‘Captain Kentucky’ is back with two new books

May 31, 2011

After lying low for a few years, Captain Kentucky is back, resuming his epic quest to make the world safe for quirky characters and good storytelling.

Lexington author Ed McClanahan this week publishes a collection of stories from a creative writing class he taught at the University of Kentucky. And, in October, he will mark his 79th birthday with the publication of I Just Hitched In From the Coast: The Ed McClanahan Reader (Counterpoint, $18.95).

McClanahan might be known best for his 1983 novel, The Natural Man, the hilarious story of a teenage boy’s coming of age in 1950s small-town Kentucky. But McClanahan also is famous for the company he kept during the 1960s and 1970s.

Known by his hippie moniker Captain Kentucky, McClanahan was one of author Ken Kesey’s band of “merry pranksters.” Their psychedelic drug-induced shenanigans were chronicled by Tom Wolfe in his landmark “new journalism” story, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

McClanahan first attracted attention as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University in 1962, which put him in California just as the counter-culture scene was blooming. He has published nine previous books and many magazine stories. In 1974, Playboy published his profile of Lexington music legend Carlos Toadvine, aka Little Enis, the left-handed, backwards, upside-down guitar player.

McClanahan’s long hair turned white years ago, but he has lost little of his zeal. That was clear as we chatted in his home office, which is stuffed with memorabilia from a colorful life enthusiastically lived.

McClanahan said he had tired of teaching after a long academic career at Oregon State, Stanford, the University of Montana, Northern Kentucky and UK. But he returned to UK to teach a creative writing class in fall 2009 after a two-decade absence.

Once he got to know his eclectic class of 13 students, McClanahan decided they should write and edit a book. The result is Horsefeathers: Stories From Room 241 (Wind Publications, $15), with a cover illustration by Lexington artist John Lackey.

McClanahan had been intrigued by the concept of writers editing one another’s work since he helped publish a California literary magazine four decades ago. “Our editorial policy then was that we never turned anything down,” he said. “We did have someone send in a 400-page novel that was awful. We managed to lose it.”

The writing students who contributed to Horsefeathers included a UK management professor and a 69-year-old woman “who wrote the raciest story in the book.” Class member Scotty Adkins, an English graduate student, helped organize the project.

Class discussions often continued over dinner, with McClanahan entertaining everyone with his tales about hanging out with writers such as Kesey, Hunter Thompson and Truman Capote. “Ed doesn’t have a snooty bone in his body,” Adkins said. “He takes the craft seriously, but he doesn’t take himself seriously.”

Readers can have their own McClanahan experience this fall. His new anthology includes 14 new and previously published pieces of fiction, non-fiction and stories that fall somewhere in between.

I Just Hitched In From the Coast includes the 2002 story, Fondelle, Or: The Whore with a Heart of Gold. It was inspired by an incident that happened to McClanahan during his first big adventure, hitchhiking back to Kentucky in 1954 from a summer of working on road crews in California’s Yosemite National Park.

McClanahan said a preacher had just left him in a swamp near Beaumont, Texas, when he was picked up by a one-armed asphalt salesman. The salesman was driving a new car he had bought for the prostitute he was taking to New Orleans to marry. McClanahan was quickly recruited to be the best man.

The wedding plans fell apart, and McClanahan, hung over from heavy drinking on Bourbon Street, decided a Greyhound bus would be an easier way to get home. Still, he had the presence of mind to have the bus driver drop him off just short of Maysville so he could thumb a ride for the last few miles.

The strategy paid off when a high school buddy witnessed his triumphal return. “Where you been?” the friend asked, giving McClanahan the opportunity to reply with all the sophistication a 22-year-old could muster: “I just hitched in from the coast.”

Lexington scooter, bike sales rise along with gas prices

May 30, 2011

Scooters have always been fun, but with gas prices hovering around $4 per gallon, they’re also looking practical.

“I love it,” said Lesme Romero, owner of Lexington Pasta, who bought an Italian-made Vespa scooter last November to deliver pasta from his shop on North Limestone to restaurants and markets around town.

Romero drives his Vespa almost daily, but has filled the tank only twice, because it gets about 90 miles to the gallon. Downtown parking is easy, he said, and the bright red-and-white scooter is good advertising.

“People see us and say, ‘There’s the pasta guys!'” he said. “I take it to the farmers market and Thursday Night Live, and everybody wants to stop by and see the Vespa.”

Vespa of Lexington has sold nearly 200 scooters since it opened in November 2009 at 198 Moore Drive, said owners Whit Hiler and Michael Wright. The company sells Vespa, Piaggio, Genuine and Sym scooters and services most brands.

While many people buy scooters for fun, an increasing number commute on them, Hiler said. Scooters have been especially popular with people who work at the University of Kentucky (campus parking is easier) and among families that want to go from two automobiles to one.

Scooter prices start at about $2,100 and go to about $9,000, depending on brand, model and engine size, Hiler said. Gas mileage (regular unleaded) ranges from about 50 mpg to nearly 100 mpg. Top speeds range from about 35 mph for small-engine models, such as the one Romero bought, to 90 mph.

A motorcycle license is required to drive all but the scooters with the smallest engines, which still require a driver’s license or learner’s permit. Helmets are strongly recommended.

The most popular scooters the shop sells are Vespas — Italian for “wasp.” The Italian company Piaggio, which made aircraft during World War II, began making Vespas in 1946 to satisfy Europe’s need for cheap transportation. The Vespas steel body, which has become a design classic, fully encloses the drivetrain, and there is a covered ledge for the driver’s feet.

