From hand-me-downs to high fashion, Bella Rose owner celebrates 35 years in business

November 16, 2015
Betty Spain, owner of Bella Rose, is celebrating her 35th year in business. Virtually all of that time, the women's clothing shop has been at the corner of West Maxwell and South Upper streets. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Betty Spain, owner of Bella Rose, is celebrating her 35th year in business. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Betty Spain grew up in Wolfe County, the eighth of 12 children in a family of little means.

“Never had a new pair of shoes until I was 12,” she said. “I wore lots of hand-me-downs.”

So it is with a mix of pride and amazement that Spain is celebrating her 35th year as the creator and owner of Bella Rose, a Lexington dress shop that has developed a national clientele for its stylish, sophisticated apparel.

Not that she has had time to celebrate. Spain said her shop at the corner of West Maxwell and South Upper streets had strong sales during Keeneland and Breeders’ Cup. Last week, some of her seven employees were busy decorating for the holidays, when Bella Rose does a big business with “wish list” suggestions many regular customers leave for the men in their lives.

Spain prides herself on being able to find the right dress for any woman, regardless of her age. Customers include two and three generations of some families.

Betty Spain

Betty Spain

One big attraction is the shop’s large inventory, which includes a basement showroom with more than 800 dresses by designers such as Nicole Miller, Kay Unger and Badgley Mischka.

“You go in so many specialty stores and they have a few items and you’re afraid almost to touch them,” Spain said. “For me, it’s come in and kick off your shoes and stay awhile, and let’s get you in the right dress.”

Spain, who travels to New York frequently to scout merchandise, does a big business in dresses for special occasions, from proms to the Country Music Awards. She also does personal shopping for several women who trust her to choose clothing that will make them look good.

“I have a client in Los Angeles that I ship a box to every month,” she said. “I have a lady in Florida that I ship a box to every month and she takes what she likes and sends back the rest. I’ve been doing this for her for 25 years.”

Bella Rose has been featured in Women’s Wear Daily and several fashion magazines. Spain’s awards include one from the National Association of Women Business Owners.

“Color, style, I just have an eye for it,” she said. “I think that my repeat clientele validates that fact. It is my gift from God.”

Spain also credits her talented staff, which includes store manager Allison Herrington, who has been with her for a decade, and Spain’s daughter, Haley Williams, the mother of two of her seven grandsons.

Spain didn’t set out to create a high-end dress shop. After high school, she moved to Lexington to work as a dental assistant. Then disaster struck. She was living at Clays Ferry when the great Kentucky River flood of December 1978 left her house filled with seven feet of water.

The only clothing that survived was what Spain was wearing. She went back to Campton, to a used clothing store where she had spent many hours as a child shopping with her mother. Forty dollars later, she had a new wardrobe.

“I started wearing those ’40s-style blazers to work with skinny jeans and patients were asking me where I got that,” she said. “I literally sold some things off my body. And some of those women still shop with me today.”

Encouraged about her apparent sense of style, Spain, then 23, started a vintage clothing store. She was open evenings and weekends for three years while she kept her day job as a dental assistant. After a few months on Clay Avenue, she moved to the location where she has been ever since.

Spain made the shop her full-time job after buying a warehouse filled with vintage clothing, some of which she wholesaled to boutiques in New York and Los Angeles.

“This warehouse is what put me in business,” she said. “I also found a resource that had antique kimonos, and I was having dresses made out of them that were one of a kind.”

Spain’s shop was called Déjà vu, which was a great name for a vintage clothing shop until a strip club with the same name opened on New Circle Road.

“We were getting phone calls of, ‘How much are table dances?’ and I was screaming, ‘I’m a mother! Don’t call here!'” she said.

Spain renamed her shop Bella Rose and took her inventory in a new direction. While stylish clothing is her business, customer service is what keeps her successful.

“I’m in the business of cheering up women,” she said. “I hear a lot of ‘Betty work your magic.’ To watch that woman put on the right dress and light up like a light bulb, it’s all worth it.”

Bella Rose owner Betty Spain, right, and her daughter, Haley Williams.

Bella Rose owner Betty Spain, right, and her daughter, Haley Williams.

 

Betty Spain, who has owned Bella Rose women's clothing store for 35 years, said part of her success has been the ability to dress women of all ages. Three regular customers are Jan Marks, left; her granddaughter, Sophi Clarke, center; and their friend, Laura Adams. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Spain said part of her success is the ability to dress women of all ages. Three customers are Jan Marks, left; her granddaughter, Sophi Clarke, center; and their friend, Laura Adams.

 

Betty Spain, owner of Bella Rose, packs a lot of inventory into her small women's clothing shop. The basement room has more than 800 dresses. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Bella Rose’s basement room has more than 800 dresses.

 

 

 


Bevin could show a conservative can care about conservation

November 14, 2015

Kentucky is blessed with a beautiful landscape and abundant water resources, and we have been trying for more than a century to ruin it.

Too often, Kentuckians have been presented with a false choice: We can either have jobs and economic prosperity or clean water, air and land — but not both.

That kind of thinking has left Kentucky near the bottom in national rankings of wealth, health and well-being. It is no coincidence that this state’s most environmentally damaged places are also its poorest and sickest.

Twenty-first century reality is the opposite of that false choice. Pollution may bring a measure of prosperity in the short-term, but it harms it in the long-term. Balancing commerce with conservation ensures that Kentuckians will be able to live, work and prosper here forever.

These issues are worth thinking about now because a new governor will soon take office. Many people who care about the environment fear that Republican Matt Bevin, with his business and Tea Party background, will make things worse.

I’m not so sure about that.

Kentucky’s environment has suffered under both Democrats and Republicans. That suffering has included irresponsible surface mining, industrial pollution, poorly designed sprawl and costly highway projects designed more to enrich land speculators, road contractors and developers than to meet real transportation needs.

