cell phones.

Officials were concerned about angering Congress, even though cell phone distraction was thought to have caused 240,000 accidents and 955 fatalities in 2002.

“We’re looking at a problem that could be as bad as drunk driving, and the government has covered it up,” Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety told The New York Times.

Of course, it doesn’t take a scientist to know that talking, texting and e-mailing while you’re driving could be dangerous.

It’s common sense, even if we hate to admit it.

In our multi-tasking world, it’s just too tempting to use drive time to make business calls or chat with friends.

Who, even while barreling down the highway, can resist the blinking red light of a BlackBerry daring you to look at your latest e-mail?

It’s an addiction. I know, because I’m an addict.

This is a good week to think about highway safety, and not just because of news reports.

On Monday, the Kentucky State Police launched Blue Lights Across the Bluegrass to crack down on dangerous driving. The campaign, which runs through July 31, is focused on Fayette and 36 other counties that have had four or more of Kentucky’s 405 traffic fatalities this year.

State police say 85 percent of Kentucky traffic accidents are caused by driver distraction of some kind.

But Kentucky troopers, like those in most other states, can’t do much about cell phone-distracted drivers.

Only five states and the District of Columbia prohibit the use of hand-held cell phones while driving, although 21 states ban it for novice drivers.

No state bans drivers from using hands-free cell phones, even though studies show that the mental distraction of a conversation is almost as great as the physical distraction of operating a phone.

Only 14 states prohibit drivers from texting.

Kentucky bans only cell-phone use by school bus drivers. Plus, it is one of eight states that prohibit local governments from passing their own stricter laws.

Reps. Reginald Meeks and Tom Burch of Louisville have introduced legislation for years that would ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.

“We’ve gotten hearings, but it has never gone anywhere,” Meeks said Tuesday. His interest in the issue was prompted by “two near mishaps I had while talking on the cell phone,” he said.

Meeks said some lawmakers have objected to limiting drivers’ “freedom.”

It’s the same lame argument that slowed the adoption of common-sense seat belt laws and made it legal for people to ride motorcycles without wearing helmets.

The New York Times reported that 170 bills were introduced in state legislatures this year to address distracted driving, including cell phone use. Fewer than 10 of those bills became law, in part because lawmakers like to talk on their cell phones while they drive.

But I suspect it’s only a matter of time before things change.

Remember when drunken driving was treated with a wink and a nod? It took high-profile campaigns by Mothers against Drunk Driving and other groups to make it socially and legally unacceptable.

What will it take to make us acknowledge the danger of gadget-impaired driving?

“Unfortunately, it might take a severe, highly visible accident,” Meeks said. “But why should we have to wait for somebody else to die?”

Planning an incubator for social entrepreneurs

July 18, 2009

It is a tried-and-true model: an “incubator” building with shared office space that cuts overhead costs and provides a creative community where business entrepreneurs can learn from and be inspired by each other.

Could the same work for social entrepreneurs?

In fact, it works quite well in many cities.

The Kentucky Conference for Community and Justice wants to create such a place in Lexington.

Within five years, the KCCJ hopes to have perhaps 20,000 square feet of shared work and meeting space near downtown for emerging non-profit organizations and entrepreneurs interested in making the world a better place.

The organization has a non-binding letter of intent to put the facility in the Old Pepper warehouse, a cavernous building on Manchester Street that is planned as a focal point of the Lexington Distillery District.

“When people come together, you have the space between where so much can happen,” said KCCJ Chair Shannon Stuart-Smith.

KCCJ has been developing the idea for two years in cooperation with other local groups. But the effort was jump-started late last month when a delegation visited the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto, Ontario, one of North America’s most successful social incubators.

Located in a renovated industrial building, the Toronto center rents desks, telephones, printers, Internet connections and other modern necessities to social-oriented entrepreneurs, companies and non-profits that have fewer than five workers.

The center also fosters an atmosphere — both physical and psychological — that encourages networking, brainstorming and collaboration. That includes everything from informal conversations between desks to planned events, such as twice-weekly “salad club” meals.

That atmosphere is what KCCJ hopes to replicate in Lexington.