There was a Vespa dealer on New Circle Road until 1981, when the company withdrew from the U.S. market for two decades. Other Vespa dealers in the region now are in Louisville, Elizabethtown and Cincinnati.

“Lexington has been a good market for scootering,” said Hiler, adding that his shop ranked third in sales among Vespa’s 42 dealers in the Great Lakes region in 2010.

Local enthusiasts last year formed the Circle 4 Scooter club, which has a Facebook page and sponsors rallies and other events. “Scooters can save you a lot of money, but they’re also fun — that’s the biggest benefit,” Hiler said. “We call ourselves fun dealers.”

A cheaper ride

Lexington bicycle shops also are seeing sales rise along with gas prices.

“We’ve had a pretty strong season so far this year with gas prices doing what they’re doing,” said Billy Yates, owner of Pedal Power Bike Shop at South Upper and Maxwell streets. “Even if people commute (by bicycle) just one or two times a week, they’re starting to see a savings when they fill up at the pump.”

Pedal Power is selling more practical bikes than in recent years — hybrid models with upright seating, fenders, racks, baskets and bags. “It’s a very viable means of transportation for many people,” he said.

That is because statistics show many automobile trips are within a mile or two of someone’s home, said Wendy Trimble, owner of Pedal the Planet bike shop, 3450 Richmond Road.

“Our sales are at an all-time high,” Trimble said. “We attribute some of it to commuting and recreation, but a lot is health and fitness issues. Bicycling is a great, low-impact way to lose weight, and it’s fun.”

You will see more bicycles on Lexington streets Monday than on any other day of the year. The annual Bike Lexington festival is expected to draw several thousand people to activities at Courthouse Plaza and a car-free family fun ride around town. More information is at BikeLexington.com.

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Veterans’ sacrifice often continues after wars end

May 28, 2011

The men and women we honor on Memorial Day weekend are not all lost on the battlefield.

Veterans who survive combat too often have been denied care for their damaged bodies and minds. In every war, including the American Revolution, caring for wounded veterans has been a cost this nation’s leaders have been reluctant to pay.

That is the story told in a new book by Lexington authors Robert J. Topmiller and T. Kerby Neill, Binding Their Wounds, America’s Assault on Its Veterans (Paradigm Publishers, $22.95).

Topmiller served as a Navy hospital corpsman with the Marines at Khe Sanh, one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. He wrote about his horrific experience in a previous book, Red Clay on My Boots. Topmiller earned a doctorate in history from the University of Kentucky and taught at Eastern Kentucky University.

Binding Their Wounds grew out of Topmiller’s combat experience, his study of the Vietnam War and veterans’ issues, his many trips to Vietnam to help orphans with birth defects likely caused by Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the U.S. military, and his outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq.

But friends think this was a book too painful for Topmiller to finish. In August 2008, he left home with the manuscript, checked into a motel and killed himself. Neill asked Topmiller’s widow and publisher for permission to finish the book.

“I had lunch with Bob about 10 days before he died, and he was talking about the book,” Neill said. “I’m a clinical psychologist and I had no inkling at our lunch that he was in the kind of distress he was in.”

Neill and Topmiller, who was 59 when he died, became friends through their work as peace activists and a shared passion for veterans’ issues. Neill, a Navy veteran and retired psychologist, had worked several years in the Veterans Administration.

Neill finished this book with help from many people, including Peter Berres, a Vietnam veteran and scholar who wrote a chapter about Agent Orange. George Herring, a University of Kentucky historian and leading expert on the Vietnam War, wrote the forward.

After telling Topmiller’s compelling story, this well-written book chronicles the history of broken promises to and mistreatment of America’s veterans. In every war, veterans have had to lobby, protest and even fight to get promised compensation and care from politicians who wanted to save money or “move on.” Minority and women veterans fared even worse than white men.

The book explores the government’s attempts to deny care to veterans exposed to radiation, Agent Orange and other chemical hazards. And it details how the Bush administration was unprepared to care for so many injured soldiers in the early years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Today’s combat veterans return home with physical wounds that would have killed previous generations on the battlefield. But perhaps the biggest challenges now, as always, are the unseen wounds.

This psychological damage has gone by different names throughout history: “soldier’s heart” in the Civil War, “shell shock” in World War I, “battle fatigue” in World War II and Korea. Now referred to as “post-traumatic stress,” these injuries have been a huge issue for Vietnam veterans and those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee last week grilled VA officials about rampant suicide, which has surpassed combat as the leading cause of death among active military personnel. Veterans now account for about 20 percent of the nation’s 30,000 suicides each year.

Neill said significant progress has been made in care for veterans in recent years, from electronic medical records and post-traumatic stress treatment to training and pay for family caregivers. But he said more must be done, despite projections that veterans’ care will push the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan past $3 trillion.

Toward the end of his life, Topmiller seemed more distressed by what was then happening in Iraq than what had happened in Vietnam. “He had hoped we had learned the lesson of wars of choice,” Neill said.

As with any medical issue, the cheapest and most effective treatment is prevention.

That is why Neill focused the book’s last chapter on how to prevent future wars.

War has become too easy, Neill said. Powerful economic interests encourage military adventurism, and an all-volunteer military distances most affluent Americans from the tragic consequences.

“The size of our military and what we invest in it is perhaps one of the reasons we use it so carelessly,” he said.

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Monday is more than just another holiday

May 27, 2011

Monday is Memorial Day, when we honor the men and women who have fought and died in military service to our country. The Bluegrass Military Affairs Coalition has compiled a list of Memorial Day observances this weekend in Kentucky. Click here to find one to attend.

