In fight over payday lending abuses, it’s churches vs. almighty dollar

February 22, 2015

I love free enterprise, but I believe there is a special place in hell for business people who exploit the poor and vulnerable and politicians who enable them.

A good example is the payday lending industry.

A diverse coalition of Kentuckians, including conservative and liberal religious leaders, plan to gather Tuesday at the state Capitol to urge lawmakers to pass bipartisan legislation limiting the interest and fees on short-term payday loans to an annualized rate of 36 percent.

That is still high compared to normal borrowing costs. But it would be a big improvement over the 400 percent or more that payday lenders can now charge customers.

Photo illustration by Charles Bertram

Photo illustration by Charles Bertram

These two-week loans of $500 or less are designed to help working people cover expenses until their next paycheck. But studies show three-fourths of these loans are renewed or turned into new loans, sometimes trapping borrowers in an endless cycle of debt.

Payday lending emerged as an industry in the 1990s. With about 20,000 storefronts, plus online sites, payday lenders made $40.3 billion in loans and collected $7.4 billion in revenues in 2010, according to the Consumer Federation of America.

Kentucky is one of 32 states that allow triple-digit interest rates on payday loans. The state’s 781 payday lending stores in 2010 made $995.7 million in loans averaging $350 each, according to the Center for Responsible Lending.

Payday lenders collect at least $121 million a year in interest and fees from some of Kentucky’s poorest people, according to the Kentucky Coalition for Responsible Lending. Most profits go out of state — or farther. Advance America, one of Kentucky’s largest payday lenders, is owned by Mexico’s Grupo Elektra.

The Defense Department has limited the interest that can be charged to military personnel at 36 percent, as the Kentucky legislation seeks to do for everyone. Kentucky has put a few restrictions on payday lenders in recent years, but meaningful reform has always been blocked by legislators with lame excuses.

This year’s bill is sponsored by Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, a Lexington Republican, and co-sponsored by three Senate Democrats, Reginald Thomas of Lexington, Gerald Neal of Louisville and Dennis Parrett of Elizabethtown. Gov. Steve Beshear has supported the interest rate cap since 2009.

Tuesday’s rally is organized by the Kentucky Coalition for Responsible Lending, an impressive list of 89 organizations, including 33 faith groups. Members include statewide associations of Roman Catholics, Baptists, Jews, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians and Disciples of Christ.

Many of these faith groups disagree on other issues. But the Bible’s Old and New Testaments are clear about the sin of “usury” — charging excessive (or, according to some verses, any) interest on loans to people in need.

With this level of religious support, you would think the bill would be a cinch. But there is a higher power at work: the almighty dollar. Payday lenders spent more than $151,000 last year lobbying legislators and gave them tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.

Legislators who have blocked this bill over the years have had many excuses: there is a demand for payday loans; people with bad credit have few alternatives; it’s free enterprise.

But the truth is there are alternatives, and poor people in the 18 states with double-digit interest caps have found them. Some credit unions, banks and community organizations have small loan programs for low-income people.

There could be more alternatives, too, if Congress would consider ideas such as allowing the Post Office to offer basic financial services, as is done in other countries, or giving poor people an advance on their earned income tax credit.

A bigger-picture solution, of course, would be to raise the minimum wage and rethink trickle-down economic policies that have decimated the middle class and widened the wealth gap to historic levels. But don’t hold your breath for that.

An additional excuse for legislative inaction this year is that Kentucky should wait to see what Congress and federal regulators do. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau has begun a belated crackdown on payday lending practices.

But only Congress can cap rates at the federal level, and there is little chance of that from the business-friendly Republican majority. Rep. Andy Barr, a Lexington Republican, has been a shameless ally of payday lenders and other financial services companies, which contributed more than $700,000 to his re-election campaign.

I wish the consumer protection advocates and religious leaders good luck Tuesday, but they will need to make many more trips to Frankfort. I just hope they follow the money and keep a good list of which politicians are helping payday lenders prey on Kentucky’s poor and vulnerable — a list they will share widely at election time.


Amid infill construction, how do we help ‘little guys’ already there?

February 15, 2015

150212Downtown0005The Lexington Parking Authority last week created four temporary street parking spaces and a loading zone to help F‡ilte Irish Imports and other nearby businesses that have been hurt by disruption caused by construction of CentrePointe construction, right, and renovation of 21C Museum Hotel in the background. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

The Great Depression left one-fourth of American workers without jobs in 1933, prompting the new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to launch a series of relief efforts known as the New Deal.

When conservatives in Congress balked, arguing that market forces would sort out things in the long run, New Deal architect Harry Hopkins famously replied: “People don’t eat in the long run. They eat every day.”

I have been thinking about that quote since November, when a mutual friend told me that Liza Hendley Betz’s little shop was in trouble.

I have known Betz since soon after she opened Fáilte Irish Imports on South Limestone Street in 2001. She did a good business in Celtic gifts and comfort food for her fellow Irish immigrants until the street in front of her shop was suddenly closed in 2009 for an 11-month reconstruction project.

Betz moved Fáilte (pronounced FALL-cha) a couple of blocks away, next to McCarthy’s Irish Bar. It was a great location until the CentrePointe project turned the block across from them into a massive hole and took away their street parking.

Then, renovation of the 21C Museum Hotel closed Upper Street above their block and constricted Main Street traffic. People started avoiding the mess, and Fáilte’s business suffered.

After I wrote about it, Lexington rallied to save the little shop. Thousands shared my column on social media. Other small businesses such as Bourbon ‘n Toulouse restaurant and the Cup of Common Wealth coffee shop sent their customers to Fáilte. Even the mayor’s staff stopped in for holiday shopping.

“People came out of the woodwork,” Betz said. “It was the best Christmas ever.”

With St. Patrick’s Day approaching, Betz and the owner of McCarthy’s recently asked city and LexPark officials if one of their street’s two lanes could be closed for parking until Upper Street above them reopened. The officials thought it was a great idea. Last week, four metered parking spaces and a loading zone were created.

While I am happy things are working out for Fáilte, there is a bigger issue here worth serious thought and action.

With Lexington’s new focus on infill and redevelopment, the central business district could be a rolling construction zone for years to come. If we are lucky.

That will be great for Lexington in the long run. In the short run, though, specific strategies should be developed to help small shops, restaurants and bars remain open amid the mess and disruption.

Most of these entrepreneurs don’t have deep pockets. But their businesses give downtown its unique character, and it is in Lexington’s best interests to keep them going.

How could Lexington minimize the collateral damage of infill and redevelopment? Several business people and city officials I talked with had good ideas. Among them:

■ When tax-increment financing districts are approved for new development, could some TIF funds be earmarked to help existing businesses during the transition? This help could range from cash compensation to special signage and other promotional help.

■ In addition to temporary parking solutions, might LexTran adjust routes to make it easier for customers to get to affected businesses?

■ Could local media companies offer discounted advertising to affected businesses, perhaps in return for long-term contracts?

■ Could city government appoint a liaison to work with affected business owners, to keep them informed of street closings and other disruptions, trouble-shoot problems and brainstorm ways to make things easier?

■ Could Commerce Lexington, Local First Lexington and other business organizations promote these businesses through social media and other venues?

■ Could the University of Kentucky business school’s faculty and students lend their expertise and advice?

■ Could developers of new projects be better neighbors, involving surrounding businesses in their construction planning process to minimize disruption?

Betz said she and other downtown entrepreneurs are excited about the changes happening around them. They know it will be good for their businesses in the long run — if they can keep eating until then.

“This whole thing has given me new hope,” Betz said. “We just don’t want people to forget about us little guys.”


Plans for East Kentucky future must include repairing coal’s damage

February 10, 2015

130214MountainRally0378 copyHundreds will march to the state Capitol  Thursday for the 10th annual I Love Mountains Day protest of destructive strip-mining, as they did in this 2013 photo. Below, Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers attend the first SOAR summit, Dec. 9, 2013. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Two large public gatherings are planned in the next week by groups trying to create a brighter future for Eastern Kentucky.

They come from different sides of the “war on coal” debate that has polarized discussion of these issues, but they have more in common than you might think.

The first event, Thursday in Frankfort, is the 10th annual I Love Mountains Day, organized by the citizens’ group Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. (Information and registration: Kftc.org.)

In what has become an annual rite, hundreds of people will march to the Capitol steps and urge the governor and General Assembly to stop the coal industry’s most destructive surface-mining practices. And they will be ignored.

Few legislators will come out to hear them. Neither will the governor, nor any candidate for governor who has any chance of being elected. Most politicians think they must be unequivocal “friends of coal” to get elected, regardless of the toll on Kentucky’s land, air, water and public health.

131209SOAR-TE0093 copyThe other event, Monday in Pikeville, is the second summit meeting of Shaping Our Appalachian Region. SOAR is a bipartisan effort to improve life in Eastern Kentucky that was launched in 2013 by Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers. (Information and registration: Soar-ky.org.)

Eastern Kentucky’s coal industry has been eliminating jobs for decades as mines were mechanized, coal reserves depleted and deep mining replaced by “mountaintop removal” and other forms of surface mining.