A recent investigation by Erica Peterson of WFPL radio in Louisville used state records to show how polluters have faced less scrutiny during the administrations of Democrat Steve Beshear and Republican Ernie Fletcher than they did before.

At the same time, pollution increased. Under both administrations, there was much less funding for enforcement and less political will to go after polluters, especially when they were coal companies.

The consequences of that have been real. For example, more than 500 miles of streams in the Lower Cumberland basin were classified as fully supporting aquatic life in 1992. By 2012, that number had fallen to about 100 miles, state records show.

Big polluters — such as the people behind the “war on coal” propaganda campaign — try to make Kentuckians think that the only people who care about the environment are liberal tree-huggers. But that’s not true.

An increasing number of conservatives realize the importance of environmental protection, for a variety of reasons. Hunters, fishermen and farmers have been powerful conservation advocates for decades.

There is a growing Creation Care movement among conservative Christians, who cite Genesis 2:15 and other scripture. Influential groups include the Evangelical Environmental Network and Lexington-based Blessed Earth.

Christian environmentalists recently got a powerful ally in Pope Francis, whose encyclical, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, makes it clear that destroying God’s creation for profit is a sin.

Conservative businessmen such as Alltech’s Pearse Lyons have realized for years that there is a lot of money to be made in helping society become more environmentally responsible. He is a bright beacon for Kentucky’s future.

On the flip side, libertarians are speaking out against the crony capitalism that allows corporations to pay off politicians to protect their pollution and stifle innovation.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that solar and other renewable energy industries are growing rapidly as Appalachia’s coal industry shrivels and dies. But the coal barons’ money and power have kept Kentucky politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, toeing its line. At least until now.

Bevin seems to be a smart, independent man who doesn’t owe many people favors. That last attribute puts him in a unique position compared to his predecessors.

The self-funded candidate wasn’t put into office by coal magnates, highway contractors and developers. Coming from outside the political establishment, he isn’t steeped in the crony capitalism that has long corrupted state government.

Bevin is under less obligation than his predecessors were to protect Kentucky’s economic past. He has political cover to pursue new ideas and more environmentally friendly approaches to economic development.

Bevin could create a powerful legacy by showing Kentucky that conservative and conservation come from the same word. Does he have the courage to be different?


Demographics, politics could affect Kentucky’s jobs outlook

November 8, 2015

The creation of more jobs that pay well enough to support a middle-class family was an issue in last week’s election, and it will be a bigger issue in next year’s elections. So it begs the question: what are Kentucky’s job prospects?

The past year has been better than some campaign rhetoric would lead you to believe. Kentucky’s unemployment rate has fallen to the national rate of 5 percent, its best showing since June 2001.

Average weekly earnings have shown strong growth over the past six months — twice the growth rate of a year ago, and more than the national growth rate. The state has regained the 96,000 jobs lost during the recession and added a few more.

The biggest gains in the past year have been in education and health services, which added 7,600 jobs. It will be interesting to see if Governor-elect Matt Bevin’s dislike for the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid expansion and Kynect, which provided health insurance for 400,000 Kentuckians, results in a hiring slowdown or job losses.

Kentucky manufacturing has rebounded, creating 6,500 jobs in the past year. That includes the new Lexus line at Toyota’s assembly plant in Georgetown.

Another growth area has been the hospitality, food service and arts sector, which added 5,600 jobs. Financial services created 3,800 jobs, while all levels of government added 3,700. Professional and business services added 2,300 jobs. Construction added 1,800 jobs — the same number mining and logging lost over the past year.

But there is one big caution for the future: Kentucky’s labor force is declining, mostly because of demographics. This state has a larger proportion of retirement-age people than the national average.

Ron Crouch, who crunches numbers for the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet and is a leading authority on Kentucky demographics, has been warning of this trend for years. He noted that while the working-age population (ages 20 to 64) grew by 18,000 from 2010 to 2014, the 65-and-older population grew four-times faster, to 76,000.

Assuming this trend continues, Kentucky must make sure its working-age population has the education, skills and good health to fill not only the jobs being vacated by Baby Boomers but new ones that must be created for economic growth. That means we can’t afford to have so many working-age Kentuckians “lost” to idleness and disability.

This is especially important because two sectors that for generations provided good-paying jobs to under-educated Kentuckians — coal mining and low-skill manufacturing — are mostly gone and won’t be coming back.

The North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s sent a lot of low-skilled manufacturing jobs overseas and left many Kentucky towns with idle factories. The state’s manufacturing sector is now more high-tech, with large segments in the aerospace and automotive industries, and that requires more skilled workers.

Several uncertainties could affect the growth of manufacturing, from rising energy costs to the new Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement, whose details are just now becoming public.

If Bevin and Republicans are successful in passing “right to work” laws — or, as union workers call them, “right to work for less” laws — wage growth could be hurt. Business groups say those laws make states more attractive to businesses that create jobs, but the result is lower average wages.

Kentucky politicians of both parties crow about being “friends” of coal, but the reality is the coal industry will never be very job-friendly again.

State officials reported last week that coal employment has dropped by half since 2011 — from 18,812 jobs to 9,356. But what people forget is that, since it peaked in 1981 at about 48,000 workers, the number of mining jobs has been in steady decline, mostly because of mechanization.

While some job losses in coal have come because of environmental concerns and regulations, the biggest factor by far has been cheap natural gas. Also, Eastern Kentucky’s coal reserves are dwindling, making it more costly to mine and less competitive with coal from other regions.

For Kentucky to prosper in the 21st century, leaders must be aggressive about exploring new economic opportunities rather than protecting dying industries. And they must help create a work force that is better-educated, better-trained, healthier and better-paid than it has been.

As you listen to politicians propose new policies, ask yourself which ones will make it easier to accomplish those goals and which ones will make it harder.


Lexington’s first Breeders’ Cup was a big success; how could the next one be even better?

November 7, 2015
At the Breeders' Cup. Photo by Tom Eblen

At the Breeders’ Cup. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Kip Cornett said he and his wife were at an airport in June when he read on his cellphone a column by Barry Weisbord, president and co-publisher of Thoroughbred Daily News.