Not all of the military men and women we lose die on the battlefield. In my Sunday column, I will talk with a Kentucky author whose new book explores how poorly this country has treated its veterans — from Congress’ foot-dragging on promised pay and benefits to Continental Army soldiers to poor treatment given to some veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The book is a painful reminder that we must do better by those from whom we ask so much.

This is the weekend to get out your bicycle

May 26, 2011

Keep your fingers crossed, but it looks as if the weather will cooperate for Central Kentucky’s big bicycle weekend. Events are planned for cyclists of every kind, from kids and newbies to spandex-clad regulars:

Friday-Sunday: The Bluegrass Cycling Club hosts its 33rd annual Horsey Hundred tour of rural Central Kentucky. The event begins Friday afternoon with registration at Georgetown College and a pre-ride party at Royal Springs Park in Georgetown. On Saturday, there will be rides of 26, 36, 50, 76 and 102 miles to choose from. On Sunday, the rides are 34, 50 or 70 miles. There will be lunch and plenty of rest stops both days, plus a party in Midway on Saturday evening. For more information and registration, go to www.bgcycling.org.

Saturday: The Bike Bash takes place at Cheapside Park in downtown Lexington from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. There will be music by the Matt Duncan Band, “slow” bike races and a stunt show by professional mountain bike rider Mike Steidley.

Monday: Several thousand cyclists will converge on Courthouse Plaza in downtown Lexington for the annual Bike Lexington events. This free day of fun, sponsored by Pedal Power Bike Shop, includes a car-free, 10-mile family fun ride through Lexington that starts at noon. Other activities include a bike safety rodeo for kids at 10 a.m., bike races all afternoon, vendors and more. For more information: www.bikelexington.com.

Strangers give twins a makeover, new outlook on life

May 25, 2011

After 33 years in the modeling and talent business, Janie Olmstead thought she had seen everything. Then she met her new friends, Hilda and Wilda.

Hilda Bevins, 47, lives in Clay City with her twin sister, Wilda Bryant, and her ex-husband, Gary Bevins. Bryant can’t work because of a heart condition. Hilda Bevins has a job at the Arby’s in Stanton, but she has no health insurance.

Bevins used to have a mouthful of bad teeth, with gaps in between where some had fallen out. She hated to work the drive-through window and would cover her mouth with a hand so customers wouldn’t see. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

“She would wake up every night crying, trying to hold the pain in,” Bryant said of her sister. “I was trying and trying to think of a way to get her some help.”

Bevins couldn’t afford a dentist and couldn’t get into a free clinic. So Bryant wrote to Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and other TV stars, asking them for help. None replied.

Then Bryant found a business card for Olmstead, a former Miss Kentucky who owns Images Model and Talent Agency in Lexington. One of Bevins’ grown sons had picked up the card somewhere years before and had left it in a kitchen drawer. Bryant wrote to Olmstead in February 2009, asking for a makeover for her sister.

“We would like to just look as good as some of your models,” she wrote. “But we are having a hard time.”

Olmstead couldn’t get the hand-written letter out of her mind. She wrote back and eventually drove to Stanton to meet the twins. Making arrangements wasn’t easy; they don’t have a phone, so Olmstead had to reach them through letters or the fast-food restaurant’s pay phone during Hilda’s afternoon break.

Olmstead thought she could enlist friends to help her give both twins makeovers. “Wilda set all this up, but I wanted to do it for her, too,” she said.

Then she saw Bevins’ teeth. After several dentists turned down her requests for help, Olmstead explained the predicament to Georgetown insurance agent Becky Jordan at a businesswomen’s luncheon.

Jordan suggested she contact a childhood friend, Dr. Joseph Lasheen. The dentist and Dr. Gregory Erena, an oral surgeon, donated their services, removing Bevins’ remaining teeth and fitting her with false ones.

Olmstead also noticed that Bevins didn’t see well. Dr. Tammy Hoskins, a friend and optometrist in Harrodsburg, examined Bevins’ eyes and gave her glasses.

With Bevins’ health issues addressed, the makeovers began. Margaret Wagner of Insignia Hair Salon and Pam Nystrom of Seasons Salon went to work on the twins’ long hair and neglected eyebrows. Anthony Adams of the Kroger at Beaumont Centre provided grooming supplies and jewelry. Heather Hay of Mary Kay cosmetics gave them makeup and taught them how to use it. Images model Melissa Stocker taught the twins poise and etiquette.

Sandy Hicks of Dillard’s helped them choose new clothes, shoes and handbags. The twins said it was their first visit to Fayette Mall — and their first ride on an escalator.

“Each person gave them something, and I was happy to help make it happen,” Olmstead said. “I like to pay it forward when I can. That’s what we do in my business, is give you self-esteem and self-confidence.”

The twins said the generosity of strangers has changed their lives. “People didn’t recognize me at work,” Bevins said. “My hair was shorter and colored, and I had new teeth and glasses.”

The twins said they now dress more carefully and take better care of themselves. Bevins thinks she gets more respect. “You’ve got more people coming up and talking to you when you look better,” she said. “When you aren’t in pain and ashamed of yourself and your clothes.”

After high school, Bevins said, she had wanted to study nursing, but she ended up in food service. Now, she dreams of returning to vocational school. Bevins would like to be an aide in a nursing home.

“I hope to make a better future for myself,” she said. “I’m not afraid to smile now.”

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Thinking solar for your home? Lots of options

May 16, 2011

I heard from readers when I wrote about the pioneering solar home that Lexington architect Richard Levine built for himself in the 1970s and recently upgraded with new technology.

I heard from more readers when I wrote about Warren County’s new “net-zero” school, designed to generate as much power as it uses.

Many readers wanted to know this: How could they use solar power and innovative design to help the planet and lower their utility bills?