But the job losses have mounted in recent years because of cheap natural gas, cheaper coal from elsewhere and the Obama administration’s better-late-than-never actions to fight pollution and climate change.

Politicians and business leaders have had to admit that most of Eastern Kentucky’s coal jobs are never coming back, and that new strategies are needed to diversify the economy.

That led to the creation of SOAR, whose 12 working committees have spent the past year conducting more than 100 “listening sessions” throughout the region to hear public comments, gather ideas, assess needs and set priorities.

Strategy Summit attendees will review the committees’ findings and discuss next steps. How those discussions play out could determine whether SOAR can build enough public credibility to make change.

An early criticism of SOAR was that its leadership was drawn almost exclusively from Eastern Kentucky’s power elite. There was little or no representation from coal industry critics or grassroots groups such as KFTC.

The question hanging over SOAR is whether leaders who have done well in Eastern Kentucky’s status quo can be expected to change it. We should get some indication of that Monday, when there will be at least a couple of elephants in the room.

Eastern Kentucky is one of America’s least-healthy places, with high rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and drug abuse. Smoking, obesity, poverty, poor eating habits and lack of exercise are to blame for much of it. But not all of it.

One of the biggest concerns citizens expressed in the health committee’s listening sessions was the health effects of surface mining. Scientific studies have increasingly found high rates of cancer, birth defects and other problems in mining areas that can’t be dismissed by other factors. Will SOAR explore that issue, or ignore it?

Another elephant in the room will be President Barack Obama’s Feb. 1 proposal to release $1 billion in abandoned mine land funds to create jobs on environmental cleanup projects.

The long-overdue action could be a huge boost for Eastern Kentucky. But many politicians have reacted cautiously, since it comes from a president they love to hate. This proposal should be a big topic of discussion at the summit. But will it be?

Eastern Kentucky needs many things to have a brighter future: better schools, better infrastructure, less-corrupt politics, more inclusive leadership and a move diverse economy. And, as much as anything, it needs a healthier population and a cleaner environment.

Coal mining has done some good things for Eastern Kentucky over the past century. Although its role will continue to diminish, coal will be an important part of the economy for years to come. But the coal industry’s damage must be reckoned with. The best way to start cleaning up a mess is to stop making it bigger.


New Lexington firm hopes to be link between makers, machines

February 8, 2015

MakeTimeThe MakeTime staff in Lexington. From left: Rick Spencer, Dima Strakovsky, Kasey Hall, founder and CEO Drura Parrish, Steve Adams and Brian Brooks. Photo by Tom Eblen

Suppose your company wants to make something, but you don’t have the equipment. Perhaps you can’t afford to buy it, or the quantity of goods you want to make wouldn’t justify the investment.

On the other hand, suppose your company has manufacturing equipment and staff, but they have blocks of idle time. Would you like to convert downtime into revenue?

That’s the idea behind MakeTime, a new Lexington company that has developed an online platform for matching manufacturers with excess capacity to customers willing to buy it. It is essentially a marketplace for by-the-hour machine time.

“The whole gist is to democratize manufacturing and the whole process of making things,” said Drura Parrish, the company’s Founder and CEO.

“Firms aren’t driving innovation anymore; people are,” he said. “There has to be a next step beyond prototyping so people can at least jump in and try out their ideas.”

MakeTime launched in November, and Parrish expects the company to arrange $2 million worth of gross transactions during its first year.

MakeTime has 14 full-time employees — half of whom are computer programmers in Ukraine; the rest work in Lexington — and Parrish expects to hire 11 more in the coming year.

So far, he said, MakeTime has signed up 80 manufacturing companies with $2 billion worth of capacity and is getting about 10 inquiries a day for buying their services.

I first met Parrish, 38, when he was teaching architecture and digital fabrication at the University of Kentucky’s College of Design. He came there with the former dean, Michael Speaks, from the Southern California Institute of Architecture.

Parrish then started a company, which was recently dissolved, that worked with artists to turn their designs into objects for museum installations around the world. Much of that work was done in an old industrial building on East Third Street, where Parrish also operated a contemporary art gallery called Land of Tomorrow, one purported translation of the Native American word for Kentucky.

Although trained in art and design, Parrish comes from a third-generation manufacturing family in Henderson. His grandfather was a tenant farmer who got into the lumber business, creating what is now Scott Industries.

Parrish said he started doing a sort of pre-Internet version of MakeTime when he was in graduate school.

“I noticed there were a bunch of people with a bunch of machines that sat idle at times, and a bunch of people who wanted to make things and thought they needed to buy equipment,” he said. “I became the literal marketplace. I bought up capacity time and started marketing it.”

Parrish and Dima Strakovsky, who had been a partner in Land of Tomorrow, started developing MakeTime’s online platform, where manufacturers can list their available capacity, clients can list their needs, and they can be quickly matched for jobs. MakeTime’s revenues come from a fee of 15 percent of the transaction amount, paid by the seller.

“Our DNA is still design and art,” Parrish said, noting that many of the company’s employees have design backgrounds, so are trained to be problem-solvers.

Parrish said Lexington is an ideal location for the company, although he couldn’t find enough local software programmers and ended up going overseas for help.

“Within a four-hour ring of Lexington you have just about every manufacturer in the country,” he said. “We’re committed to staying here. The only problem is with programmers.”

Parrish said he has had a lot of help getting started from the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. and state and local economic development organizations.

But while MakeTime had a couple of Kentucky “angel” investors, much of its startup capital came from New York. Parrish said the shallow pool of local investment capital, and the conservative nature of many local investors, is limiting the ability of entrepreneurs to flourish here.

“It can be hard to believe in the people who are near you,” Parrish said. “But it’s a matter of getting the right resources to grow. The risk of loss is often small, and the potential return is great.”


West Sixth Brewery models “pay it forward” business philosophy

February 1, 2015

When four partners bought the Bread Box building and started West Sixth Brewery nearly four years ago, they said they wanted to do more than make money and good beer. They wanted to make their community a better place to live.

The partners donate 6 percent of profits to charity, plus make other donations and host monthly fundraisers where a different non-profit group receives 6 percent of sales. Last year, the company’s giving totaled about $100,000, partner Ben Self said.

“We expect that to increase significantly” this year, Self said, thanks to a quarterly program built around sales of the newest of West Sixth’s four canned beers, Pay it Forward Cocoa Porter.

pifWest Sixth will present a “big check” Wednesday to GreenHouse17, formerly called the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program. It is the last of six non-profits getting checks as part of the program launched in September, when Pay it Forward Cocoa Porter began distribution statewide and in Cincinnati.

West Sixth wants to keep GreenHouse17’s award amount a surprise until Wednesday, but partner Brady Barlow said it would be larger than the others. “Lexington is a very thirsty town,” he said.

Other regional awards ranged from $800 to more than $5,000 each in Louisville and Cincinnati. The amounts were based on sales in each region.

The other recipients were Appalshop, the arts and media non-profit in Whitesburg; New Roots of Louisville, which provides fresh produce to needy neighborhoods; Community Action of Southern Kentucky; the Owensboro Humane Society; and Community Matters, which works in Cincinnati’s Lower Price Hill neighborhood.

Here’s how the program works: West Sixth donates 50 cents from each Pay it Forward six-pack, which retails for $9.99, to a non-profit organization “making a difference” in a community where the beer is sold. In all but the Louisville region, West Sixth’s distributors match the donation, for a total of $1 a six-pack.

Each can of Pay it Forward has a website link (Westsixth.com/pif) where customers can nominate a non-profit. Regional winners are selected each quarter by a democratic vote of West Sixth’s 32 employees, so the number of nominations made for each organization doesn’t matter.

Nominations for the first quarter 2015 awards are due Monday, and the brewery staff will meet Tuesday to choose the winners.

There is nothing new about business philanthropy. Most companies do something, some in substantial amounts, depending on their size and profitability.

But West Sixth is an example of a new trend, especially popular among some young entrepreneurs, that has been called Conscious Capitalism. Community responsibility is integral to the business model.

Conscious Capitalism acknowledges that businesses have an impact on and a responsibility to their communities and the environment. It is about serving all stakeholders, not just shareholders. That means three bottom lines, rather than just one: profits, people, planet.

“For us, that means everything from being environmentally sustainable to using local ingredients whenever possible and supporting the organizations doing great work in the communities we’re a part of,” Self said.

The partners’ philosophy extends beyond their core beer business, which is housed in the Bread Box, an 90,000-square-foot 1890s building at the corner of West Sixth and Jefferson Streets that used to be a Rainbo Bread factory.

In addition to the brewery and taproom, the Bread Box houses shared office space for non-profit organizations; artist studios; Broke Spoke, a non-profit community bicycle shop; and FoodChain, an urban agriculture non-profit.

There also are several like-minded businesses there: Smithtown Seafood restaurant; Magic Beans coffee roasters; and Bluegrass Distillers. The building also houses a women’s roller derby league.

Self said the company’s business model isn’t just about altruism: it is also good for business.

“I think there’s no doubt” that community involvement has boosted sales, Self said. “I don’t think we’re bashful about that. And by making a situation that can be a win for the community organization as well as the business, it’s something that can be done longer term.”