Weisbord wrote that he opposed a decision by his fellow Breeders’ Cup board members to bring Thoroughbred racing’s annual world championship here. He thought Keeneland and Lexington were simply too small to handle it.

After he finished reading, Cornett, president of Lexington’s Cornett Integrated Marketing Solutions, called Weisbord. “Just watch us,” he said.

Weisbord published a follow-up column last Wednesday.

“I have three words to say: I was wrong,” wrote Weisbord, who resigned from the Breeders’ Cup board last summer. “Oh, wait… three more: It was spectacular. In fact, I couldn’t be more impressed with how Keene land, the Breeders’ Cup and Lexington handled the event.”

After lavishing praise on everything about last weekend’s Breeders’ Cup in Lexington, Weisbord ended his column with this: “So… when are we going back?”

The consensus seems to be that Lexington hit a home run last weekend. That doesn’t mean everything went perfectly. Mistakes were made and lessons were learned for next time. But most people assume there will be a next time.

With the exception of a messy logistical screw-up Friday at the Maker’s Mark Bourbon Lounge, Keeneland’s performance was nearly flawless, from the races themselves to traffic management and customer service.

Nobody sweats the small stuff better than Keeneland. For example, by the end of each Kentucky Derby, patrons at Churchill Downs in Louisville are wading through a sea of trash. But throughout each day of Breeders’ Cup, Keeneland’s army of green-uniformed employees quietly walked around cleaning up. “Are you finished with your plate, Sir?”

Even though there were a record 50,155 people on the grounds Saturday and 44,947 Friday, it felt less crowded than a Bluegrass Stakes Day. One reason was that Keeneland spent $5 million adding a lot of temporary seating and hospitality space.

Even though track attendance was down 3,217 from last year’s Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, ticket revenue more than doubled because of the demand for high-end accommodations at Keeneland. On-track handle was $20,611,114, up slightly from last year.

For the outside world watching Breeders’ Cup on television, NBC Sports’ gorgeous telecast amounted to a two-hour commercial for Lexington.

“I’m incredibly pleased,” VisitLex President Mary Quinn Ramer said. “I heard from a lot of people that they were blown away by our hospitality. I feel like we have made lifelong friends as a result of this event.”

Some downtown restaurants, bars and food trucks grumbled that they had hoped to do better than they did, but others who planned well were quite pleased.

“We had a great experience,” said Ben Self of West Sixth Brewery, which released a Breeders’ Cup Brown ale and hosted a beer dinner and “Beers and Bets” event.

Deborah Long, who owns Dudley’s on Short, hosted a private event Friday that filled her restaurant. She offered a price fixe menu Saturday night.

“We were very pleased,” Long said. “I think the city did a great job. Keeneland did a spectacular job. From our perspective, I don’t see how it could have been improved.”

Long said her business was slow Monday and Tuesday nights. Rainy weather was partly to blame, she thinks, but a lot of the reason may have been that Breeders’ Cup visitors started arriving later than many people assumed.

Cornett, who chaired the Breeders’ Cup Festival, agrees. They may have planned too many events to try to entertain visitors and involve Lexington residents in Breeders’ Cup. After all, the week also included Halloween and the Wildcats’ football game with Tennessee.

“We maybe over-prepared by about 30 percent,” he said. “It wasn’t as needed as we thought it would be.”

Still, many of those events were well-attended, such as the Feeders’ Cup food truck event, which sold out its 3,000 tickets, and three Lyric Theatre performances of Frank X Walker’s play about the great black jockey Isaac Murphy.

Cornett said organizers also could have spent less time recruiting private homes for visitors, some of which went unused. Many visitors who came on private jets spent less time in Lexington than expected. Others found their own accommodations through Airbnb.com.

As with the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in 2010, the Breeders’ Cup showed that Lexington can host a big international event with aplomb.

“There are a lot of things everyone learned that will make it easier the next time around,” Cornett said. “But everyone in Lexington should be proud of what they did. We did everything we could to show we’re a world-class city, and it worked.”


Abandoned mill’s discovery recalls once-thriving Kentucky industry

November 1, 2015
University of Kentucky anthropologist Nancy O'Malley and Lexington electrician Jerry Nichols explored an old Madison County mill, which was built in 1865 and ceased operations in the 1930s. Somehow, the mill's equipment was never removed. Photos by Tom Eblen

University of Kentucky anthropologist Nancy O’Malley and Lexington electrician Jerry Nichols explored an old Madison County mill, which was built in 1865 and ceased operations in the 1930s. Somehow, the mill’s equipment was never removed. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

RICHMOND — Several history buffs heard last spring that there was a forgotten gristmill in rural Madison County, built about 1865. One knew the property owner, so he got permission to visit. What they found inside was shocking.

“We walked in and said, ‘Oh my God,'” said Jerry Nichols, a Lexington electrician. “Except for the steam engine, it was all there. It was all there!”

Behind weathered siding, buried in decades of filth and junk, most of the machinery was intact: iron and steel cogs, rods and wheels; wooden bins and chutes; even wide leather drive belts that last turned in the 1930s.

“It’s so rare to find a mill with the machinery,” said Nancy O’Malley, a University of Kentucky archaeologist and anthropologist whose expertise includes early Kentucky mills.

“The frame mills just didn’t last,” O’Malley said at the mill last month. “They burned down. They got salvaged. They got rid of the machinery. From a preservation standpoint, it’s beyond anything I’ve seen.”

The mill shows up on two state historic surveys since 1980, but it’s among the last of several hundred that once dotted Kentucky’s landscape.

The Madison County mill's interior is filled with carved, painted and drawn names, initials and dates from its former owners and employees. Apparently, they had a lot of spare time on their hands between milling jobs. This is one of the oldest, from 1869. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The mill’s interior is filled with carved, painted and drawn names, initials and dates from its former owners and employees. Apparently, they had a lot of time on their hands between milling jobs.