As solar technology gets better and cheaper, it is becoming a viable alternative for more Kentucky homeowners, said Andy McDonald, director of the Kentucky Solar Partnership, an advocacy organization in Frankfort. Options range from solar-powered water heaters to super-insulated “passive” homes.

Because Kentucky isn’t sunny year-around, McDonald said, “Many people believe that solar is not viable here, but that isn’t true. Germany leads the world in solar energy, and Kentucky has better solar resources than Germany does.”

The difference, McDonald said, is government policy and incentives. The United States lags many countries in policies promoting renewable energy, and Kentucky lags many states in incentives. But help is out there.

Since 2004, Kentucky homeowners have been able to hook solar generators into their local utility, getting credit for power they feed into the grid to offset power they draw at night and on cloudy days. It is possible for homeowners to break even – and even earn a profit if their utility’s power comes from the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The federal government since 2005 has offered tax incentives for installing solar and other renewable energy systems. The state also offers some incentives, and the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development has flexible loans for some systems installed in Eastern Kentucky.

The most popular systems are solar water heaters, like the one Dave Kollar had installed in his Madison County home two years ago. The water heater is powered by two small solar panels on his roof that charge batteries. When the sun isn’t shining, the water heater can run on regular current. Solar water heaters in Kentucky typically produce about 70 percent of a home’s hot water over the course of a year.

Kollar said the system cost him about $5,000, after incentives. With what he is saving so far, he estimates it will pay for itself within 12 years. “For me, though, that’s just part of the equation,” said Kollar, chief engineer for Fox 56 television.

“I don’t know that we’re saving the planet, but fossil fuel is a finite resource and it seems silly to waste it,” said Kollar, who also supplements his home’s furnace with a wood stove. “Besides, I didn’t want to go through another ice storm without hot water and heat.”

For homeowners wanting to do more than heat water, there is one key thing to understand: Success is not so much about how much power your solar system can produce; it is about how energy-efficient you can make your home so it uses as little power of any kind as possible.

The first step toward lower utility bills is weatherizing an existing home or designing a new home to minimize energy loss and take advantage of natural sunlight.

Basic design principles include having a home’s long axis facing south, with windows that let in winter sunshine but are shaded against summer heat. Likewise, minimize windows on a home’s west side, which gets a lot summer sun, and the north side, which catches winter winds, McDonald said.

While Kentucky may be behind other states in solar incentives, it is ahead of most when it comes to green building design. Levine, who last year received a “pioneer” award from the American Solar Energy Society, runs an architecture practice that is bringing European “passive” home design to Kentucky.

So-called passive homes are so heavily insulated that little energy is lost. They use only about 10 percent of the energy needed to heat and cool a well-built conventional home. Because these houses are so air tight, they are equipped with special ventilators that bring fresh air in from the outside with minimal heat and cooling loss.

Levine’s firm, CSC Design Studio, is designing five passive “net-zero” homes for Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. intended for sale to middle-income people. The first is under construction near Williamsburg.

CSC also recently designed a net-zero home for a client who will begin construction in July along the Kentucky River, said Michael Hughes, an architect who works with Levine. Power needed for these passive homes will come from solar panels on the roof.

Passive homes can cost as much as 25 percent more to build than conventional homes, but Hughes thinks prices will fall as more builders learn how to build them and domestic companies step in to compete with European manufacturers of super-insulated doors and windows. “I think it’s the future of homebuilding,” Hughes said.

Solar Resources

  • The first step to lower utility bills isn’t solar technology – it is making your home more energy efficient. A good place to get more information about that the Kentucky Housing Corp.’s Web site:  KyHomePerformance.com
  • The Kentucky Solar Partnership’s Web site is a good place to find information about solar home technology, from a list of contractors to available incentives. The organization is planning a training session in August for contractors interested in learning how to install solar systems.  Kysolar.org
  • Additional information about incentives for energy efficiency and solar technology can be found at: Dsireusa.org and Solar.calfinder.com/rebates/Kentucky
  • The Rural Energy for America program offers grants to some farms and rural businesses for installing renewable energy systems: Reapgrants.com
  • Information about solar and other renewable energy options: SouthFace.org
  • Several magazines offer resources, including Home Power at HomePower.com, and Solar Today at SolarToday.com
  • CSC Design Studio in Lexington designs custom passive and solar homes: CSCDesignStudio.com

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Departing hospital CEO shares thoughts on Lexington

May 14, 2011

When a search firm approached Gene Woods six years ago about applying to become chief executive of St. Joseph Health System, he hesitated. It was in Kentucky.

Woods and his family were living in Washington, D.C.. They had never been to Kentucky, and the 40-year-old son of an African-American father and a Spanish mother wondered if they would fit in and find community.

While interviewing for the job, Woods and his wife, Ramona, explored downtown Lexington and stopped in Natasha’s Bistro & Bar for dinner. “It was really a welcoming environment,” he recalled. “We thought we might like it here.”

The Woods were back at Natasha’s a week ago Saturday, and the place was packed. Everyone was there to hear the farewell performance of The City’s lead singer and guitarist: Gene Woods.

Woods is leaving Lexington next month to take over a much larger Catholic hospital network in Dallas. Christus Health has facilities in 60 cities in eight states and Mexico and employs 30,000 people, including 8,000 doctors.

“I’m going to be focusing on my day job for a while,” Woods joked last week when we met for coffee. I wanted to get Woods’ perspective on Lexington, based on his relatively short but eventful time here.

Woods is proud of St. Joseph, which on his watch has built four new facilities, invested $80 million in technology, saved millions by streamlining processes and won awards for patient care. St. Joseph also has begun partnership talks with University Medical Center and Jewish Hospital & St. Mary’s HealthCare in Louisville.