West Sixth’s sales have risen from 2,000 barrels in 2012 to 7,000 in 2013 and 11,000 last year. The company plans to add canned seasonal beers this year.

“Kentucky has been really supportive of us from the beginning,” Self said.

West Sixth plans to continue reinvesting in that support.

“If you take care of your community,” Barlow said, “your community will take care of you.”


With Lexington’s downtown on the rise, time to plan for more

January 27, 2015

jeffstHuge crowds came to the Jefferson Street Soiree last fall, underscoring the popularity of a downtown restaurant district that barely existed in 2007. Photo by Matt Goins

 

What a difference a decade makes, and it has barely been eight years.

The Downtown Development Authority has started seeking public comment for a 10-year update of Lexington’s 2007 Downtown Master Plan, which seeks to influence a wider urban area than just the central business district.

Jeff Fugate, who took over the DDA three years ago after Harold Tate retired, started the process Monday by bringing together more than a dozen members of the last report’s steering committee, or their successors.

Fugate’s presentation offered a striking reminder of how much has changed since 2007 — specifically, what a more vibrant, interesting and desirable place downtown Lexington has become. Not that it doesn’t have a long way to go.

Perhaps the biggest difference is public attitudes. Why? For one thing, Fugate said, nightly concerts and events during the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games made people start thinking of downtown as a place to gather and have fun.

That was reinforced by a city ordinance allowing sidewalk dining, which made downtown restaurants more popular and profitable. There are now 112 restaurants and bars downtown. That includes the Jefferson Street and Short Street restaurant districts, which barely existed in 2007.

Cheapside has blossomed as a gathering space since the plaza was rebuilt to include Fifth Third Pavilion. That also created a better home for the Lexington Farmers Market, which has grown significantly.

The University of Kentucky, Bluegrass Community and Technical College and Transylvania University have all launched major expansions in and around downtown.

And much of Lexington’s growing high-tech business sector is located downtown, one of many indications of demographic shifts that favor urban over suburban areas.

Several of the 2007 plan’s recommendations have started happening, such as denser land use (Euclid Avenue Kroger), more attractive entrance corridors (Isaac Murphy Art Garden, South Limestone streetscape), and having the Lexington Parking Authority take over and improve city-owned garages.

A total of 93 acres has been rezoned for mixed-use development, opening the way for projects such as the Bread Box, National Avenue and the Distillery District.

Another master plan recommendation called for more housing downtown. That has been slow because of the 2008 economic crisis, but the recovery has sparked several proposals, including Thistle Station on Newtown Pike and residential units in mixed-use buildings planned along Midland Avenue. Plus, UK and Transylvania are building a lot of new student housing.

Sidewalk and intersection improvements have made things better for pedestrians, and many bicycle lanes have been added. The Legacy Trail and the expansion of Town Branch Trail should be completed this year.

The Town Branch Commons proposal would create more green space and address recommendations for improving Vine Street and the Rupp Arena area, which has benefitted from the redesign of Triangle Park and renovations to the Hilton and The (Victorian) Square.

In December, the $41 million 21C Museum Hotel is to open in the old First National Building, a great adaptive reuse of an historic building.

“But there needs to be more about historic preservation,” steering committee member Bill Johnston said. “We didn’t have enough in the last (plan) and we lost some important buildings.”

He was referring to the CentrePointe project, which wiped out a block of buildings dating as far back as 1826. They have been replaced by a hole where a parking garage is supposed to be and two huge cranes, which were erected six weeks ago but have yet to do any work.

CentrePointe showed how little legal protection there was — or still is — for downtown’s iconic old buildings.

The 2007 plan recommended form-based building guidelines. A lengthy task force process has developed downtown design guidelines, but the Urban County Council has yet to debate and adopt them. Like the 2007 plan’s recommendation for returning one-way streets to two-way traffic, design guidelines are politically sensitive.

Steering committee members highlighted several things a master plan update should cover. In addition to historic preservation, they included affordable housing, better garbage solutions than rows of “herbies,” better parking policies, more bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure and more street trees.

If you have ideas, send them to the Downtown Development Authority at info@lexingtondda.com or 101 East Vine St., Suite 100, Lexington, KY 40507.


Development holds promise for downtown Lexington’s eastern edge

January 26, 2015

MidlandPart of the proposed development area along Midland Avenue. Photo by Charles Bertram. 

 

Plans for about $50 million of mixed-use development along Midland Avenue from East Third Street to south of Main Street could reshape downtown’s eastern edge, a strip of land that has long been searching for a new purpose.

Until the 1960s, what is now Midland Avenue carried trains instead of cars. It was a major collection of railroad tracks, flanked by freight depots, industrial buildings, auto repair shops and lumber yards.

The Herald-Leader building replaced a century-old lumber yard on the east side of the tracks, and the Triangle Foundation created Thoroughbred Park to clean up the west side. Still, much of the surrounding land remained vacant or under-utilized.

mapLast month, four property owners got together and won unanimous Urban County Council approval to create a tax-increment financing district that could provide $17 million in taxpayer support for new public infrastructure in the area.

The proposed TIF district is now pending before the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority. If approved, some of that infrastructure money also could eventually benefit three public parks in the district: Thoroughbred, Charles Young and the new Isaac Murphy Art Garden.

The plans also would include a pedestrian and bicycle trail along Midland Avenue that would help form the eastern end of the proposed Town Branch Commons.

The Commons would be a string of small parks along the historic path of long-buried Town Branch, a creek that flows beneath downtown from a spring under the Jif peanut butter plant on Winchester Road to Rupp Arena, where it resurfaces.

Developer Phil Holoubek owns the south end of the TIF district, a triangular plot where Main and Vine streets meet that has been an eyesore since a former bank building was demolished. Plans to build a suburban-style drugstore there were wisely abandoned.

Holoubek

Developer Phil Holoubek

Holoubek thinks he has finally found a way to build an attractive, urban-style development on the difficult lot, which sits atop the Town Branch culvert and a major utility junction. His building would have 54 apartments on three floors above 17,000 square feet of street-level retail space.

“It’s like a giant Tetris game,” he said. “But we’re getting it figured out.”

The Lexington Parking Authority has agreed to invest $2.8 million for a three-story, 160-space garage on the site, providing much-needed public parking for the east side of downtown. Holoubek is donating the very point of the lot to the city for Town Branch Commons.

Land north of Thoroughbred Park is owned by former vice mayor Mike Scanlon and his ex-wife, Missy Scanlon. Plans call for it to become offices, retail space and townhouses or apartments overlooking Thoroughbred Park.

The most sensitive part of the plan is the northern section, which adjoins the East End neighborhood along East Third Street. It is mostly owned by Community Ventures Corp., a non-profit that works to improve low-income communities.

Kevin Smith of Community Ventures Corp.

Kevin Smith of Community Ventures Corp.

After extensive meetings with East End residents, Community Ventures has proposed a mixed-use development on 2.75 acres at the corner of Midland and East Third, where it already has one building. The development would include pedestrian-friendly retail space at reduced rents for local businesses, with apartments above.

The property is adjacent to the Charles Young Center and park, which the city recently spent $500,000 improving. TIF district land west of the park is being eyed for affordable housing development.

Holoubek said the entire project is a good mix of commercial development and job-creating community improvement, which has been conceived with a lot of input from neighborhood residents.

Some of those residents remain wary. “It’s just a plan to help promote gentrification and make the colonization of the East End easier,” Corey Dunn said.

But Billie Mallory, an East End activist, said most people in the area are cautiously optimistic the development will benefit the East End, which lost half its population and much of its prosperity as society integrated and families moved to the suburbs.

The East End has been on the upswing since the Lyric Theatre, at East Third Street and Elm Tree Lane, was restored, the Isaac Murphy Art Garden project began and the Lexington Market, a former convenience store at East Third and Race streets, was improved to include much-needed fresh food for the area.

“Third street is our main street,” Mallory said. “I would like to see whatever goes along Third Street benefit the residents.”

Mallory said Community Ventures has always been a good partner for the neighborhood, “so we’ll just have to see. We can’t do anything but trust them.”

Click here to read Tom Martin’s Q&A with developer Phil Holoubeck and Kevin Smith of Community Ventures Corp. about their proposed Midland Avenue project.


Lexington starting to see the benefits of urban redevelopment

January 25, 2015

krogerThe new Euclid Avenue Kroger. Photo by Mark Cornelison

 

It was a great week for “infill and redevelopment,” the popular Lexington catchphrase that is easier to say than do.

First, The New York Times made my little neighborhood look positively hip.

A Travel section story told how Walker Properties and other entrepreneurs are transforming National Avenue, a once-seedy collection of industrial buildings, into “the kind of walkable, shoppable district that is not common in a Southern city of this size.”

The Times made special note of National Provisions, a sophisticated food and drink complex that Lexington native Andrea Sims and her French husband, Krim Boughalem, created in a vacant soft-drink bottling plant.

Lexington often gets press for basketball, horses and bourbon. (And donuts; last year, the Times featured another of my neighborhood’s culinary treasures, Spalding’s Bakery.) But seeing the national media hold up this city as a model for urban revitalization may be a first.