Kentuckians started building gristmills in the 1780s, soon after settlement. Farmers needed them to grind corn, wheat and other grains to make flour, cornmeal and whiskey. Soon, mills and distilleries began exporting goods down the Kentucky, Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans.

Each Central Kentucky county had dozens of gristmills in the 1800s, said O’Malley, who has excavated at many pioneer sites, including Evans Mill at Raven Run Nature Sanctuary.

Most Central Kentucky mills were built along creeks. Flowing water turned wooden wheels that turned millstones that ground grain. Some were big operations.

Kentucky’s 1850 manufacturing census reported that Jonathan Bush’s four-story mill on Lower Howard’s Creek in Clark County produced 400 barrels of flour and 3,000 bushels of meal annually. The mill’s ruins stand in the Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve.

Fayette County’s milling heritage lives on mainly through the names of roads that once took customers to them: Parkers Mill, Clays Mill, Bowman Mill and many others. Grimes Mill on Boone Creek, built in 1807, has been headquarters of the Iroquois Hunt Club since 1928.

A few preserved mills remain in Kentucky, most notably at Mill Springs near Monticello, where the circa-1877 mill has a huge 40-foot wheel to draw power from 13 natural springs. It is operated as a park by the Army Corps of Engineers. Wolf Pen Branch Mill in Jefferson County, owned by writer Sally Bingham, has been restored to working order by millwright Ben Hassett.

The Red River Museum in Clay City has a big collection of millstones and equipment. The Kentucky Old Mill Association has done considerable research on this aspect of Kentucky business and economic history.

Weisenberger Mill on South Elkhorn Creek near Midway is active, and its flour and meal are used in many of the region’s best restaurants.

Six generations of the Weisenberger family have run the mill since 1865, when the German immigrants bought Craig’s Mill. When the original early-1800s building became unsound in 1913, they replaced it with a concrete structure and converted the water wheel to electric turbines.

Water flow in creeks has always been unreliable in Central Kentucky, where the karst limestone geology allows water to move underground easily. Dams, channels, flumes and “mill races” often were built to increase water flow and speed.

“The engineering it took to make some of these work was pretty ingenious,” O’Malley said. “Still, most of them could only operate a few months out of the year.”

Western America’s first steam-powered gristmill was built in Lexington in 1808. It was where South Hill Station Lofts are now, at the southwest corner of South Upper Street and Bolivar Street, which originally was called Steam Mill Street.

“Steam engines freed you from having water issues,” O’Malley said. “A lot of the water mills converted to steam so they could run longer.”

After the Civil War, roller mill technology and increased steel production put many country gristmills out of business. Roller mills could be built in cities, and they could produce more flour and meal faster and cheaper.

The 1880 manufacturing census shows that this Madison County mill operated year-round with a 35-horsepower steam engine and employed three people. It produced 500 barrels of wheat flour, 100,000 pounds of corn meal and 47,000 pounds of animal feed a year, O’Malley said.

The mill, run by the Miller family, continued into the 1930s. Once it shut down, the owners walked away. Except for the missing steam engine, its machinery was left in place. Iron and steel parts somehow managed to escape World War II scrap drives.

Nichols and the other enthusiasts don’t want to publicize the old mill’s location until they have finished cleaning and securing the building. A bigger challenge will be working with the owner to figure out a viable use that could pay for restoration and maintenance.

“At the least, we need a really meticulous recording of the building and how it’s built and all the stuff in it,” O’Malley said. “Somebody could have stripped out a lot of the stuff and put it to another use. But they didn’t, and I think that’s the interesting part of the story.”

 

Weathered barn wood shelters a Madison County mill that was built in 1865 and went out of business in the 1930s. It has sat vacant since then with most of the steam-powered mill's equipment intact. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Weathered barn wood shelters the mill.

 

Berea folk art dealer Larry Hackley, left, University of Kentucky anthropologist Nancy O'Malley and Lexington electrician Jerry Nichols explored an old Madison County mill, which was built in 1865 and ceased operations in the 1930s. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Berea folk art dealer Larry Hackley, left, O’Malley and Nichols explore the mill.

 

A Madison County grist mill, which was built in 1865 and ceased operations in the 1930s, still contains most of its equipment, including this french burr mill and stone. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

A French burr mill and stone inside the old mill.

 

A gear inside a Madison County mill, which was built in 1865 and ceased operations in the 1930s. Such artifacts are rare, because most scrap iron and steel was collected and recycled for World War II defense production. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

A gear inside the mill, which was built in 1865 and ceased operations in the 1930s.

 

A Madison County mill, which was built in 1865 and ceased operations in the 1930s, still has most of its original equipment, including the leather belts than ran the machinery. The mill was powered by a steam engine. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The mill still has most of its original equipment, including the leather belts than ran the machinery. The mill was powered by a steam engine.

 

A Madison County mill, which was built in 1865 and ceased operations in the 1930s, still has most of its original equipment. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Somehow, the mill’s iron and steel parts escaped World War II scrap drives.


Photos from today’s Governor’s Awards in the Arts ceremony

October 22, 2015
Doug Crowe, a state videographer, lined up winners of the Governor's Awards in the Arts for a group photo after the ceremony Thursday at the Capitol rotunda in Frankfort. Photos by Tom Eblen

Doug Crowe, a state videographer, lined up winners of the Governor’s Awards in the Arts for a group photo after the ceremony Thursday at the Capitol rotunda in Frankfort. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Gov. Steve Beshear presented this year’s Governor’s Awards in the Arts at a ceremony Thursday in the Capitol rotunda in Frankfort. This year’s winners were: journalist Al Smith of Lexington, the Milner Award for lifetime service; Bluegrass musician Sam Bush of Bowling Green, National Artist Award; fabric and bead artist Linda Pigman Fifield of Knott County, the Artist Award; Big Ass Solutions of Lexington, Business Award; Creative Diversity Studio of Louisville, Community Arts Award; Centre College music professor Nathan Link of Danville, Education Award; wood carver Willie D. Rascoe of Hopkinsville, Folk Heritage Award; Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau, Government Award; and Kentucky Educational Television personality Dave Shuffett of Nicholasville, Media Award.