“The tenants didn’t think of themselves as tenants; they thought of themselves as partners in the program,” said jeweler Joe Rosenberg, a KCCJ board member. “What we’re hoping to do is take what they’ve learned and build on it.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that once you put this together, you’ll fill it up,” Rosenberg said.

Debra Hensley, an insurance agent and former Urban County Council member who has been working on the idea for several years, estimates there are 100 fledgling organizations and entrepreneurs around Lexington whose mission involves social and environmental issues. Many work out of their homes, or in isolated offices.

“Within 10 minutes, I thought, this is what I’m looking for,” said Jason Delambre, a young Lexington-based sustainable energy consultant. who went with the group to Toronto.

KCCJ, which started as a chapter of the old National Conference of Christians and Jews, has worked for decades to fight discrimination and promote human equality and inclusiveness. The organization sees creation of a social incubator as perhaps the best way it can contribute to future progress in Kentucky.

The next step involves figuring out how to raise $1 million to $5 million to build the space and develop a business model to sustain it, Hensley said. Similar centers in other cities have a variety of financial models, depending on local circumstances.

“We’re making a tremendous leap with this project,” said longtime member Marilyn Moosnick.

But then, the work of the Kentucky Conference for Community and Justice has always involved making tremendous leaps. Perhaps that’s why it has been able to do so much good.

Lyric Theatre’s rebirth a long-awaited dream

July 16, 2009

Sometimes a dream deferred can come true.

You could see that dream in the faces of many of the 200 people who gathered Thursday morning at the corner of East Third Street and Elm Tree Lane to break ground for the long-delayed Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center project.

The crowd included community leaders and city officials, some of whom had worked for 18 years to restore the Lyric, an icon of Lexington’s African American community.

It also included many longtime Lexingtonians who have been waiting 46 years for their Lyric to reopen.

They’ll have another year to wait before the cavernous shell of a theater is rebuilt as a city-owned performing arts and community center.

“It means a number of years of frustration are over,” said Robert Jefferson, a former Urban County Council member who helped start the long crusade. “This is a very emotional time for me.”

After a 1987 fire damaged the Kentucky Theatre on Main Street and the city announced plans to restore it, Jefferson urged then-Mayor Scotty Baesler to appropriate $250,000 for the Lyric.

It was only fair, Jefferson said: “As a native Lexingtonian, I hadn’t had the right to go to the Kentucky Theatre because of segregation.”

But it would take years of struggle and legal disputes before Mayor Jim Newberry, the Urban County Council and a dedicated group of community activists would succeed in putting together the Lyric’s $9 million renovation and operating plan.

Many of those who came out remembered the Lyric as the place where black Lexingtonians came to see movies, vaudeville shows and jazz musicians from 1948 until the theater closed in 1963.

Tassa Wigginton said her childhood Saturdays were spent at the Lyric, visiting with friends, eating popcorn and watching cartoons and movies.

“We came with a quarter; 10 cents to get in and 15 cents to spend,” she said. “One day when I was a teenager my daddy let me come with him to see a stage show and I thought I was in seventh heaven.

“This was really the community center,” Wigginton said. “This and Dunbar High School were the pride of the black community.”

Don Garrison said he began working at the Lyric selling tickets and ended up as its last manager. “I was here the night we shut it down,” he said, noting the irony that desegregation ruined the Lyric’s business.

Julian Jackson Jr., another early supporter of the Lyric’s restoration, said he hopes the new facility will preserve the East End’s colorful history.

Many people know the area was once home to Lexington’s pre-Keeneland race track and the famous black jockeys Isaac Murphy and Jimmy Winkfield. But Jackson said they may not know of other neighborhood greats, such as the opera singer William Ray and the inventor Joseph Bailey Lyons.

As with the Lyric, desegregation led to decline in the historically black East End — a decline that has been in rapid reverse over the past decade, thanks to work by the Urban League, city government and many others.

S.T. Roach, the legendary basketball coach at the old all-black Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, was thrilled to be able to attend Thursday’s ceremony.

“I’ve been waiting for this for many years,” said Roach, 93, who once worked at the Lyric and ran an ice cream bar next door.

Roach recalled the vitality of the old East End and thinks the Lyric’s restoration could kick the neighborhood’s renaissance into high gear.

Former councilman George Brown agreed.