The news got even better Thursday, when Kroger opened its new Euclid Avenue store. It is the best-looking Kroger I have ever seen, and a departure from the suburban big-box model that dominates the grocery industry.

Tailored to its increasingly urban setting, the building welcomes pedestrians and cyclists as well as people arriving in cars. With limited space for a parking lot, Kroger hid more parking on the roof, easily accessible via escalators and elevators.

Although it is almost three times larger than the suburban-style box it replaced, the building minimizes its mass and respects the street. There is a lot of glass, chrome and natural light. The walls have murals by local artists. The extensive grocery selection includes two locally owned restaurant food carts, another first for Kroger.

Neither National Avenue nor the new Kroger happened by accident. They were the result of good planning, hard work, community engagement and leadership by city officials and businesspeople.

Much like the owners of the Bread Box on West Sixth Street, developer Greg Walker has a community-focused vision for National Avenue, and he has found local business and non-profit tenants who share that vision.

Walker worked with city planners on mixed-use zoning that emulates the way cities used to be. You know, before mid-20th century planning philosophies sucked the life out of cities, making them better places for cars than people.

National Avenue’s success also has been made possible by renewal of the nearby Mentelle, Kenwick and Bell Court neighborhoods. They had fallen out of fashion and into decline after Lexington’s suburban building boom began in the 1950s.

Recently, though, these neighborhoods have become hot properties. They’re likely to get hotter, especially since Niche.com, a national online ranking company, last week named Ashland Elementary as the best public primary school in Kentucky.

People once again appreciate these neighborhoods’ walkability and close proximity to downtown, the style and craftsmanship of their old houses and the sociability of front porches, small parks and neighborhood stores and restaurants.

The new Kroger responds well to its neighborhood, which has been getting denser both because of the popularity of in-town living and growth of the nearby University of Kentucky campus.

But without good leadership and community engagement, the new store wouldn’t have turned out nearly as well.

When the grocer first announced plans to replace the Euclid Avenue store, nearby residents pushed back against a “Fort Kroger” big box. Mayor Jim Gray made it clear that a well-designed, urban-style store would be required. As Kroger spokesman Tim McGurk put it, “Mayor Gray gave us good advice throughout the process.”

Gray put Kroger in touch with Lexington architect Graham Pohl, who worked with the company to significantly improve the new store’s design. The effort has paid off, both for the city and for Kroger.

“Based on customer reaction, I can see us repeating” such things as the murals and food carts at other Kroger stores, McGurk said. “It really puts a sense of the local community in the store.”

Lexington leaders like to talk about infill and redevelopment because they see it as the best way to preserve precious farmland. But it is more than that.

Yes, infill and redevelopment can be harder, more complicated and more expensive than green-field suburban development. It often requires creative zoning and financing. It takes leadership and risk. It demands a commitment to excellence, as well as communication with existing neighborhood residents who may fear increasing population density, traffic or simply change.

But these two examples, and others in places such as North Limestone Street, Davis Bottom and Alexandria Drive, show that infill and redevelopment is not just the right thing to do. It can be the best thing to do.


The Breakout Games offers ‘escapism’ for fun, teambuilding

January 18, 2015

15013BreakoutGames-TE0161Breakout Games players Matt Hogg, left, Jon Wicks, center, and Zach Milford figured out a clue while trying to solve a series of puzzles that would allow them to “escape” from the Derby Room as part of a simulation game.  The games are designed to be fun and promote teamwork and problem-solving skills.  Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

With a storyline straight out of a low-budget movie, you and a few friends, family members or colleagues are locked in a room — and maybe even handcuffed and blindfolded.

Can you find clues, solve puzzles and work together well enough to figure out how to escape? And can you do it in 60 minutes, with a digital wall clock ticking down each second?

That’s the premise behind The Breakout Games, a new entertainment business that opened last month in a rented industrial building at 306 North Ashland Ave. For $20 each, the company promises an hour of fun, team-building and mental challenge. (More information: Breakoutlexington.com.)

The company has rooms with two themes from which teams try to break out. One is called the Kidnapping, in which players, blindfolded and handcuffed to a bed frame, must figure out how to free themselves, turn on the lights and decipher a series of codes that will open the door.

The other game is the Derby Heist, in which players try to figure out how to recover the Kentucky Derby trophy, rose blanket and $2 million purse from the home of a crooked veterinarian. A third room, called Casino Royale, will open soon.

Two groups of local entrepreneurs started the business after seeing similar attractions in other U.S. cities, Europe and Asia. When they discovered they were getting ready to open competing facilities, they pooled their resources.

“We decided it would be a fun business to try,” said Jeremiah Sizemore, who with some of the partners also owns Orange Leaf yogurt stores in Lexington. “We’ve always been interested in bringing new things to Kentucky.”

Last week, I stopped by to watch two teams play the Breakout Games.

“It was awesome!” said Matt Hogg, who knows a thing or two about role-playing. He spent several years as a costumed football and basketball mascot for the University of Kentucky and the Washington Wizards.

Hogg and four co-workers from Remix Education, a Lexington educational entertainment company he started, polished their teamwork by playing the Derby Heist. Perhaps because they were used to working together, they broke out with nine minutes to spare — one of the fastest times yet.

“I had done the kidnapping room before, and I loved the difference between the two,” Jon Wicks said. “Just because you’re good at one doesn’t mean you’re good at the other.”

Curt Vernon’s favorite part was “the moment when you figure something out and it clicks. It’s cool because that happens over and over again.”

Across the hall, a group of UK international students ran out of time before escaping from the kidnapping room, but they came close.

“It really makes you work as a team,” said Viabhav Chitkara. “It tests how well you can work as a group with your friends.”

Sizemore said the eight partners have about $50,000 invested in the business so far, and they plan to build more rooms in an adjacent space.

Last weekend, the facility hosted 15 groups, he said, and it has been slow but steady on weekdays. Most teams, of three-to-eight players, have been groups of friends, family members and co-workers using it as a team-building exercise.

“It’s a good fit for different ages,” Sizemore said. “We’ve had 12 and 13-year-olds in there and grandparents, too. Everybody in the group has something to contribute.”

Sizemore said the games are safe. The rooms aren’t really locked, and the handcuffs used in the kidnapping room are easily removed. Staff members watch each game via TV monitors in the control room, looking for any problems.

Teams can ask the control room staff for clues. But after three clues, each additional one costs the team a minute off its allotted hour.

Sizemore said the most successful teams have been those that are aggressive and trust one another to divide the clues and puzzles into small groups, rather than everyone try to work on everything.

The first two game scenarios were developed by two of the business partners, Audra Cryder and Aaron Martinez. Constantly tweaking those scenarios and developing new ones will be key to getting repeat business, Sizemore said.

“We hope it will turn into a successful business someday,” Sizemore said. “But it’s not there yet.”

Click on each image to see larger picture and read caption:


Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: clean environment is good economic policy.

January 17, 2015

KennedyRobert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at Transylvania. Photo by Mark Mahan.

 

It was a breath of fresh air, especially after an election in which Kentucky politicians of both parties competed to see who could be the biggest sock puppet for the coal industry.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. spoke at Transylvania University on Wednesday about “Green Capitalism: Why Environmental Policy Equals Good Business Policy.”

Kennedy, 61, son of the slain presidential candidate and nephew of the slain president, is an accomplished environmental lawyer, anti-pollution activist and partner in a renewable-energy investment firm.

Kennedys are like Bushes; most people either love them or hate them on principle, without actually listening to what they say. But this talk was worth listening to, because Kennedy clearly explained our nation’s biggest problem, what could be done to solve it and why that isn’t happening.

Surprisingly, his message had as much appeal for libertarians as liberals. Conservatives could find a lot to agree with, too, if they care about conserving anything besides the status quo.

Kennedy’s main point was that Americans don’t have to choose between a clean environment and a strong economy. In fact, the only way to have a strong economy in the long run is to take care of our nation’s air, water and land.

The best way to do that, he said, is a combination of true democracy and free-market capitalism. Trouble is, polluters have used their money and influence to corrupt the political process and distort free markets.

“You show me a polluter, and I’ll show you a subsidy,” he said. “I’ll show you a fat cat using political clout to escape the discipline of the free market and forcing the public to pay his production costs. That’s all pollution is.”

Kennedy told how he started his environmental career working for commercial fishermen on the Hudson River in New York. Their industry was devastated by General Electric, which for three decades dumped more than a million pounds of cancer-causing PCBs into the Hudson.

“They saw their fishery destroyed, not because they had a bad business model, but because somebody had better lobbyists than they did,” he said.

“One of the things I learned from them was this idea that we’re not protecting the environment so much for the sake of the fishes and the birds; we’re protecting it for our own sake,” he said. “Nature is the infrastructure of our communities.”

Kennedy said we are now seeing a struggle between rich, old-energy industries that create a lot of pollution — coal, oil, gas and nuclear — and new, renewable-energy technologies that are cleaner and increasingly cheaper.