Watch a video about each winner by clicking here.

Bluegrass music star Sam Bush, right, chatted with newspaperman Al Smith after the Governor's Awards in the Arts ceremony in the Capitol rotunda Thursday in Frankfort. Bush won the national artist award, while Smith won the Milner Award for his longtime service and advocacy of the arts in Kentucky. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Bluegrass music star Sam Bush, right, chatted with newspaperman Al Smith after the Governor’s Awards in the Arts ceremony.

 

Minnie Adkins, a folk artist from Eastern Kentucky, made this year's trophies for the Governor's Awards in the Arts. She carves and paints wood sculptures. The blue rooster is her signature piece.

Minnie Adkins, a folk artist from Eastern Kentucky, made this year’s trophies for the Governor’s Awards in the Arts. She carves and paints wood sculptures. The blue rooster is her signature piece.

 

Kentucky Educational Television personality Dave Shuffett, right, received the media award in the Governor's Awards in the Arts from Gov. Steve Beshear.

Kentucky Educational Television personality Dave Shuffett, right, received the media award in the Governor’s Awards in the Arts from Gov. Steve Beshear.


Lexington one of six ‘university cities’; can it take advantage of it?

October 18, 2015
Mayor Jim Gray, right, greeted University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto at a Lexington Forum luncheon on Jan. 24, 2012. Photo by Pablo Alcala.

Mayor Jim Gray, right, greeted University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto at a Lexington Forum luncheon on Jan. 24, 2012. Photo by Pablo Alcala.

 

Lexington has been a college town for more than 200 years. But when Scott Shapiro, a top aide to Mayor Jim Gray, was benchmarking local data against other cities recently, he discovered something interesting: Lexington was one of six U.S. cities whose numbers place them in a unique category.

This group, which he calls “university cities,” have distinct characteristics that make them different from smaller college towns or major cities with big research universities. And those characteristics translate into big economic development opportunities in the 21st century’s knowledge-based economy.

“This is one of those ah-ha moments,” Gray said of the analysis.

So, how can Lexington capitalize on this insight? We’ll get to that in a moment.

First, let’s see what Shapiro discovered about university cities, which he defined as metropolitan areas of between 250,000 and 1 million people with students making up at least 10 percent of the population.

Each city has a diversified economy closely tied to a major urban research university. In addition to Lexington, the cities are Madison, Wis.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Fort Collins, Colo.; Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C.; and Lincoln, Neb.

Each city has an abundance of attributes that naturally come with universities, including educated people, talent, openness to new ideas, innovation, entrepreneurialism and a lot of arts and culture.

These cities seem to have more of these attributes than college towns, in short, because they are big enough that many students can stay after graduation rather than moving on to find economic opportunity.

But unlike major cities with universities, these six university cities have a lower cost of living, less crime and, in many ways, a higher quality of life.

Shapiro’s analysis found, for example, that 42 percent of adults age 25 and older in university cities have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 29 percent nationwide.

High education levels seemed to have a big influence on productivity and wages. When adjusted for the cost of living, Shapiro found that the median annual salary in university cities is only about $700 below that of the nation’s 15 largest cities.

Unemployment rates from 2009 to 2013 averaged 6.3 percent in university cities, compared with 8.7 percent in other similar-sized cities and 8.8 percent in the nation’s largest 15 cities.

Business starts averaged 16.3 percent higher in university cities than in similar-sized cities, and only slightly below the rate for the nation’s largest cities. The number of non-profit organizations, which often drive social entrepreneurship and improve quality of life, was almost double that of similar-sized cities.

University cities are much safer. Violent crime averaged 36 percent lower in the six university cities than in similar-size cities and 40 percent lower than in the nation’s 15 largest cities.

And university cities are more fun. They have 47.2 percent more arts, recreation and entertainment places per thousand residents than the average of similar-size cities. And while they average fewer cultural assets than the 15 largest cities, they have more of them per thousand residents — 25.7 percent more.

One key attribute of a university city is being the “right” size to balance economic opportunity, cost of living and quality of life. And therein lies a danger. While Austin is what many university cities aspire to become, the Texas capital has lost some luster as housing costs and traffic headaches have risen.

Shapiro has started a blog (Universitycities.org) to share news and ideas about university cities, and he is talking with the University of Kentucky about hosting a national symposium on the topic next year.

This subject isn’t just of interest to academics; it has a lot of practical application.

Lexington’s mayor sees the university city model as an important lens through which to view many things, from business recruiting efforts and workforce-development strategies to land-use planning and infrastructure investment.

“I think it helps us in the sorting and filtering process,” Gray said. “When you know who you are, you have a better chance of getting where you want to go.”

For one thing, he said, it shows that Lexington’s economic development strategy should be mainly built around leveraging assets that grow out of the presence of UK, Transylvania University and other education centers.

It also underscores the importance of making sure affordable housing is available and traffic doesn’t get out of control. It means Lexington should nurture cultural institutions and other quality-of-life infrastructure that talented, educated people and the companies that want to hire them look for in a city.

The next step, Gray said, is to benchmark Lexington’s data against the five other university cities to assess strengths and weaknesses.

“I think we’re poised for exploiting the knowledge economy in a better way than the industrial cities have been,” Gray said. “It’s a question of how do you really take advantage of that.”


Emerge Contracting sees opportunity in urban infill, redevelopment

October 12, 2015
Smith Town Homes, a townhouse development on Smith Street being developed by Emerge Contracting. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Smith Town Homes, a townhouse development on Smith Street. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

When Bob Eidson and Matt Hovekamp were roommates 15 years ago at the University of Kentucky, they talked about starting a real estate development company together. Then they went their separate ways.