“I think the new Lyric will become a meeting place, a community place, a place for new artists to be discovered,” Brown said. “Who knows what could be spawned here, from Third and Elm Tree Lane? Only the mind can imagine.”

Poet brings words and a smile to nursing homes

July 15, 2009

Poet Sunny Montgomery reads to Glyn Dawson and staff member Tonya Perdue at Homestead Nursing Center. Photos by Tom Eblen

Art expresses the human spirit. It also can nourish it, especially in places where the human spirit can feel challenged.

That was one of the ideas behind local poet Sunny Montgomery’s visit to seven Lexington nursing homes Wednesday.

Montgomery visited dining halls and went from room to room, asking if she might spending a few minutes reading poetry.

The project was organized by the ELandF Gallery and the Nursing Home Ombudsman Agency of the Bluegrass.

“Just having artists or anybody from the outside coming in consistently creates a culture that’s good for the residents and staff and more open to the community,” said Bruce Burris of ELandF.

The ombudsman agency plans a public meeting July 29 to seek ideas for other arts programs that might be done in local nursing homes. Those could include visiting artists, or participatory arts programs for residents. The meeting will be at 2 p.m. at the agency’s office in the senior citizen center at the corner of Nicholasville Road and Alumni Drive.

Montgomery visits with Emma Hutchison, right, and daughter Emily McCarty after reading poetry Wednesday at Homestead Nursing Center.

A summer day, a peaceful stream and memories

July 15, 2009

People fish for many reasons.

Some do it to relax, to commune with nature or because they like to eat fish.

Others do it because they want to match wits with a creature that has a brain the size of a pea.

My cousin Joe Petro and I went on one of our periodic fishing trips to his favorite stream last week. As we cast, I realized that the most likely reason we both fish is because our grandfather loved it so much.

When R.D. Eblen retired from the Louisville & Nashville Railroad in 1958, he left Lexington and moved back to the Henderson County farmhouse where he grew up. He dug a small, spring-fed lake on the farm and stocked it with bass and bluegill.

Each day in good weather, Pa would walk to the lake or, in later years, ride his Snapper Comet lawn mower. He could spend hours there in silent contemplation — an old pith helmet on his head and a cigar in his mouth — waiting for a big one to grab his lure.

Pa and Ma had a dozen grandchildren. For most of us, boys and girls alike, fishing was the highlight of a trip to Henderson. As we grew, we progressed from cane poles and worms to casting rods and artificial lures. If we were lucky, we would bring home enough fish for Ma to fry up for dinner.

Over the years, I have fished for bass with my father and brothers. When I lived in Atlanta, I learned to fish for trout with a fly rod.

It doesn’t seem safe anymore to eat fish caught in many lakes and streams. Thanks to my lack of skill at outwitting pea-brained creatures, this is rarely a temptation.

I don’t fish often, but occasionally Joe will call and say, “I’ve been working too much. Let’s go fishing!”

Joe is a successful visual artist who has worked all over the world, often in collaboration with an eclectic group of people, including illustrator Ralph Steadman, comedian Jonathan Winters, newsman Morley Safer and the late writer Kurt Vonnegut.

Joe says people used to ask why, as an artist, he would want to live in Lexington instead of New York City. “If I want to be in New York, I can be there in three hours,” he said. On the other hand, in Lexington, he could be at a favorite fishing hole in 20 minutes.

Joe is an interesting guy, and fishing gives us a reason to spend time together.

When we went fishing last summer, I made the mistake of using my hands to remove a hook from the mouth of a squirming bluegill. I ended up with the hook in my thumb, and I could swear I heard that little fish say “gotcha!” as he jumped back into the creek.

It took me five bloody minutes to remove the hook from my thumb. But Joe reminded me that was better than the time our cousin Jerry managed to get a hook sunk into the back of his head. Pa had to take him to the emergency room, otherwise known as the Fisherman’s Hall of Shame.

Last week, Joe and I waded upstream for a mile or so, hunting fish until nearly dark. We each caught a half-dozen little ones, but it’s a good thing nobody was counting on us for a fish dinner.

It made me realize, though, why I fish.

It’s about slowing down and taking time to notice the natural world. About studying the way a stream flows, and trying to figure out which murky pool might conceal hungry fish.