Pollution destroys our natural infrastructure and creates huge public health costs, both in terms of dollars and lives. “It’s a way of loading the costs of our generation’s prosperity onto the backs of our children,” he said.

Fossil fuel industries also receive more than $1 trillion in annual taxpayer subsidies, ranging from direct payments and tax breaks to the huge military presence in the Middle East to secure oil-production assets. Meanwhile, these industries lobby to eliminate the small subsidies offered to encourage alternatives.

If a truly free market forced the oil industry to internalize its costs, gasoline would sell for $12 to $15 a gallon. “You’re already paying that,” he said. “You’re just paying it from a different pocket.”

Kennedy argued for more market-based systems, such as cap-and-trade, to account for the hidden costs of fossil fuels. That would expose their inefficiencies and waste and level the playing field for solar, wind and geothermal.

“You need to devise rules for a marketplace that allows actors in the marketplace to make money by doing good things for the public, rather than forcing them to make money by doing bad things to the public,” he said.

Kennedy likened it to the abolition of slavery in Britain and the United States in the 19th century, a moral decision that helped spark an explosion of innovation in labor-saving technology and wealth that we now know as the Industrial Revolution.

The biggest barrier to renewable energy replacing fossil fuels is the lack of a modern national electric grid, he said. Government investment in that grid would create opportunities for entrepreneurs to flourish, just as previous investments in the Internet, interstate highways, railroads and canals did.

A good way to start would be laws to allow homeowners and businesses to profit, rather than just break even, from electricity they generate with solar panels and wind turbines and sell to utilities.

“It will turn every American into an energy entrepreneur, every home into a power plant, and power this country based on American imagination and effort and innovation,” he predicted.

It also would be good for national security. “A terrorist can blow up one power plant,” Kennedy said, “but he would have a hard time blowing up a million homes.”

Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy will be complicated. “But it’s not as complicated as going to war in Iraq,” Kennedy said. “It’s something that we can do. We just need the political will.”


Three Lexington projects finalists for $5 million in Knight grants

January 12, 2015

Three Lexington projects are among 126 finalists to share $5 million in grants in the first Knight Cities Challenge, sponsored by the John L. and James S. Knight Foundation.

kcclogo (1)The projects were chosen from among 7,000 submissions by people in the 26 cities, including Lexington, where the Knight brothers once owned newspapers.

The Lexington finalists are:

■ “Fancy Lex,” an event designed to inspire residents to become involved in the city while they enjoy food, music and local products. The idea was submitted by Abigail Shelton for the University of Kentucky’s Citizen Kentucky Honors Class.

■ WorldWall, a giant, all-weather video wall that would allow two-way, real-time interaction between people in Lexington and people elsewhere in the world. The idea was submitted by Dave Anderson.

■ Northside Common Market, which would repurpose the old Southeast Greyhound Lines building at Loudon Avenue and North Limestone as a local fresh-food market and creative business incubator space for local “makers.” The idea was submitted by Richard Young of the North Limestone Community Development Corp.

The bus terminal, built in 1928, was bought by Lextran with the intent of demolishing it to make room for a new terminal. But Lextran changed plans in 2013 after a study determined that the building was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

The Knight Cities Challenge is a grant program that the foundation operates with the intent to make the 26 cities “more vibrant places to live and work” by focusing on talent, opportunity and civic engagement. The winning projects will be announced this spring. For more information, go to Knightcities.org.


Ark park fiasco a wakeup call to aim higher with taxpayer incentives

January 11, 2015

ark3

 

The dispute over tax breaks for a proposed Noah’s Ark theme park is ridiculous on many levels, but it offers a good economic development lesson for Kentucky politicians and taxpayers.

In case you haven’t been following the story, the nonprofit organization Answers in Genesis, which opened the Creation Museum in Boone County in 2007, is trying to build the Ark Encounter attraction in nearby Grant County.

AIG believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible’s creation story that is contrary to both scientific evidence and the views of most Christians. Among other things, AIG’s followers believe the world is only 6,000 years old, and that humans and dinosaurs once lived side-by-side, just as in The Flintstones cartoons.

The Creation Museum drew a lot of tourists — believers and scoffers alike — so AIG announced plans in 2010 to build a big theme park around a 500-foot-long, seven-story-high version of Noah’s Ark.

This time, though, AIG wanted taxpayer subsidies. And it got a lot. But it wants more, even as the project has been scaled back because of fundraising shortfalls.

The city of Williamstown agreed to a 75 percent break on property taxes for 30 years and a $62 million bond issue. The Grant County Industrial Development Authority gave the park $200,000 plus 100 acres of land at a reduced price. The state has promised $11 million in road improvements for the park’s benefit.

The state also agreed to provide $18 million in tourism tax credits, but it withdrew the offer after it became clear that Ark Encounter jobs would go only to people who pass the group’s religious litmus test. You would think state officials could have seen that coming.

Kentucky politicians should never have agreed to these incentives in the first place. And you have to wonder: Would they have done the same for a Wiccan World theme park? Buddha Land? Six Flags over Islam?

AIG has threatened to sue, and it has rented billboards around Kentucky and in New York’s Times Square to wage a holy war of words against what founder Ken Ham calls “secularists” and “intolerant liberal friends” who object to his ministry feeding at the public trough.

The sad thing is, AIG might have a case. It doesn’t help that in 2013, the General Assembly foolishly passed a conservative feel-good law that protects religious groups from vague “burdens” imposed by state government.

So don’t be surprised if AIG — a tax-exempt group with more than $19 million in annual revenue and enough extra cash to rent a billboard in Times Square — argues in court that it is “burdened” by being denied millions more in taxpayer subsidies.

The ark park mess is a symptom of a bigger problem with Kentucky’s economic development strategy. Despite recent reforms, officials aim too low too often. Rather than focusing on high-paying jobs that will move Kentucky forward, they are often happy to subsidize jobs that don’t even pay a living wage.

It is an unfortunate reality that state and local governments must sometimes throw money at corporations to bring jobs to their areas. It has become quite a racket, as companies play cities and states off one another, demanding more and more concessions that shift the burden of public services to everybody else.

Sometimes, such as with the Toyota plant in Georgetown, incentives are good investments. But Kentucky has shelled out money for far more clunkers.

The ark park is a great example of a clunker. It would create mostly low-wage service jobs while reinforcing the stereotype of Kentucky as a state of ignorant people hostile to science.

Think about it this way: For every low-wage job the ark park would create, how many high-wage jobs would be lost because science and technology companies simply write off Kentucky?

But economic development incentives are only part of the problem. Kentucky’s antiquated tax code no longer grows with the economy, and it is riddled with special-interest loopholes that leave far too little public money to meet today’s needs, much less make smart investments for the future.

The ark park fiasco should be a wake-up call for Kentucky politicians to raise their standards.

This state will never become prosperous by spending public money to create low-wage jobs and reinforce negative stereotypes. Prosperity will come only through strategic, long-term investments in high-wage jobs, education, infrastructure, a healthy population, a cleaner environment and a better quality of life.

Everybody say amen.


Urban-rural divide will challenge Kentucky economy in 2015

January 5, 2015

141231Downtown0113b21C Museum Hotel is expected to open in late 2015 after renovation is completed on the century-old First National Building, right. But the old Fayette County Courthouse, left, will be one of Lexington’s biggest redevelopment challenges. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

As a recent economic study notes, Kentucky’s economy is really nine very different regional economies that reflect a national trend: urban areas are doing well, but rural areas are struggling.

Lexington and Louisville together accounted for 45 percent of the state’s job growth over the past five years, according to a study by economist Paul Coomes for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

That means Central Kentucky this year should continue to capitalize on several sources of momentum, including manufacturing growth, entrepreneurship and urban redevelopment, as well as Lexington’s growing reputation as a good place to live, work and visit.

The biggest manufacturing news this year is likely to be Toyota’s new Lexus assembly line. When the $531 million Georgetown plant expansion is finished late this year, 600 additional workers will make 50,000 Lexus 350 ES cars a year, in addition to the current Camrys, Avalons and Venzas.

But as manufacturing becomes more automated, the demand for higher-skilled workers increases. “Having a skilled work force is going to be a huge factor” in future growth, said Bob Quick, president of Commerce Lexington.

Central Kentucky continues to see an influx of workers and professionals from elsewhere. That is helping to fuel not only manufacturing, but business and professional services and entrepreneurial efforts, Quick said.

That also is good news for Lexington’s urban redevelopment initiatives, which finally seem to be hitting their stride. While the public’s attention was focused in recent years on the long-stalled CentrePointe project, a lot of good things were happening.

Victorian Square was renovated and rebranded as The Square, breathing new life into the downtown retail-restaurant development. This year will be a test of whether that concept can succeed.

A lot of small-scale urban redevelopment has been happening in places such as the Jefferson Street restaurant corridor, whose latest addition is the Apiary; the East End; National Avenue; South Limestone and North Limestone areas.

This could be a big year for the Newtown Pike corridor between downtown and the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus. Developers of Thistle Station, a proposed 16-story apartment building, hope to begin construction this year and open in fall 2016.