Eidson joined the Army and served in Iraq, earned an MBA from UCLA and worked in banking and finance. He also helped start The Bourbon Review magazine.

Hovekamp spent a dozen years as Ball Homes’ purchasing manager.

The college roommates got back together in 2008 as Lexington’s infill and redevelopment market was beginning to emerge. They raised capital to buy property, started doing construction work for others and began making development plans for when the economy recovered.

Bob Eidson

Bob Eidson

Emerge Contracting’s focus is on infill development and renovation ventures in Lexington’s walkable, urban neighborhoods — roughly between Midland Avenue and Newtown Pike, Loudon Avenue and Maxwell Street.

The company’s first big project is Smith Town Homes, a row of five market-rate townhomes near the West Sixth Brewery.

With that project almost finished, the partners broke ground Oct. 2 for a very different venture: Wilgus Flats, a 12-unit apartment cluster aimed at low-income workers and retirees in the East End. They plan to own and operate the complex.

“We want to do mixed-use, mixed-income projects and affordable housing,” Eidson said. “We feel like now the industry trends and growth are pretty sustainable.”

Emerge Contracting was one of the first developers to file applications with the city’s new affordable housing trust fund. But their initial project was designed to appeal to professionals and empty-nest baby boomers seeking an urban lifestyle.

Emerge Contracting co-owner Matt Hovekamp. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Matt Hovekamp

Smith Town Homes are on five narrow lots on Smith Street, between West Fifth and West Sixth streets, one block east of Jefferson. It is a low-income neighborhood with many old shotgun houses. Eidson and Hovekamp said that when they bought the property in 2008, it included two vacant houses without indoor plumbing, which they demolished.

The Lexington architecture firm Alt32 designed the contemporary townhomes, which have brick and galvanized metal exteriors. Each unit has 10-foot ceilings and polished concrete floors on the first level. The units are designed to save energy costs, with heavy insulation, high-efficiency systems and LED lighting.

Four units have three bedrooms, and one unit has two. They range in price from $199,000 to $245,000. The two cheapest units are now listed as under contract.

“Our value proposition is modern, multi-generational, energy-efficient housing downtown below $120 a square foot,” Eidson said.

The partners said they aren’t trying to “gentrify” Smith Street, but create new development that will add income diversity and make the neighborhood more stable. Next door, they bought a vacant old building they plan to remodel and rent as four low-income apartments.

When I stopped to see Smith Town Homes under construction in June, Lexington Police Officer Charles Burkett happened by. He said he had spent 13 years patrolling the area, which in the past has suffered from disinvestment and high crime, even though it is only a block from the mansions of Fayette Park.

“I’m impressed,” Burkett said. “That’s what this neighborhood has needed for a lot of years.”

Across town, Wilgus Flats, on two vacant lots on East Third Street, will have 12 apartments with monthly rents in the $600 range. First-floor units will be designed to accommodate disabled and elderly people.

“They came to us and said, ‘What would be good for the neighborhood?'” East End activist Billie Mallory said. “A lot of people are just sitting on land around here. I’m glad somebody is going ahead and doing something.”

Wilgus Flats is across East Third from Wilgus Street, whose oldest property is the circa 1814 home of Asa Wilgus, a prominent builder in early Lexington. His work included the 1811 Pope Villa on Grosvenor Avenue, which was designed for a Kentucky senator by Benjamin Latrobe, America’s first professional architect and designer of the U.S. Capitol.

Eidson and Hovekamp see a lot of potential in revitalizing urban neighborhoods in Lexington that suffered from decades of neglect during the decades when suburban development was the rage. Both live with their wives near downtown; the Hovekamps on South Upper Street, the Eidsons on West Sixth.

“We like the diversity of downtown,” Hovekamp said. “It’s something you don’t get in the suburbs.”

Emerge Contracting recently broke ground for Wilgus Flats, a 12-unit affordable housing apartment development in the East End.

Emerge Contracting recently broke ground for Wilgus Flats, a 12-unit affordable housing apartment development in the East End.


Mary Lou Rankin turned fried pies into delicious retirement business

October 4, 2015
Mary Lou Rankin, who turns 86 this month, explained her technique for making homemade fried apple pies. The entrepreneur cooks and sells food at area festivals and from the front of a former hardware store she ran for many years. Photos by Tom Eblen

Mary Lou Rankin, who turns 86 this month, explained her technique for making homemade fried apple pies. The entrepreneur cooks and sells food at area festivals and from the front of a former hardware store she ran for many years. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

MILLERSBURG — Mary Lou Rankin doesn’t fit the modern stereotype of an entrepreneur. She isn’t young. She isn’t high-tech. But she makes delicious fried apple pies.

Those pies have made Rankin something of a celebrity across several counties between Paris and Maysville.

Rankin sells apple pies and other homemade baked goods most Saturdays on Main Street in this northern Bourbon County town of 800 people, from the front of a former hardware store she ran for 31 years.

Look for the sign of a big, red apple with the mathematical symbol for “pi” on it.

A sign on Millersburg's Main Street advertises Mary Lou Rankin's homemade fried apple pies, which she sells on weekends from the front of a former hardware store she and her husband ran for many years. Her son, artist Frosty Rankin, now uses most of the building as his studio. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

A sign on Millersburg’s Main Street advertises Rankin’s homemade fried apple pies, which she sells from the front of a former hardware store she ran for many years.

Every summer and fall, Rankin fries hundreds of pies and other home-cooked food to sell from her Mary Lou’s Kitchen booth at festivals in Paris, Augusta and at Blue Licks State Park near Mt. Olivet.

“I’ve been doing this about 35 years,” Rankin, who turns 86 this month, said as she carefully turned a few pies in her electric skillet as the dough became just the right shade of golden brown. “I’ve worn out a whole lot of skillets.”

Rankin grew up on a Harrison County farm, where she learned about entrepreneurship and responsibility.

“We were taught to work,” she said. “Some of ’em now don’t know what work is. I’ve always thought that if you have a job, you do it.”