Fishing gives 50-something men an excuse to wade in a creek on a mid-summer afternoon. A reason to climb up on moss-covered rock ledges. An opportunity to watch as the setting sun dapples slow-moving water a dozen shades of green.

And last week, it gave us a chance to reminisce about the grandfather who took us fishing, and who remains vivid in our memories even as time has rushed by like a swift stream.

Biking to Washington to speak up for the planet

July 14, 2009

How’s this for a summer adventure: Dozens of young people are riding bicycles across the country and meeting in Washington. There, they plan to lobby their members of Congress and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on climate-change and environmental sustainability issues, such as bicycle transportation.

Six of the travelers, ages 16-21, arrived in Lexington from Shelbyville on Monday afternoon. They had started in Pueblo, Colo., a month ago, averaging about 50 miles a day with all of their gear loaded on their bikes.

The trip is called The Trek to Reenergize America,, and this group is chronicling its trip on its own Web site,

“We’re excited to be here,” said Remy Franklin, 18, of Taos, N.M., who will be starting Dartmouth College as a freshman in the fall.

Franklin and his five companions were camping Monday night in the Southland neighborhood, in the yard of Tim Buckingham, a staff member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and a member of Lexington’s Bike Polo league. Buckingham invited some of his cycling friends over and put on a cookout for the visitors.

The travelers planned to meet up with other groups Saturday in Charleston, W.Va., and together make their way to Washington by July 26.

Franklin said the group planned many of its overnight camping stops, but not all of them. “A number of times, we’ve rolled into towns and just met people,” he said. “We’ve been pretty well taken care of. Everyone has been so friendly when they find out what we’re doing.”

The group found itself in Louisville last weekend during the annual Forecastle Festival, which featured Widespread Panic, The Black Crowes and other musicians interested in environmental activism. The travelers didn’t know about the festival, but a Louisville host called the promoter, who gave them free tickets.

“People are so generous to us,”  said Lucy Richards, 20, of Durango, Colo., who will be a freshman at Stanford University in the fall. “We meet tons of people every day and tell them about what we’re doing. There’s so much interest in the environment and climate change.”

Travelers Lucy Richards and Remy Franklin do a video interview with Shane Tedder, sustainability coordinator at the University of Kentucky. At right is Brad Flowers of Lexington. Photo by Tom Eblen

Travelers Lucy Richards and Remy Franklin do a video interview with Shane Tedder, sustainability coordinator at the University of Kentucky. At right is Brad Flowers of Lexington.

Changing the face of northwest Lexington

July 13, 2009

Conversion of the Eastern State Hospital property into the new campus of Bluegrass Community and Technical College is perhaps Lexington’s most important urban redevelopment project in decades.

So it is good to see that the people running this project seem to be serious about doing it right.

BCTC President Augusta Julian assembled a strong planning team that has been working for months in consultation with a diverse group of specialists and stakeholders. Now, you can have your say.

Officials will hold a public forum to seek comments on the campus master plan at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the North Lexington YMCA at 381 West Loudon Avenue.

“We have made every effort to talk to everyone,” said Stan Harvey, a principal in the design firm Urban Collage. “Even though we’ve come a long way, it’s early enough in the process that it can still be refined.”

A second public hearing will be scheduled in the fall, when the site plan is near completion.

The project was made possible by a brilliant land swap announced last year: Eastern State, one of the nation’s oldest hospitals, will get a new facility on the University of Kentucky‘s Coldstream property on Newtown Pike. BCTC will get a new campus on the Eastern State property. UK will get BCTC’s Cooper Drive campus for future expansion.

The new BCTC campus will be a landmark project for several reasons.

For one thing, it is a rare opportunity to build a new college campus for an institution experiencing huge growth and rapid change to meet the needs of Kentucky’s 21st-century economy. Julian sees the possibility that enrollment could double from the current 12,000 students within a decade.

But the planning team wanted to avoid the classic commuter-school design — an island of buildings surrounded by a sea of surface parking. The plan calls for more than 60 percent of parking to be in structures along railroad tracks, with surface lots concentrated near the “back” of the campus along Loudon Avenue.