While the Rupp Arena and convention center reconstruction have been put on hold, city officials continue to move forward on Town Branch Commons, an innovative plan to create a linear park downtown that could attract new development.

“You’re seeing a deeper bench for the strategy of downtown,” Quick said. “Even when the Rupp piece didn’t work, we didn’t lose our downtown vision.”

Late this year, the 21C Museum Hotel should open after an extensive renovation of Lexington’s first skyscraper, the century-old First National Building.

But 21C is across the street from downtown’s biggest redevelopment challenge: the old Fayette County Courthouse. It was shuttered in 2012 because of lead contamination and structural problems from years of neglect. Officials this year need to come up with a plan for renovating and reusing this landmark.

The Breeder’s Cup at Keeneland Oct. 30-31 could pump $50 million into the local economy. It also should provide an incentive to finish a variety of projects, just as the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games did in 2010.

Kentucky’s biggest trouble spot is Eastern Kentucky, where the coal industry is in permanent decline. Will the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative this year create jobs in Eastern Kentucky, or just more talk?

Dave Adkisson, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, said everyone also will be watching to see how Ft. Knox and Ft. Campbell fare as the military downsizes after long, costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Adkisson thinks Kentucky exports will remain strong. One of the fastest-growing exports is likely to continue to be bourbon whiskey, which is enjoying global popularity.

But international trade has been both a blessing and curse. The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy estimates that 41,100 jobs have been lost in the state since 2001 because of America’s growing trade deficit with China.

Will Congress and the president finally address China’s currency manipulation and other unfair trade practices? Or will new global export agreements now in the works simply ship more Kentucky jobs overseas?

One of the biggest issues facing every Kentucky region is the lack of real wage and per-capita income growth, which is below the national average and a drag on the economy. House Democrats have talked about raising the state’s minimum wage this year, but business groups and Republicans oppose it.


Thomas Hunt Morgan: history to empower, not limit, Lexington

January 3, 2015

While most of us are making plans for this year, some people in Lexington have their eyes on 2016. They are planning a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Hunt Morgan, the most famous Lexingtonian most people here have never heard of.

The goal is not so much to celebrate someone who lived from 1866 to 1945, but to use his legacy to help reshape Lexington’s image and future. If this local boy could grow up to become one of the 20th century’s most influential scientists, what might other Lexington children be inspired to accomplish?

If Thomas Hunt Morgan’s name sounds vaguely familiar, it is probably because you have heard of his uncle, Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a dashing Confederate cavalry raider. His statue is outside the old Fayette County Courthouse.

Thomas Hunt Morgan was born in the home of his great-grandfather, John Wesley Hunt, one of Kentucky’s first millionaires. In 1955, the house was saved from demolition and inspired creation of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, which now operates it as a museum.

THMMorgan grew up in a circa 1869 house behind it. The Woman’s Club of Central Kentucky recently deeded that house to the Blue Grass Trust, which has begun renovation.

Morgan spent his childhood collecting fossils, birds’ eggs and other natural specimens that filled his parents’ attic, inspiring him to a career in science.

After earning a degree from the University of Kentucky, he got his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University. As a professor at Bryn Mawr College, he did pioneering research in embryology there and at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass. He moved on to Columbia University in 1904 and the California Institute of Technology in 1928.

Morgan’s experiments with fruit flies explained how the theories of genetics and evolution worked. He became the first Kentuckian to win a Nobel Prize in 1933 and wrote seven books that are now scientific classics.

But Morgan’s significance was not just in the results of his research, but in the ways it was conducted. His emphasis on collaborative, skeptical experiments over theory created the foundation for modern biological research.

The attic of Morgan’s childhood home was the first of several laboratories he would use to change the course of science. “He always said this was a key part of his success,” Tom Kimmerer, a Lexington forest scientist, said.

UK’s biological sciences building is named for Morgan, and the biology department hosts a prestigious annual lecture that bears his name. But Morgan is much more famous everywhere else than in Lexington, which has always been more fixated on his Civil War uncle.

Kimmerer thought it was time to change that. After writing a piece about Morgan for the website PlanetExperts.com, he launched an effort to make 2016 the “year of Thomas Hunt Morgan” in Lexington.

The Blue Grass Trust hosted a lunch at the Thomas Hunt Morgan House on Dec. 5 for more than 40 representatives of local government, education and business communities. Kimmerer outlined his vision for a year of events that could have a lasting impact on Lexington’s potential to become more of a center of scientific education, research and commercialization.

Kimmerer said the response has been good — especially outside Kentucky.

“We’ve gotten a very warm reception from all of the institutions where Morgan studied and worked,” he said, noting that they have offered to send speakers and lend artifacts and materials.

After the lunch, attendees formed committees to help interested groups organize events and raise some money for facilitation once a non-profit has been identified as a financial steward.

“We would like for interested companies or schools to step up and create events they think would have value,” Kimmerer said.

Among the ideas: science fairs, lectures, and an educational event called a bioblitz, where teams of volunteers work together to identify as many species of plants, animals and organisms in a defined area as possible within 24 hours.

Kimmerer is trying to organize a screening of the new movie, The Fly Room, which is set in Morgan’s Columbia University laboratory, and perhaps an exhibit of the scientifically accurate movie set.

Even more important is creating a long-term legacy, such as public art and exhibits; economic-development initiatives focused on science; scholarships or fellowships at the prestigious institutions where Morgan studied and worked; and naming a local public school for Morgan.

But the most important legacy Lexington could create for Morgan is the attitude that this city should be empowered by its history, rather than be limited by it.

“We look at this as an opportunity for Lexington to change its self-image,” Kimmerer said. “And the more we can get kids involved, the better.”


Lexington curator bringing Kentucky artists to New York gallery

December 29, 2014

141104PMJones0015Lexington native Phillip March Jones poses inside the gallery he now manages in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The founder of Institute 193 in Lexington renovated the space for Christian Berst Art Brut, a Paris-based gallery that wanted a New York City presence. Jones plans to include Kentucky artists in the gallery’s shows. Photos by Shannon Eblen

 

NEW YORK — When Phillip March Jones started the non-profit art space Institute 193 in Lexington five years ago, his goal was to bring wider attention to little-known contemporary artists in Kentucky and the South.

Now he has taken that work a step further, opening a New York branch of the Paris-based Gallerie Christian Berst Art Brut. Already, his shows have a Kentucky flavor.

The gallery opened Oct. 30 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side with Do the Write Thing: Read Between The Lines, a collection of pieces by 17 artists who live on the margins of society and use the written word as graphic elements of their drawings.

_MG_7701Among the artists featured was Beverly Baker of Versailles, who has Down syndrome and is a member of the Latitude Artist Community in Lexington.

The gallery’s next show, which opens Jan. 10, is, Making Pictures: Three for a Dime, which until recently was on display at Institute 193’s small space at 193 North Limestone Street.

That show features tiny photo booth portraits that Jim and Mancy Massengill made in the 1930s as they traveled around rural Arkansas. Their goal was to earn extra money during the Great Depression, but decades later these souvenir portraits look like playful, strange and even haunting works of art.

Art Brut is a French term to describe art produced by people outside the mainstream of artistic culture and conventions. It is about the human urge to create for the sake of creating, rather than for academic or commercial motivations.

“We’re essentially interested in people who are doing things out of a very personal and private impulse,” Jones said. “It’s really a private exercise, one that’s based on their own vision without any concerns for audience.”

Jones, who grew up in Lexington, has had a diverse career as an artist, writer, curator and publisher. He worked with the Souls Grow Deep Foundation in Atlanta and is curator of the University of Kentucky’s Chandler Hospital art museum.

Institute 193 has published a number of books based on its shows. Others have published two collections of Jones’ photography: Points of Departure, a collection of roadside memorials, and Pictures Take You Places.

Jones had been shuttling between Atlanta and New York for two years when the Paris-based gallery hired him to create its New York space. Last summer, he moved to the city and started searching for locations. He settled on a dilapidated former hardware store and synagogue at 95 Rivington Street, just a few blocks from the New Museum, one of New York’s leading contemporary art museums.

The split-level space has the main gallery upstairs and a downstairs area Jones calls the workshop, which will show new discoveries or smaller exhibitions related to the main show upstairs.

When I visited there in early October, the place still had a long way to go and Jones was busy juggling contractors. But three weeks later, everything was done, and Jones said nearly 500 people showed up on opening night.

Art Brut would seem an odd genre for a gallery whose business is selling art. But like any genre, it has its devotees. “The goal of this space is to unearth these various things happening all over the world and to share them,” Jones said.

Baker has been displaying her work for more than 15 years. It has been exhibited three times before in New York and is in the collection of the Museum of Everything in London.

“For years, she has been making these drawings and paintings,” Jones said. “I don’t think she’s really concerned with who’s looking at them and what they think of them. I think it’s something she has always done and will always do.”

Although Jones has turned over the day-to-day operations of Institute 193 to interim director Coleman Guyon, he remains chairman of the board and sees a lot of future synergies between it and his New York gallery.

“Over the next few years, there’s probably half a dozen artists from Kentucky I would like to work with,” Jones said.