Her late husband, Robert F. Rankin, worked for a time at the Old Lewis Hunter distillery at Lair in Harrison County. It closed in 1974.

“Then my husband went out to look for a little farm and ended up with a hardware store,” she said. “Can you figure that one out?”

He soon became a plumbing contractor. She ran the hardware store, which closed in 1996, while raising their two sons.

Her oldest son, award-winning artist Gaylen “Frosty” Rankin, now uses the back of the store as his art studio and gallery. The front is now used for storage, and as a place for his mother to sell baked goods, flowers and vegetable plants in season.

Rankin said her mother was a good cook and taught her how to make fried apple pies. But she never thought of making them to sell until the Millersburg volunteer fire department, of which her husband was a member, burned down in 1975.

“The city said they couldn’t afford to pay for it, so all of the women got together,” she said. They made and sold baked goods and other items for several years and finally raised enough money to rebuild the firehouse.

Her fried pies were so popular that people kept asking for them, Rankin said. She realized she had found a business opportunity.

The key to a good pie, Rankin said, is homemade crust fried to perfection. She used to buy her apples locally, but now gets sun-dried ones from California. She prefers sun-dried apples to fresh, and mixes them with a secret blend of spices.

“My mixture, of course, I’ve worked on that for years,” she said. “I’ve got a fella that just keeps after me about it, and I’ve got one in Winchester that wants to buy my recipe.”

She especially enjoys meeting and talking with customers. A man from Cincinnati came to her store earlier this year. “He said, ‘I was told that you make the best pies in the country,'” she said. “I never saw the man before in my life.”

She has met a few famous people while selling food at festivals, including journalist Nick Clooney and jockey Pat Day. When her son was presenting a piece of art to Gov. Steve Beshear, she came along with fried pies for the first family.

“I got to meet the governor,” she said. “Now I’m ready for the president.”

Rankin said she keeps cooking as much for her health as for the money. After two bouts with cancer over the past dozen years and recent cataract surgery, she worries that if she slows down too much she won’t keep going.

When she isn’t cooking and selling food, Rankin mows and tends her yard. In the winter, she re-canes chairs for customers, a craft she has done for three decades.

“It keeps me mentally sharp,” she said of work. “I’ll tell you what, if you don’t use your brain you’ll lose it.”

Rankin cooks fried apple pies. "I've worn out a whole lot of skillets," she said.

Rankin cooks fried apple pies. “I’ve worn out a whole lot of skillets,” she said.

 

One secret to Mary Lou Rankin's fried pies is her homemade crust.

One secret to Mary Lou Rankin’s fried pies is her homemade crust.

 


Annual conference could help make your invention ideas reality

September 27, 2015
Inventor-Con helps would-be inventors make their ideas into products and businesses. Photo provided

Inventor-Con helps would-be inventors make their ideas into products and businesses. Photo provided

 

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it has many fathers: ideas, money and collaboration, to name a few.

Would-be inventors may be able to find some of those things at Inventor-Con, a series of seminars Oct. 6 at the Lexington Public Library’s Central Library. The event is free and open to the public, but pre-registration is recommended.

This is the 10th annual Inventor-Con sponsored by the Central Kentucky Inventors Council, a non-profit organization that helps people with ideas for inventions bring them to market.

What began as a small regional conference now attracts inventors, entrepreneurs and service providers from across the country.

“We try to cover a lot of different areas, because there are so many pieces to the invention process,” said Don Skaggs, the council’s president.

The featured speaker is Stephen Key, author of the book One Simple Idea, who began his career as an inventor by helping develop popular 1980s toys such as LazerTag and Teddy Ruxpin.

The conference will have about 30 exhibit booths and eight breakout sessions. Other speakers include patent attorney Jim Francis of the Lexington firm Fowler Bell; Gordon Garrett of the Kentucky Small Business Development Council; and Doug Clarke, owner of Lexington maker’s space Kre8now.

Nick Such, a technology entrepreneur who works with the incubator space Awesome Inc., will discuss learning to write computer code. Ben Van Den Broeck of ArtLab KY will talk about using 3D printing to make prototypes. And the owners of the youth engineering education center Newton’s Attic will have a session for young inventors.

Skaggs said one of the most valuable things about the conference is that inventors get to meet and share their experiences with other inventors. Last year, the Inventor-Con attracted about 200 people.

“Inventors need to be around other people,” he said. “They don’t often succeed in isolation.”

The Central Kentucky Inventors Council was organized in 1996 as a networking and assistance organization for inventors and entrepreneurs. It is now one of the largest of more than 100 such organizations nationwide, and the only one in Kentucky.

The council has about 100 members. Membership is open to anyone, and the $40 annual dues entitle members to attend monthly meetings to discuss their inventions and get feedback from fellow inventors, who sign non-disclosure agreements.

“It’s sort of a brainstorming session on steroids,” Skaggs said. “Sometimes it can keep people from spending a lot of time and money going in the wrong direction.”

The council has a young inventors’ group in cooperation with the state’s Student Technology Leadership Program.

Skaggs said advances in technology have opened many new avenues for inventions, including iPhone applications and software development, and made the process more approachable.

Inventions aren’t always gadgets. Some of the most successful ones are simple, problem-solving ideas in areas where the inventor has knowledge and expertise. Sometimes, the finished product turns out to be much different than the original idea.

“It runs the gamut — everything from medical products to simple garden tools,” Skaggs said. One example: a council member with a background in the lawn care equipment industry invented a simple, commercially successful device for cleaning the underside of a lawn mower.

Some people have ideas for inventions they want to produce and market themselves; but most want to license their ideas to others.

“A lot of people have ideas for inventions,” Skaggs said. “But most of those people never act on them.”

If you go

Inventor-Con

What: Central Kentucky Inventors Council’s 10th annual free seminar for inventors and entrepreneurs

When: 3-8:30 p.m. Oct. 6

Where: Central Library, 140 E. Main St.