Morgan McIlwain, of M2D Design Group landscape architects, said a lot of thought was given to how to integrate mass transit into the plan, as well as bicycle and pedestrian access. Officials plan to incorporate into the campus a part of the proposed Legacy Trail — a bike and pedestrian trail that ultimately will link downtown Lexington to the Kentucky Horse Park.

The planning team also realized that the campus will have a huge impact on redevelopment of the surrounding area, which includes the YMCA, Lexmark and Coolivan Park.

The team estimates that 88 acres of surrounding property is now either vacant or “underutilized.” Much of it is old industrial land that Harvey hopes can be rezoned for high-density residential, commercial and other private developments that he expects to grow up around the campus.

A lot of thought has been put into Fourth Street, which will connect the campus to nearby Transylvania University, and Newtown Pike, the extension of which will connect it back to UK and the Cooper Drive campus.

The 48-acre Eastern State site, which has been closed to the public since the hospital began operations there in 1816, was something of a mystery. When Loudon Avenue was extended many years ago, workers discovered 4,500 graves that were reburied there in an area that will be maintained as a cemetery.

The planning team has worked for months with the Kentucky Heritage Council and others to survey the site. Surprisingly, no more graves have been found, Harvey said.

The team is recommending the renovation and reuse of four of the dozen buildings now on the site. Those include the white-columned administration building, the hospital’s most recognizable structure, and an architecturally significant 1906 “laundry” building.

But it turns out that the most historic feature of the property is the front lawn, whose design has essentially been unchanged since 1816. McIlwain said the lawn will be preserved, as well as the relationship of buildings to Fourth Street and Newtown Pike.

Plans call for the campus to eventually have about 14 buildings of three to five stories, with a total investment exceeding $500 million over two decades. A new state law will require construction to adhere to “green” building standards. That could include roof gardens and water-permeable paving.

In addition to Urban Collage and M2D, the project team includes two other top local firms: EOP Architects and Staggs and Fisher engineering. International firms on the team include Perkins + Will, which specializes in campus design, and HDR civil engineers.

The new BCTC campus will change the face of northwest Lexington. Now’s the time to have your say about what that face should look like.

CentrePointe update: Timing is everything.

July 8, 2009

Today’s meeting of the Courthouse Area Design Review Board offered a few updates on CentrePointe, the massive downtown development project that 16 months after its announcement remains a mirage.

Darby Turner, the attorney for developer Dudley Webb, said Webb is in Europe working to secure financing for the $250 million project from the estate of a mysterious, unidentified investor who is said to have died last fall, leaving the hotel-condo-office tower in limbo.

“We hope to have that (financing) in 30-to-60 days,” Turner said. But he quickly acknowledged, “We’ve been saying that, frankly, for some period of time, but all in good faith.”

The three review board members present seemed understandably skeptical. A year ago, they accepted Webb’s argument that he needed quick permission to demolish a dozen buildings on the block, including one dating to 1826, because his development was too important to delay.

Turner said today that once financing is secured, excavation work could begin within a month. Digging down three stories for an underground parking garage will take about three months. Then, foundations must be built before the proposed 35-story tower can begin rising from the ground.

The big issue, of course, is financing. The global economic meltdown has stopped similar projects worldwide dead in their tracks. The demand for big four-star convention hotels and luxury condos just isn’t what it used to be.

Because CentrePointe sits inside the historic overlay district of the old Fayette County Courthouse (now the Lexington History Museum), the review board had to give permission for the old buildings to be demolished and CentrePointe to be built.

The board gave that one-year permit last November. The permit won’t expire until November, but Turner was appearing to ask for a one-year extension. Now.

The board was confused. Why would Webb want an extension that would expire in July 2010 rather than asking in the fall and getting one that wouldn’t expire until November 2010?

Turner said having more lead time would “give assurance to our investor that this project is still doable in Lexington.”  He also said he wanted to avoid someone trying to challenge an extension in the fall.

What Turner didn’t say — but several people were thinking — was that it also would move the next renewal request, if there is one, to July 2010 instead of November 2010, when the mayor and Urban County Council members must stand for re-election. CentrePointe’s public credibility isn’t what it used to be.

Asked about that after the meeting, Turner said politics had nothing to do with his request.