“In Atlanta or wherever I’ve been, I’ve always been an advocate for artists from Central Kentucky, because it’s my home but also because there’s really great stuff happening,” he said. “I think this will be an even more tangible way to do those things.”

141121PMJones-TE0006Dean Langdon looks at a recent show at Institute 193, a non-profit art gallery at 193 N. Limestone St. that Phillip March Jones founded five years ago. The tiny space has featured cutting-edge contemporary art from Kentucky and around the South. Photo by Tom Eblen 


Want to improve the economy? Narrow the growing wealth gap

December 21, 2014

Many politicians and business executives like to complain about the slowness and fragility of the economic recovery. Then they push policies to keep it that way — or make it worse.

What they don’t seem to understand is that the best way to improve the economy is to put more money in the pockets of average people who will spend it.

Instead, these politicians and executives oppose raising the minimum wage, which has been $7.25 an hour since 2009 and losing ground to inflation for decades. A low minimum wage keeps wages just above it depressed, too.

Then there are the perversely misnamed “right to work” laws. Their real purpose is to weaken what is left of labor unions so that big business, which already seems to have bought control of government with campaign contributions, has nobody to challenge its power.

Add to that efforts to repeal Kentucky’s “prevailing wage” law, which would cut the pay of working men and women who build public construction projects.

The biggest drag on the economy — and perhaps the biggest threat to America’s long-term prosperity — is the widening wealth gap between the haves and have-nots. Narrowing the gap is in everyone’s best interest, whether they realize it or not.

The prevailing-wage law became a flashpoint last week at a state legislative meeting. The law is designed so that public construction projects pay wages that reflect those in the local community. But as so much of the construction industry has become non-union, critics argue that the law puts too much emphasis on higher union wages.

The Legislative Research Commission compiled a report showing that construction workers on state projects earned $8 an hour more than those on private projects. Workers on 12 school district projects earned $11.37 an hour more.

But critics objected to the analysis, saying it looked only at labor costs, not total project costs. Might more skilled, better-paid workers complete projects faster and better? Besides, higher wages help strengthen local communities.

The irony is that most of the legislators who think construction workers are overpaid have little to say about the sometimes obscene compensation policies at state government’s highest levels.

Kentucky’s public pension systems are among the most under-funded and least transparent in the nation, yet they provide rich benefits for part-time legislators and other high-ranking officials smart enough to game the system.

And then there is the case of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System president, long the nation’s highest-paid community college leader. He recently retired with a $300,000 handshake.

Warren County’s Fiscal Court last week approved Kentucky’s first county “right to work” ordinance, although it is unclear if it is legal under state law.

Republican legislators and chambers of commerce would like to make Kentucky a “right to work” state. That would make Kentucky more “friendly” to companies that want to come here and pay low wages. Studies show right-to-work states often do have faster job growth — as well as lower overall wages and higher poverty rates.

Since Congressional Democrats failed to overcome Republican opposition to raising the federal minimum wage, a statewide minimum-wage increase has been proposed by Democrats in the Kentucky General Assembly. Last Thursday, Louisville’s City Council raised the local minimum wage to $9 by 2017 on a 16-9 party-line vote.

Predictably, business groups and right-wing activists argue that would cause huge job losses — even though it has never happened with previous minimum-wage increases.

Since Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, economic policies and trends have largely been based on “trickle-down” economic theory — the notion that if the rich get richer, everyone else will prosper, too. Trouble is, it hasn’t worked that way.

Wealth inequality in the United States is now higher than at any point since the 1920s. The vast majority of all income growth is going to the rich. Corporate profits and the stock market are at record highs. But average workers are losing ground, and the overall economy remains sluggish.

This is a global problem, too, prompting Pope Francis to take up the issue last year in a papal statement worthy of a few amens.

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories, which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” the Roman Catholic Church’s leader wrote. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.”


Proposal a test of whether Lexington is ready to grow up, not out.

December 20, 2014

thistleAn architectural rendering of Thistle Station, a proposed 16-story apartment building with retail on the first floor. It would be between West Third and Fourth Streets off Newtown Pike.

 

Thistle Station, the 16-story apartment and retail building proposed last week along Newtown Pike, will be a big test of whether Lexingtonians can practice what they preach about growing their city up rather than out.

At first blush, the $30 million project appears to be a great example of urban infill development, the kind Lexington needs if it wants to avoid paving over more of its precious farmland.

Proposed by a group of local investors led by John Cirigliano, Thistle Station seems to have a lot going for it. For one thing, the site and location are just about perfect.

The development would sit along busy Newtown Pike, across West Fourth Street from the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus. It would be near two popular brew pubs and the Jefferson Street restaurant district and within easy walking distance of downtown.

Yet, there is enough space between this site and surrounding residential neighborhoods that nobody should feel crowded or overwhelmed, even by such a tall building with more than 210 apartments.

The site is now a former lumber yard bordered by railroad tracks. Nobody will be displaced by this project, and no significant old buildings will be lost.

thistle2The developers plan plenty of parking, most of it screened from public view, with easy access to Newtown Pike, which will minimize traffic impact on other nearby streets. The building is on a Lextran bus line and will be near both the Legacy and Town Branch trails. The developers plan to build a connecting trail section on their property along Newtown Pike.

Renderings show an attractive piece of contemporary architecture, designed in part by the Lexington firm Pohl Rosa Pohl. Skillful use of classical elements — a base, a middle course and a cap — give the design visual unity.

Although the building would be bigger and taller than anything near it, the first story is wrapped by pedestrian-friendly retail space. A stepped-down face along West Third Street provides a more human scale appropriate to the adjacent historic neighborhoods.

An abundance of glass is framed by textured concrete to resemble brick, with several nice touches, such as open glass corners and subtle balconies. Thistle Station could set a positive tone for future architecture along this important Lexington gateway corridor.

While the downtown condo market has been soft since the real estate bubble burst in 2008, property professionals tell me there is demand for upscale rental apartments downtown. Many young and transient professionals, as well as empty-nest baby boomers, want to live in an urban setting.

Two more positives: Thistle Station is not seeking any public subsidies, such as tax-increment financing. And before going public, the developers briefed leaders of the three surrounding neighborhood associations and scheduled meetings to seek public comment and suggestions. So far, most of the response has been positive.

The developers plan to file papers next month to rezone the property from I-1 light industrial to B-1 business under the city’s new form-based guidelines. If approved by the Planning Commission and the Urban County Council in the spring, the developers say the project could be finished and open by fall 2016.

The riskiest aspect of Thistle Station’s plan would seem to be the small, ground-floor retail and restaurant spaces. A lot of similar space at other Lexington mixed-use projects is vacant after struggling to find and keep tenants.

Still, making this space available is the right thing to do. Retail is essential to creating vibrant neighborhoods. A few tall housing developments like this could help provide the population density and diversity Lexington needs to help urban shops and restaurants succeed.

I expect Thistle Station will get some opposition — I have never seen a development proposal in Lexington that didn’t. People here have always been averse to more density and height. But both will be essential if Lexington is to get serious about promoting urban infill rather than bulldozing more bluegrass.

If properly designed, development with greater density and height can be both attractive and compatible with existing neighborhoods. Thistle Station looks like a good place for Lexington to start proving that point.


Alt32 architects find niche making furniture for their buildings

December 8, 2014

141120alt32-TE0023Alt32’s architects designed and used their computer-controlled router to manufacture office furniture and wall panels for the Plantory, a shared workspace facility in the Bread Box building at the corner of West Sixth and Jefferson streets. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

There is a celebrated tradition of architects designing furniture. Think Frank Lloyd Wright’s steel office desks, or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s chrome-and-leather Barcelona chair.

So when a client told Matthew Brooks and Mike Sparkman, principals of the Lexington architecture firm Alt32, it was planning to order a lot of Ikea desks and file units for office space they were designing, “a light bulb went off,” Brooks said.

“Mike and I both have a passion for making things,” he said, noting that they had rented a woodworking shop downtown a year earlier. “It started out as a place for us to work on our own stuff, for our houses and whatever.”

But the more they worked, the more they thought of ways they could create and fabricate fixtures and furniture for buildings they designed. That experimentation also became a passion for Michael Mead, a colleague who died in September.

141120alt32-TE0011It was all part of a creative evolution that Brooks and Sparkman, both 46, had been going through since they bought Lucas/Schwering Architects, a 25-year-old firm where they had worked for more than a decade. In 2012, they rebranded the firm Alt32, after a computer programming code for creating space.

Last year, the firm was hired to re-imagine a former two-car garage off South Ashland Avenue as a Greek restaurant, Athenian Grill. They used their workshop to recycle wood salvaged from the building for trim and fixtures. That led to other ideas, such as how to design and make furniture from birch plywood.

The big opportunity came as part of their work to design space for the Plantory, a shared office facility that was moving to larger quarters in the Bread Box building at the corner of Jefferson and West Sixth streets.

The Plantory serves mostly small, non-profit organizations, so its renovation was a low-budget project. Still, it was big enough to justify Alt32 buying an expensive CNC (computer numeric control) router.

With a CNC, designers use computer software to create intricate designs that can be cut from a variety of materials.