Living in Lexington has been personally fulfilling for the Woods and their sons, ages 10 and 16. “We’ve made some phenomenal friends here,” he said. “My kids absolutely thrived.  I had heard that Lexington was a great place to raise a family, and, boy, is that right.”

Woods served on several boards, including Berea College and the Blue Grass Community Foundation. The family was active in the arts, including Romana’s work with Actors Guild and Gene’s performing with The City, a band whose other members have day jobs that include architecture, business and journalism.

Woods said the civic work he is most proud of was helping with restoration of the Lyric Theatre, an icon in Lexington’s African-American community. “I really believe strongly that the vibrancy of any community is its support for its arts,” he said.

Community spirit has grown during his time here, Woods said, along with support for the arts and cooperation within the business community. “It has been a period of significant change,” he said. “And the World Equestrian Games in some respects put a cherry on top.”

Woods said Lexington has so many assets to build on, from excellent public and private schools and universities to a magnificent rural landscape. Early on a recent morning, Woods was running near his home and noticed horses grazing in a misty field.  “I just stopped and took it all in,” he said.

“I have lived in places, such as the Virgin Islands, that were physically beautiful, but Lexington has as awe-inspiring a beauty as any place I’ve ever lived,” he said.

Woods said this city has most of the building blocks for future success. “This is a very easy place to live,” he said. There is little crime, it is easy to get around and people are friendly. But he said that while Lexington has done a lot in recent years to encourage and promote diversity, more could be done.

“I have always felt extraordinarily welcomed and comfortable in this community,” Woods said. “But I think it’s something you have to keep focused on. In order for Lexington to be perceived on the national stage the way it wants to be, I think there needs to be a continued commitment to diversity.”

When recruiting minorities for St. Joseph, Woods said, “What I heard most was, ‘What social networks am I going to get connected to when I come to Lexington?’ There have got to be forums where people can feel a part of the community. And things to do.”

Woods said a good start would be having more events downtown like last fall’s Spotlight Lexington concert series.

“What was interesting to me when I walked around downtown was you had folks seemingly from all walks of life,” he said. “People were enjoying each other, and I don’t recall one negative incident. That speaks to the culture of this place. It’s something you can build on – and other communities wish they had.”

Best time in a long time to guide Lexington’s growth

May 11, 2011

Lexington leaders have taken a significant first step in the latest round of planning for growth and prosperity. Now, it is time for them and everyone else to get involved in taking the next steps.

The mayor, most Urban County Council and Planning Commission members and representatives of the Home Builders Association and Commerce Lexington announced April 26 that they all agreed there is no need to expand the Urban Services Boundary in the foreseeable future.

That was a big step because it eliminated a divisive issue that has dominated previous updates of Lexington’s comprehensive land-use plan. Who can forget the bumper-sticker war of the 1990s: “Growth is Good” vs. “Growth Destroys Bluegrass Forever.” With the process no longer framed by a false choice of extremes, Lexington can now deal with the more complex reality.

A lot else has changed since the last plan update in 2006. The economy, housing market and lending environment are in serious slumps. We also know more than we did five years ago about the larger issues shaping Lexington’s future. And there is more expertise on these issues in the mayor’s office and council chambers than Lexington has ever seen before.

Officials say there are 6,700 vacant acres available for development inside the Urban Services Boundary, and perhaps an additional 6,000 acres suitable for redevelopment. “We have to be very sophisticated about how we use this land,” said Knox van Nagell, executive director of the Fayette Alliance, a group started in 2006 to promote good land use and rural preservation.

Two city task forces focusing on “infill and re development” and downtown “design excellence” have been working on proposed changes to those rules, and their chairmen say priorities are being set and recommendations will be made later this year.

Planners and developers also have better information to work with, thanks to a housing market study the city commissioned in 2008. It showed how development needs for the next two decades, when Lexington is expected to add an additional 50,000 residents, will be much different than in the past few decades.

Demand for the kind of residential development that has dominated in Lexington for decades — single-family, suburban homes with yards — is diminishing, and not just because buyers looking for that kind of home can get more for their money in surrounding counties.

Many aging baby boomers and their children want high-quality density: in-town, mixed-use neighborhoods where they can go places by walking or biking and not just driving a car.

The study also noted a serious shortage of affordable housing, which will become a bigger issue as global demand pushes gasoline prices higher. BUILD, a coalition of Lexington churches, has proposed creating a trust fund to help developers build affordable housing, a strategy effective in other cities. But city officials have been cool to the tax increase BUILD suggested, and other ways to raise several million dollars to start the fund haven’t been found.

There are other good ideas out there, too. The Fayette Alliance wants the city to create a land bank and vacant land commission — such as Louisville has — to streamline the process of private redevelopment of vacant and blighted land.

Ken Silvestri, a real estate broker whose recent deals include Southland Christian Church’s acquisition of the blighted former Lexington Mall site, has a few ideas, too.

He would like the city to assemble a database of land available for redevelopment, along with information about ownership and zoning. More analysis should be done about the “highest and best use” of available sites. And a more streamlined process for permits and approvals would make Lexington more attractive to developers and companies looking to bring jobs here, he said.

But just as the old bumper-sticker war presented a false set of extreme choices, Silvestri thinks Lexington can both encourage development and maintain high standards.

“When you set out to do things right, to do things that are first-class and sustainable, it’s always a better model,” he said.

Now What, Lexington? returns, Web tips and Corvettes

May 9, 2011

Now what, Lexington?

That is the question ProgressLex is asking again as the citizens group hosts a second Now What, Lexington? gathering Saturday at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. Like last year, the event is free and open to anyone with ideas for making Lexington a better place.