Review board Chairman Mike Meuser, a lawyer, wanted to delay action on Turner’s request until the board’s next regular meeting in October. But a staff attorney told him that wasn’t allowed under city ordinance.

“It just doesn’t make any sense to me, either for the applicant or the community or the board to reauthorize these permits now,” Meuser said.

Still, the board ended up approving the extension request. Legally, it seemed to have no other choice.

In other news, Turner said J.W. Marriott, which Webb says plans to put a luxury hotel in CentrePointe, wanted interior design changes that will require some architectural revisions, such as moving elevators.

But Turner said the exterior design hasn’t been changed. I guess that means it still looks like some of those developments I saw going up around Atlanta in the 1980s.

While the review board was meeting at city hall, a bulldozer was rumbling around the CentrePointe site, three blocks west on Main Street. It was spreading fill dirt recently brought in so grass can be planted.

Despite the latest “30 or 60 days” estimate, I’m not holding my breath. CentrePointe may defy the global economic odds. Construction may really begin in a few months.

But I think a better bet might be on who will get next summer’s mowing contract for the empty block in the center of Lexington.

Internet success story with a Lexington link

July 8, 2009

One of the November election’s big stories was how Barack Obama and other Democrats used the Internet to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in small contributions and connect with their supporters.

Much of that strategy and technology was developed by Blue State Digital, a company founded by four young guys who experimented with what the Internet could do for politics during the 2004 presidential campaigns of Howard Dean and Gen. Wesley Clark.

One of those guys, Ben Self, is a Lexington native. Not only that, he still lives here, although that seems to be a relative term these days. Last week he was in Portugal. Before that, Brazil, Mexico, Italy, Australia and the Dominican Republic.

Business is booming for Blue State Digital. Politicians and parties, businesses, universities, unions and non-profit organizations around the world are hiring the company to try to get some of Obama’s online magic for themselves.

“It seems non-stop these days,” Self said when I first met him at a downtown coffee shop in April. “We’ve never done any marketing. All of our clients are people who come in through our Web site and say, ‘Can you help us with this?’ It’s overwhelming.”

In the past year, Blue State Digital has doubled its staff to more than 100 people. It has headquarters in Washington, D.C., a technology center in Boston and offices in New York, Los Angeles and London.

Self, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he spends several days each week on the road, but always tries to get back to Lexington for the weekend.

Even when he’s here, Self has conference calls at odd hours with clients around the world. Earlier this week, there was an evening conference call to Australia, where one of his clients is the prime minister.

Self lives in an old house in the Aylesford neighborhood with his wife, Rebecca. They met as students at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. A former teacher who also has a degree from MIT, she is the education director for Seedleaf, a local non-profit that develops sustainable food sources for people at risk of hunger.

“We love Lexington,” Self said. “We would never leave.”

After studying in Boston and living in Madison, Wis., founding Blue State Digital gave the Selfs the flexibility to move back to Lexington and be close to their families.

Self knew the election campaign would be all-consuming. While partner Joe Rospars worked as the Obama campaign’s new media director, Self was technology director for the Democratic National Committee, where he managed an overhaul of its Web site, computer infrastructure and national voter file database.

Blue State Digital’s pace hasn’t slowed much since November. The company continues to work for the DNC and Obama’s Organizing for America arm, as well as a growing list of progressive politicians and parties worldwide.

Blue State Digital also is developing other lines of work, such as helping universities build fund-raising relationships with alumni. The company’s 200 clients include the University of Florida, the American Red Cross, the Carter Center, the Tony Awards, the Prince of Wales’ Rainforest Project, the Sundance Film Festival and Wal-Mart Watch, which criticizes the retailer’s employment practices.

Clients are interested in Blue State Digital’s technology and expertise in building online communities.

“Technology is enabling people to organize quicker, more effectively and cheaper … and (public) engagement is tearing down all the walls,” Self said. “It’s about talking to people honestly and making them feel a part of your organization instead of customers of your organization, no matter what it is.”

As the name implies, Blue State Digital’s political and commercial work reflects the progressive values of its partners and employees, Self said. Several politicians and companies have approached the company and been rejected because they weren’t compatible with those values.