“It can do forms and shapes and geometries that traditional equipment can’t,” Sparkman said.

Alt32 made 64 desks and other furniture for the Plantory using birch plywood. Each desk was cut from a single sheet. Because the pieces were artfully arranged on the plywood before cutting, they left attractive “waste” sheets that could be used as decorative wall panels and stairway enclosures.

“In this case, the only waste is the sawdust,” Sparkman said.

Future products could include light fixtures, signage and even three-dimensional exterior wall panels made out of metal or plastic, which also can be cut on a CNC.

141112alt32-TE0065A“We’re just dipping our toe into the potential,” Brooks said. “But it’s a different kind of business from what our professional services are.”

The primary business they bought with Lucas/Schwering was designing Kentucky schools. That is still the firm’s bread and butter, and they want it to continue to be.

But they see fabrication, which now produces about 10 percent of their revenue and employs three full-time people in the shop, as a growth area that offers interesting ways to add value to their building designs.

For example, they have already made furniture for one school design. The firm designed interior space for Providence Montessori Middle School, which renovated the circa 1840s Florence Crittenton Home, and designed and built all of the school’s furniture.

Brooks and Sparkman said they have several upcoming projects, including new spaces for Crank & Boom ice cream and Lexington Pasta. They’re working on furniture prototypes that might fit the needs of those clients.

They also have thought of developing a line of ready-to-assemble furniture that could be sold online and flat-packed for shipping, as Ikea does.

Brooks and Sparkman said they want to keep their firm focused on Kentucky, and especially Lexington. Most of their non-school work is local, and they and all of the designers and interns in their firm are graduates of the University of Kentucky’s College of Design. They also want to keep Alt32 small enough to be flexible and creative.

“This has opened our eyes to different opportunities for how to manipulate materials,” Brooks said. “If you look at architecture now, it’s all about how do we manipulate all the materials we now have available.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


After 7 years of excuses, get tough with CentrePointe developer

December 6, 2014

141124CentrePointe-TE0001The CentrePointe block on Nov. 24, 2014. Below, developer Dudley Webb at the site in May and, below, the block before demolition began in 2008. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

Fourteen months ago, when city officials were scrutinizing developer Dudley Webb’s financing to decide whether to let him begin excavation and construction of his problem-plagued CentrePointe project, I wrote that there are far worse things to have in the center of your city than a grassy field.

Now we know one of those things: a huge crater, nearly 40 feet deep and an entire city block square. A hole in the heart of Lexington.

Webb’s contractors spent three months last spring blasting, digging and hauling away more than 60,000 cubic yards of rock and dirt to build an underground garage. The three-level, 700-space garage is supposed to be the base of his proposed CentrePointe development of offices, apartments, shops, restaurants and hotels.

Webb said in May that the garage would be finished by late summer. But all he has done is dig a big hole, pour a few footers and make a lot of excuses.

CentrePointe has fallen months behind schedule, causing its major office tenant, the engineering firm Stantec, to cancel its lease agreement.

Instead of building the garage, as promised, Webb has sought more public subsidies. It is the latest episode in a tragedy that has been playing out since early 2008, when city officials let Webb demolish an entire block of historic buildings and popular businesses on nothing more than promises.

140531CentrePit-TE0140Webb has said over and over that he has financing to build. But when it comes down to it, he never really does. And, of course, it is always somebody else’s fault.

In August, Webb asked the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority to issue $30 million in bonds for the garage’s construction to lower his borrowing costs. The state refused, so he asked the city.

Mayor Jim Gray and the Urban County Council also wisely declined, even though Webb’s attorneys assured them that taxpayers would not be on the hook for repayment in case of default.

Even if that is true, city officials are keenly aware that a default on city-issued bonds would tarnish Lexington’s reputation even more than the CentrePointe fiasco already has.

Webb next turned to the Kentucky League of Cities, which agreed to create a non-profit corporation to issue the bonds. That was supposed to happen last week, but Temple Juett, the league’s general counsel, said the issue has been delayed. He did not have a new date.

If and when the bonds are sold, the big question will be whether anyone will buy them. The bonds are to be repaid by a portion of future tax revenues generated by the project. “The only people left holding the bag if there is a default are the bondholders,” Juett said.

Maybe the bond issue will be successful. Maybe Webb has the rest of his financing in place, as he claims. Maybe there will be no further delays, and CentrePointe will be built as promised.

Maybe pigs will fly.

If the bonds don’t sell, I predict Webb will come back to the city with his hand out. He will seek a bond guarantee or some other assistance in addition to the tax-increment financing package he last negotiated with the city and state in 2013.

There is only one appropriate response to any request for more public subsidies for CentrePointe: No. Period.

When Webb assured city officials a year ago that his financing was solid, they forced him to put up $4.4 million as a “conditional restoration agreement” that could be triggered if work at the site stops for 60 days.

That $4.4 million is supposed to be enough to pay for refilling the hole, compacting the soil and restoring the block to its pre-excavation appearance — a grassy field.

If the developer can’t pay, the city can go to court and seek foreclosure on the property, which is owned by corporations set up by Webb and jeweler Joe Rosenberg, whose family has owned much of the land for decades.

Of course, it would make no sense to fill the hole. The city needs the parking garage, just as it needs a vibrant, tax-generating, job-creating commercial development to be built on top of it. The question is whether Webb is capable of ever building either.

Here is what should happen: If Webb can’t finish the garage in a timely manner, city officials should use their leverage to force him and Rosenberg to turn the project over to another developer who can.

For nearly seven years, city officials have bent over backward to try to make CentrePointe a well-designed, successful project. Webb has squandered opportunities and made a lot of promises he hasn’t kept. Enough is enough.

080618CentrePointeBlockTE018

 


Shop struggles with constant downtown construction projects

November 30, 2014

141124Failte0013At her first location, Liza Hendley Betz’s Fáilte Irish Imports faced the long Limestone reconstruction project. Now in the red building with McCarthy’s Irish Bar, it is surrounded by CentrePointe excavation and renovation of the 21C Museum Hotel. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

As she prepares to celebrate the 13th anniversary of opening Fáilte Irish Imports, Dublin native Liza Hendley Betz feels as if the luck of the Irish has been replaced by the curse of downtown redevelopment.

For the first eight years after she opened her shop in 2001, Hendley’s business prospered on South Limestone, just off the corner of High Street.

Betz’s bread and butter was selling Irish bread and butter — plus sausages, Bewley’s tea, Batchelor’s canned beans, Cadbury’s sweets and other comfort food from home to the Emerald Isle’s large expatriate community in Central Kentucky. She also did a good business in Irish tweeds, Celtic jewelry and souvenirs.

Then, with two weeks’ warning, South Limestone was shut down for 11 months for a major street reconstruction project.

141124Failte0043Her business struggled, but she was able to move in early 2010 to her dream location: beside McCarthy’s Irish Bar on South Upper Street. But the old red-and-green building also was across the street from the stalled CentrePointe project, which was then a grassy field.

“This is where I always wanted to be,” Betz said of the close proximity to McCarthy’s, a social center for the Irish community where she used to serve drinks.

As for CentrePointe, she figured, “I’ll deal with it when it happens. It can’t be any worse than what happened before.”

Or could it? Last December, all of the street parking across from her shop was closed after CentrePointe’s developer got city permission to begin blasting and excavation.

The street was a noisy, dusty mess for most of this year as the CentrePointe block was converted into a 40-foot limestone pit. Then everything stopped. Developer Dudley Webb is now trying to raise money to build an underground garage.

To make matters worse, the block of North Upper Street above Fáilte has been closed for months so the old First National Bank Building can be renovated into 21C Museum Hotel.

“This used to be a busy intersection,” she said. “You can go out here now and do a dance in the middle of the street. It’s hard these days to keep a business going with all this around you.”

Betz has rented a single parking space beside her shop, which has made it more convenient for customers to stop in for quick purchases.

Like many retailers, Fáilte’s prime season is between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, not just for gift items but because Irish Americans want food from home for their holiday celebrations.

On Dec. 12, the shop will celebrate its 13th anniversary with a 10 percent off sale, plus a party with Guinness beer, souvenir glasses and Irish music next door at McCarthy’s between 7 and 9 p.m.

Betz said she needs a big December, although her holiday season will extend to St. Patrick’s Day on March 17. She recently became a United States citizen, so she also is thinking about something special for next July 4 — if she can keep the doors open that long.

“It’s the worst time we’ve ever had,” said Betz, whose husband is a horse veterinarian. She minds the shop while caring for their two small children.

Like any good entrepreneur, Betz has been looking for ways to broaden her business beyond food and gifts. She has organized annual tours of Ireland, and she’s looking to use her Irish expertise to grow the travel business. She also is thinking about clearing some space in the tiny shop for a couple of tables to serve tea.

“I know I need to change things up a bit,” she said. “But I’m afraid to put money into anything right now.”

Betz also knows that, in the long run, she will have a great location when 21C opens and whatever ends up being built at CentrePointe is finished. But, as the famous saying goes, people don’t eat in the long run.

“I’m in the middle of downtown,” she said. “Who would think this is a bad location?”