More than a dozen sponsors are paying for participants’ breakfast and lunch, so organizers want attendees to register (NowWhatLexington.org) so they know how much food to prepare.

The “unconference” format of Now What, Lexington? means anyone can sign up to lead a breakout session on a topic they have ideas about. Participants attend those sessions based on their own interests.

“Our goal is to help galvanize individuals who want to make a difference in Lexington,” said Ben Self, a ProgressLex board member. “People should come with ideas they are passionate about.”

The first Now What, Lexington? was organized in April 2010 to try to channel energy from the Creative Cities Summit a few weeks earlier. Ideas brought up at the forum helped expand the mission of what the city now calls the Design Excellence Task Force, chaired by Councilman Tom Blues.

Two other projects that grew out of Now What, Lexington? will soon get under way: the Lexington Cultural Bureau, which hopes to link newcomers with local people who share their interests, and Change for Art, in which local artists decorate some of the old parking meters the city is phasing out and use them to raise money for the arts.

Online strategies

Ben Self also is a technology entrepreneur who, with several of his Massachusetts Institute of Technology classmates, founded Blue State Digital, which ran online outreach for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Self later sold his stake in the company so he could get off the road and settle down in Lexington, his hometown.

Self spoke last Thursday at the Lexington Forum, a community discussion group that just launched its own online outreach strategy to increase membership. The centerpiece of that strategy is Lexingtonforum.org, designed by the Lexington media company Talent Attach.

Among Self’s advice for creating more effective online strategies for businesses and non-profit organizations:

■ Do something worthwhile. “You can’t hide a bad product with a good Web site,” he said.

■ Communicate effectively with potential customers using frequent Web site updates, smart social media outreach and well-written email. “Being able to communicate well with email is the least talked-about and most important piece of an online strategy,” Self said.

■ Create strategies that tell your story and get people involved with your organization or product so they become your ambassadors.

Corvette’s comeback

General Motors has built the Corvette in Bowling Green since 1981. The automaker announced last week that it will invest $131 million in the plant and add about 250 jobs as it retools for the future. GM got $7.5 million in state tax incentives for the project.

GM’s sales have roared back since its 2009 bankruptcy and government bailout. Corvette sales are up 22 percent so far this year from 2010 levels. I would love to know more about who is buying those Corvettes.

Sports cars have always been a rich man’s toy, but Corvettes are a little different. Many blue-collar folks work and save for years to buy one. I see dozens of them every time I visit the National Corvette Museum, which was built across the road from the factory by a non-profit foundation of Corvette club members and other fans from across the country.

For the Corvette plant to keep humming, the economic recovery must extend beyond Wall Street to Main Street, where middle-class incomes have been stagnant for three decades but a shiny Corvette remains a powerful symbol of the American dream.

A beautiful afternoon for a record Kentucky Derby crowd

May 7, 2011

LOUISVILLE —The weather forecasters were wrong, thank goodness.

The sun was shining bright on a perfect spring afternoon as a record crowd of 164,858 stumbled over the words to My Old Kentucky Home before seeing Animal Kingdom win his first race on dirt to take the 137th Kentucky Derby.

Brief periods of rain earlier in the day didn’t faze the biggest Derby crowd in history. The field was wide open, and, as always, horses were just part of the attraction. The Derby is a big party, a peerless networking opportunity and a colorful pageant of women in tight dresses and bodacious hats.

For hours leading up to the so-called greatest two minutes in sports, Kentucky’s captains of horseflesh and industry wined and dined those lucky enough to receive invitations from them.

“It’s such a selling opportunity for the state,” said Alltech founder and President Pearse Lyons. He and his wife, Deirdra, sat on Millionaire’s Row with John Petterson, senior vice president of Tiffany & Co., who said construction of his company’s new plant in Lexington is on schedule for completion in July.

“The whole state of Kentucky has been good to us,” said Petterson, attending his first Derby. “This is a wonderful place to do business.”

Executives from Mexico and India were among those being entertained by state officials hungry for investment.

Proeza of Monterey, Mexico, owns three automobile parts factories in Kentucky that employ 1,200 people. “We hope to increase employment,” said CEO Enrique Zambrano, who was loving his first Derby. “We come from a family that loves horses, and this is an experience.”

Across the table from Zambrano was Rewant Ruia, director of Essar of Mumbai, India. “I think it’s a fabulous event,” said Ruia, who said his conglomerate employs 10,000 people in North America, including coal miners in Kentucky. “To be honest, I did not expect the Derby to be so big.”

Across the track and far below the luxury suites, the infield crowd had arrived early to set up tents against the predicted rain. They partied the day away, progressing from $7 breakfast Budweisers to $10 mint juleps.

“The atmosphere, the people, the party,” said Ken Keske of Charlotte, N.C., when I asked why he keeps coming back every year. His Derby outfit included a furry viking helmet.

Nearby, Karolyn Cook of New Jersey and two girlfriends from New York and North Carolina were sporting lovely dresses and elegant hats. They sat on a blanket in the infield, snacking on potato chips. “My mother is stationed at Fort Knox, so this was the thing to do,” Cook said.

Tim Rask came from Iowa City, Iowa, for his seventh Derby, his fifth wearing a bowler hat topped with a tall arrangement of red roses that required almost perfect posture. “All that finishing school paid off,” he joked.

Rask keeps coming “because it’s the greatest time to be had in the country,” he said. “It’s great fun to make a fool of yourself once a year.”

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who took office in January, was enjoying his first year as Derby host. “People love coming here and they all leave with a smile on their face,” he said. “It’s fun to be part of that.”