Eventually, the whirlwind will subside. But Self thinks Blue State Digital has a bright future as people’s use of the Internet matures. He finds the work fascinating, and he hopes he can continue doing it from Lexington.

“I feel like I got a fantastic education here in the public school system,” Self said, adding that Dunbar’s math, science and technology magnet program prepared him well for MIT.

If Lexington wants to keep and attract more smart people like Ben Self, it must continue to focus on the infrastructure and quality-of-life issues that technology entrepreneurs and workers look for in a city.

“I do wonder what would happen if I didn’t have this company,” Self said. “Would I be able to stay here? For a technologist, there’s not a huge number of opportunities here.”

Idea Festival speaker profiled in New York Times

July 6, 2009

The New York Times Magazine on Sunday profiled Will Allen, the urban gardening guru and local food supersalesman who will speak this fall in Louisville at the annual Idea Festival.

Allen, 60, a former pro basketball player, is the brain behind Growing Power farm, which provides nutritious local food and jobs for inner city residents of Milwaukee, Wisc. Allen’s work has brought him one of the famous $500,000 “genius” awards from the MacArthur Foundation and other honors.

Allen will speak at the Idea Festival on Saturday, Sept. 26, at 8:45 a.m. at the Kentucky Center. Click here for more information. Click here to read the New York Times Magazine profile by Elizabeth Royte.

Historic First Baptist building needs saving

July 4, 2009

I never paid much attention to Lexington’s First Baptist Church, the Gothic limestone temple that overlooks West Main Street across from Rupp Arena.

Unil recently, I had never been inside. It has been a long time since many other people have, either.

When Pastor John C’deBaca gave me a tour, I was amazed. The 1,500-seat sanctuary has arched oak pews beneath a stunning vaulted ceiling of massive chestnut beams. There are four balconies, beautiful stained glass windows and a huge pipe organ.

There also are water-damaged walls and a stone front entrance that is closed and braced with wooden beams because city code enforcement officers fear it could collapse.

Rebuilding the entrance would cost about $75,000. Add another $24,500 for electrical work. And $14,000 for a new roof. Then there are the crumbling stairwells to the front balcony, water problems in the basement and worn masonry and exterior windows. The list seems endless.

What was once one of the South’s largest Baptist congregations has dwindled to about 50 people, many of whom are native Spanish-speakers. The congregation’s financial resources are no match for the urgent repairs their once-grand building needs.

“We’ve been working on it piecemeal as we can, but it’s a huge challenge,” said C’deBaca, who once taught building trades in Texas and now spends as much time ministering to his building as to his flock. “There’s a lot of potential in this building … if the community knew what was here.”

C’deBaca has been working with Tom Blues, the Urban County Council member, Bill Johnson of the Old Western Suburb neighborhood and others to come up with ideas to restore and perhaps find other uses for this 35,000-square-foot architectural gem.

So far, solutions have been elusive.

First Baptist Church’s history is as illustrious as its building. Founded as Town Branch Church in 1786, it was one of the first Baptist congregations west of the Allegheny Mountains. Its first pastor, John Gano, baptized George Washington.

The congregation met in a log cabin on the site, which also was Lexington’s pioneer cemetery. The church moved to Mill Street in 1819 but returned in 1859 and inhabited a succession of three buildings, two of which burned.

Most graves were moved to Lexington Cemetery in the mid-1800s. But when the last church building was demolished in 1913 to build the present one, the grave of John Bradford, publisher of Kentucky’s first newspaper, was found under the west wall. It was left there, according to state historical records.

First Baptist Church has suffered declining membership for decades. There were schisms and disputes, but location seems to have been the big factor.

There is little nearby parking, except for a small lot whose rental now provides income for the church. Some of the church’s 67 rooms are rented to Inner City Breakthrough Ministries.

What does the future hold?

“Ideally, I would like to see the congregation grow and prosper,” C’deBaca said. “But that hasn’t happened in the 11 years I’ve been here. We’re open to possibilities, and we need help.”

Perhaps the church could partner with other ministries, or turn the building into a religious conference center, Johnston suggested.

Or the church could sell the building, which would raise money to restart its ministry elsewhere. A developer could then turn the building into a concert hall, museum or exhibition space, a community center or even apartments, offices or restaurants.