When I saw Fischer, he was shaking hands on Millionaire’s Row and introducing people to Lt. Gen. Ben Freakley, who is overseeing a big expansion and mission change at Ft. Knox that in the past year has expanded the base’s payroll by $45 million.

“You see these beautiful ladies in these fabulous hats and then a dude in a T-shirt,” said Freakley, who was attending his first Derby. “This is America. We’re all celebrating what we are as a country. It’s pretty neat.”

It’s also a pretty neat day to be a Kentuckian, said Central Bank President Luther Deaton.

“It showcases Kentucky and what a great place we live,” he said. “We’re the luckiest people going.”

Early photos from today’s Kentucky Derby 137

May 7, 2011

The Churchill Downs infield filled up early this morning, as crowds tried to beat the rain for Satuday’s 137th running of the Kentucky Derby. Here are some photos of fans. Click on each thumbnail to see the complete photo and read their stories.

Kentucky Oaks goes pink for breast cancer awareness

May 6, 2011

LOUISVILLE — The Kentucky Oaks has grown from Louisville’s day at the races into a spectacle almost as big and colorful as the next day’s Kentucky Derby. And the color of the Oaks is most definitely pink.

Many women at Churchill Downs on Friday wore pink hats and dresses. Men wore pink jackets and ties. The track bugler and outriders traded their red coats for pink ones. Balcony railings below the Twin Spires are wrapped in pink fabric. Even the tractors that pulled sleds to smooth the dirt track were pink. All for a good reason: breast cancer awareness.

For the third year, the track donated $1 from each Oaks Day admission to Susan G. Komen for the Cure and $1 from the sale of each Oaks Lily beverage to Horses for Hope.

More important than raising money, though, was raising awareness of breast cancer, the second-leading cause of death among Kentucky women. About 3,000 new cases are diagnosed in the state each year.

Oaks Day is ladies’ day, after all, where fillies run for the lilies in the featured race. And before Plum Pretty held off St. John’s River to win the 137th running of the Oaks, there was a special parade in front of the grandstand.

A crowd of 110,100 spectators, the third-largest in Oaks history, cheered as 137 breast cancer survivors walked with a friend and family in symbolic victory over the disease. The survivors were chosen by the public from nominees whose stories were posted on the Kentucky Oaks’ Web site. More than 30,000 votes were cast.

“It’s very emotional,” said Gina Robinson of New Albany, Ind., who was diagnosed 15 months ago and was there with her husband, Dan. “He looks good in pink, doesn’t he?”

Robinson participated in last year’s parade, too, and found it deeply emotional. “I thought I had it all together until everyone started cheering and I lost it,” she said.

“It’s a big responsibility to represent so many people,” said survivor Angie Brown of Shelbyville, who said she was there to show that young women can get breast cancer, too. “It’s not just your mom’s or your grandma’s disease.”

Brown, 36, was diagnosed and began aggressive chemotherapy when she was 24 weeks pregnant with her third daughter. It was a scary time, but she recovered and her daughter, now 20 months old, wasn’t harmed by the treatment

Hugh Campbell of Louisville, the only male breast cancer survivor in the parade, was nominated by his daughter, Emily, who walked with him. He wore pink pants and, like the women, carried a lily.

“I try to keep it out there that men get this disease, too,” said Campbell, who was diagnosed in December 2007 and has had five recurrences. “I have met several other men with it in the Louisville area, but most men don’t want to be out front about it.”

Like many women, Campbell first noticed a lump in his breast. But unlike many men, he went to a doctor to see about it. He knew what it might be. Campbell’s mother had survived breast cancer, and he had been active in the Komen organization on her behalf since 1997.

“I knew it was out there for both women and men,” he said. “I just didn’t want it to be me.”

Cheering them on was P.J. Cooksey, the all-time leading female jockey until Julie Krone surpassed her number of victories. Cooksey won 2,137 races and overcome a lot of hardship during her 25-year career in a male-dominated sport. But her biggest challenge and victory was over a breast-cancer diagnosis almost 10 years ago.

“It’s no longer a death sentence, especially with early detection,” Cooksey said. “It means a lot to me to see racing get behind this cause in such a big way, because you reach so many women in this state when you connect women and horses.”

Besides, she said, “I love all the pink!”

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

Debra’s next Social $timulus: Gearing up for good

May 5, 2011

If, like me, you’re a fan of Debra Hensley and her always-fun-and-interesting “Social $timulus” events, mark your calendar for Friday, July 8, from 5:30 p.m. until 9 p.m.

The insurance agent and former Urban County Council member will be highlighting the North Limestone neighborhood, which has seen a strong revival in just the past couple of years. The featured non-profit organization for this event will be Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop, which I wrote about in this column.

Like all Debra’s previous events, I’m sure it will be a great way to meet new people and learn new things about Lexington. Here is a column I wrote about the idea behind Debra’s project. And here is her first “movie trailer” for this event, “Gearing up for good”:

‘Kentucky – An American Story’ debuts May 24 on KET

May 5, 2011

A documentary film about Kentucky’s history — directed by an Academy Award-winning filmmaker, written by a UK history professor and narrated by actress Ashley Judd — premieres at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 24 on Kentucky Educational Television.

Kentucky – An American Story, looks at connections between the state and the rest of America, as well as how Kentucky’s history made it the place it is today. The film was directed by Kentucky native Paul Wagner and written by UK history Prof. Daniel Smith. It includes commentary by UK history Profs. Ron Eller and Tracy Campbell, journalist Al Smith and writers Silas House and Erik Reece.

In late 2009, I sat in on the writer’s interviews with Smith and former state Sen. Georgia Powers, a civil rights legend from Louisville. You can read my column about it here. I can’t wait to see this film, as I suspect it will be very good.