One catch is that the building couldn’t be dramatically altered and still be eligible for historic tax credits that could help pay for its renovation.

Julie Good, executive director of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, did her master’s thesis on old churches that have been renovated for other uses. “There are so many examples of adaptive reuse of buildings like this,” she said.

“You have a great building that should be preserved at an important downtown location,” said Blues, the councilman, as we gazed up at the chestnut-beam ceiling.

“If this could be seen by people with good business sense and imagination, I’m sure we could figure out something.”

Want to learn about Lexington? Become an ambassador

July 2, 2009

Did you know that both France and Spain once claimed to own Kentucky?

That the Marquis de Lafayette’s winemaker planted America’s first commercial vineyard here in 1798?

That a Lexington man invented the ripcord parachute pack?

And that Kentucky’s horse-to-people ratio is 1-to-12?

Do you know how to help someone visit a horse farm, see a distillery or find a good place to eat or hike?

I know these things because I am now a Certified Tourism Ambassador.

I’m sure you’re impressed.

I was one of 10 people who gathered at the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau last Saturday morning for a four-hour class. We already had read a thick workbook and completed exercises on local geography and visitor problem-solving.

After we passed a test, we joined 860 others from 30 previous classes who have become Certified Tourism Ambassadors since early last year. We even get a badge. OK, so it’s really a lapel pin.

The bureau hopes to train at least 1,500 ambassadors by next fall, when Lexington will host its biggest tourism event ever, the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Candidates for the training include hotel and restaurant workers, cab drivers, police officers, LexCall and airport staff members, Realtors and people who want to be volunteers at the Games. But anyone can do it.

In addition to Lexington, classes have been held in Frankfort, Richmond, Lawrenceburg, Berea and Nicholasville.

The idea behind the program is that the best way to build a tourism economy is to make sure each visitor has a great experience. That will make those visitors more likely to tell others good things about a city and come back again.

Tourism is big business in Central Kentucky, and not just because of the Games. The bureau claims tourism has a $2 billion economic impact in the region, thanks largely to horses, history and bourbon. Lexington alone has 2.5 million overnight visitors each year — an average of 6,900 a day.

“That’s almost 7,000 opportunities we have each day to make a good impression,” said Julie Schickel, who runs the training program.

My class was a diverse group that included a hotel supervisor, business people and several retirees who like to volunteer.

Wickliffe “Wickie” Hardwick, a retiree who wants to volunteer during the Games, decided to take the class because “we were told that this was a great place to start.”

Hardwick is a Winchester native who has lived here for most of her life. Still, she learned a lot from the training workbook, which is a great, concise briefing on Central Kentucky history, culture and attractions.

“There were so many details I didn’t know; it’s been fun going through all of this,” said Susan Morris, a retired Chicago native who has lived in Lexington for 36 years.

Almost everyone in my class was either a Central Kentucky native or had lived here a long time. We enjoyed sharing local trivia, restaurant recommendations and tips for places to go and things to do.

“I learned a lot from hearing people talk about their favorite places,” said Brenda Kirkpatrick, who at 19 was the youngest class member. She is a front office supervisor at the Hilton Suites at Lexington Green.

Kirkpatrick, who was born and raised in the Nonesuch community of Woodford County, said childhood vacations often involved traveling around Kentucky. After taking the ambassador class, she said, “I think I’m going to go do it all again.”

For more information

To learn more about Certified Tourism Ambassador training, contact Julie Schickel at the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau, (859) 244-7717 or

Raise the flag, strike up the orchestra

July 1, 2009

Nathan Vanderhoof, left, and Randall Smith of the Lexington Fire Department attach a giant flag to the front of Old Morrison hall at Transylvania University on Wednesday afternoon in preparation for the annual patriotic concert Friday evening.

The performance by the Lexington Philharmonic and the Lexington Singers is one of my favorite community events of the year. Come early with a picnic supper, a blanket and folding chairs and visit with your neighbors before the music begins. After dark, everyone will wave little flags and sparklers as the orchestra finishes by playing John Philip Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever.

This year’s concert will have an extra twist: It’s the first performance for the Philharmonic’s new music director, Scott Terrell, who is succeeding local legend George Zack. Read Rich Copley’s article about Terrell here.