UK design project confirmed for European exhibit

May 4, 2011

The University of Kentucky’s College of Design received confirmation Wednesday that its project, Kentucky River Cities: Louisville, Paducah, Henderson, will be included in the 5th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam next April.

“It’s a big deal to be included,” Michael Speaks, dean of the UK College of Design, told me when I wrote this column about the project April 25. “They get a huge number of applications from all over the world.”

The architecture and urban planning exhibition, held every other year in Holland, says it “aspires to stimulate a wider discourse on the relationship between our environments and the quality of our lives.”

The 5th Biennale will explore new ways of planning and creating more sustainable cities.  The exhibition will focus on three cities — Rotterdam, Istanbul and Sao Paulo — but will include other examples of innovation around the world, such as the Kentucky project.

College of Design students and faculty, along with professionals from around the world and UK’s Center for Applied Energy Research, been working with community leaders in Henderson, Louisville and Paducah to research and plan ways of revitalizing industrial riverfront districts to boost the local economies.

Secret search, Capilouto’s vague answers at forums leave many at UK wondering what kind of president he will be

May 4, 2011

One professor likened it to the awkward first meeting of a couple in an arranged marriage: Everyone was rushing to figure out whether their new partner was a good match, even though the deal already had been done.

Not only had the deal been done, but the flowers were on their way and the organist was warming up.

On Sunday afternoon, after a secret search, University of Kentucky trustees unveiled Eli Capilouto, the provost of the University of Alabama- Birmingham, as their unanimous choice to be UK’s next president.

Eli Capilouto took questions from faculty, staff and students at forums Monday. Photo by Charles Bertram

Before the trustees confirmed his hiring less than 48 hours later, Capilouto had a whirlwind series of meetings with UK administrators, legislative leaders and the mayor; a reception with alumni; dinner with the governor; and one-hour public forums with faculty, staff and students.

It seemed like a strange way for Kentucky to choose a public official with almost as much influence as the governor and a salary several times larger.

I spoke briefly with Capilouto on Monday and attended the three public forums. My impression was similar to those of many others I talked with: He seemed like a good, smart man with solid credentials and a willingness to listen.

Capilouto didn’t make any missteps. He wisely didn’t try to be a know-it-all. But I heard little from his answers (and non-answers) to a variety of questions that gave me much insight into what kind of UK president he will make.

Like others, I would have liked more time for a thorough vetting. Maybe Capilouto has become a better listener since 2007, when a UAB faculty survey found he was “autocratic rather than democratic and opinionated rather than receptive to new ideas,” according to the Birmingham News. I wonder why several UAB professors contacted by Herald-Leader reporters didn’t want to comment on him. That might be significant — or not — but it would have been a good area for further examination.

Capilouto certainly impressed UK search committee members, several of whom attended the forums Monday. “He’s the complete package,” said Hollie Swanson, president of UK’s Faculty Senate and a search committee member.

He impressed many at the forums by avoiding the lectern and walking the floor below the stage with a lavalier microphone, interacting comfortably with questioners. Students especially seemed to like him, and a couple dozen stayed after their forum to meet him.

Capilouto’s story of flying to Kentucky on his own last week to walk UK’s campus incognito for six hours charmed many people. His measured tone and Alabama drawl were engaging, if not especially inspiring. “I promise you I think faster than I talk,” he told students.

Capilouto seemed to have a good sense of humor and a self-deprecating manner, which should wear well with some of the big-ego lawmakers from whom he must cajole resources for the university.

But Capilouto’s vague responses to questions about his views on major UK issues left many people at the forums wanting more. Nobody expected him to be up to speed on every issue and have all the answers, but he seemed reluctant to tackle many of them, or to convey a vision with any specifics.

Questioners expressed concern that UK’s core academic mission is being shortchanged in comparison with athletics and medicine. They worried aloud that the humanities are becoming a stepchild to science, math and business-oriented programs. They warned of antiquated laboratories and a brain drain caused by stagnant salaries.

They also questioned the university’s cozy relationship with the coal industry, town-gown relationships and the campus’ impact on surrounding neighborhoods. They wanted to know where the new president plans to find money to achieve the lofty UK goals he said he admires.

“There’s no doubt he understands the medical side,” said Carey Cavanaugh, director of the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. The test, Cavanaugh said, will be how Capilouto handles issues and areas where he doesn’t have experience.

“I think this is just the beginning of the journey,” Cavanaugh said.

It would have been good to have more people asking those questions of Capilouto and other finalists for a longer period before this marriage was consummated. Even so, the questions must be answered.

Shorty’s returns a grocery to downtown Lexington

May 1, 2011

Mayor Jim Gray and Lee Ann Ingram of Shorty's cut a ceremonial ribbon to open the New York-style market downtown. Photo by Tom Eblen

Shorty’s, an Urban Market, opened Sunday afternoon at 163 W. Short Street. More than 100 people, including a variety of community leaders, turned out for a ribbon-cutting ceremony that included champagne and souvenir burlap shopping bags.

Why the big fuss for such a small store? Because it has been years and years since there was a grocery in downtown Lexington. As more people have moved back to live in downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods in recent years, they have often complained there is no place close to buy basic groceries.

Shorty’s is a lot better than basic. The market has a wide variety of groceries, fresh vegetables, breads and meats packed into a small space in the Traditional Bank building. Lexington’s EOP Architects did a wonderful job designing the store, which is modeled after a New York market. They even retained an old bank vault door for decoration.

This much-needed addition to downtown Lexington may soon have some competition: plans have been announced for another market at the corner of Main Street and Esplanade.