Information, registration: Ckic.org


At the Red Mile, horse racing’s ‘evolution’ looks like a casino

September 26, 2015
Instant racing machines in Lexington's first legal gambling parlor at Red Mile. Photo by Charles Bertram

Instant racing machines at the Red Mile. Photo by Charles Bertram

 

I went to the Red Mile last week to check out what the 140-year-old harness track calls “The Evolution of Horse Racing.”

It was sunny and mild, the kind of afternoon I hope for each April and October so I can slip away to Keeneland for a few hours. I love to watch the horses run, place a few bets and soak up the atmosphere.

This afternoon, the weather didn’t matter. Horse racing had evolved indoors. I found a cavernous hall filled with 902 machines that flashed and chimed amid pulsing background music.

The man at the front desk said this $42 million facility had been busy since it opened Sept. 12. I must have caught a lull. There were only a couple of dozen patrons, an even mix of men and women, blacks and whites. Most were older than me. A few had canes; at least two used walkers.

The next thing I noticed was there were no horses. Amazing! Horse racing had evolved to the point that horses were no longer necessary.

When I walked in, the man at the front desk issued me a “rewards” card on a red lanyard, an instruction sheet and a $5 voucher. I chose a machine with a comfy seat near the bar and got started.

That’s when I saw horses, or at least grainy images of them. They were in videos that flashed briefly on the machine’s tiny screen after I placed a bet and pushed a few buttons.

The machines looked like slots. The hall looked like a casino. I had to remind myself that this joint venture of the Red Mile and Keeneland was really The Evolution of Horse Racing, presumably “as it was meant to be.”

What distinguishes these machines from slots, proponents say, is that they are forms of pari-mutuel wagering, and winners are chosen by the outcome of thousands of previously run horse races rather than by random number generators.

I placed a bet on the machine and chose my numbers — the order of finish for three horses that once raced against one another. To help me choose, I could look at charts indicating past performances of the horse, jockey and trainer.

I lost my first couple of free voucher dollars trying to figure out how the machine worked. On my third bet, lights flashed and bells clanged and the machine told me I was a winner. I printed a voucher and discovered I had won $84, although I’m not sure how.

I tried a couple more machines before deciding it was a good time to cash my voucher and call it a day.

The Family Foundation, a conservative activist group, has gone to court to challenge the legality of these “historical racing” machines. The case before Franklin Circuit Court is complex, and it likely will take a couple of years to decide.

The legal question comes down to whether these machines are pari-mutuel wagering, which is legal in Kentucky, or slots, which are not. Can something that looks and quacks like a duck actually be an evolved horse?

If the tracks lose in court, they may have recovered their investment by then. The General Assembly also could change the law. Legislators may not want to give up this new source of tax revenue, not to mention the 200 new jobs at the Red Mile and more at facilities near Henderson and Franklin.

I have nothing against gambling, when it is enjoyed responsibly by people who can afford it. But from a public policy standpoint, gambling encourages a “something for nothing” mentality among politicians and voters that a modern, progressive state can be created without raising anyone’s taxes.

Many horse people argue that expanded gambling revenue is essential to the survival of their industry. I understand their concern. Without the promise of this new facility, the Red Mile probably would have been redeveloped years ago. Neither harness nor Thoroughbred racing are as popular as they once were.

However, the experiences of other states show that when expanded-gambling revenue starts flowing, politicians lose interest in subsidizing the horse industry.

There are no easy answers to preserving Kentucky’s signature horse industry. But horsemen could take pointers from the once-struggling and now-thriving bourbon whiskey industry: Improve your product and do a better job of marketing to make it more popular.

Otherwise, it can be a fine line between evolution and devolution.


Lexington Rotary Club celebrates 100 years, bucks national trend

September 19, 2015
At the Lexington Rotary Club's 100th anniversary celebration Friday night at Fasig-Tipton, Allison Barkley, her horse, Bo, and Adam Menker of the University of Kentucky Rodeo Team rode in with proclamations of congratulations that were handed to Rotary past president Jim Martin for Mayor Jim Gray and U.S. Rep. Andy Barr to read. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

At the Lexington Rotary Club’s 100th anniversary celebration Friday night at Fasig-Tipton, Allison Barkley, her horse, Bo, and Adam Menker of the University of Kentucky Rodeo Team rode in with proclamations of congratulations that were handed to Rotary past president Jim Martin for Mayor Jim Gray and U.S. Rep. Andy Barr to read. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Lions, Kiwanis, Rotary and other community service clubs are an endangered species in modern America. Membership has been plummeting for decades. It’s enough to make an Optimist pessimistic.

Then there is the Rotary Club of Lexington. It is the 21st largest of Rotary International’s 34,000 clubs worldwide. Each Thursday at noon, most of the club’s 344 members show up for the lunch meeting at Fasig-Tipton.

What makes Lexington Rotary work is not so much size, but effectiveness. It is not the lunch meetings, but the countless hours of public service the rest of the week.

For a century, this club has managed to create the right mix of volunteerism, business networking and inclusiveness that has made many of Lexington’s most influential leaders want to belong. Once there, they get things done.

Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

President Mary Beth Wright speaks at the 100th anniversary celebration.

“Rotary is often thought of as an old white male club,” said President Mary Beth Wright. “This one has a 36-year-old female president this year. It’s a great group of people who have a great calling.”

Wright and several past presidents presided over the club’s 100th anniversary celebration at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion Friday night that included Mayor Jim Gray and U.S. Rep. Andy Barr reading congratulatory messages.

Those proclamations were brought into the room on horseback by members of the University of Kentucky’s Rodeo Team. It was a nod to the club’s newest annual fundraiser, a sanctioned rodeo competition in June at the Kentucky Horse Park.

The club has raised the equivalent of millions of dollars for community and international service projects. Many of those have been big and ambitious, thanks to a philosophy of leadership continuity that makes multi-year projects possible.

“This club, more than any other civic organization, has had strong leadership,” said entrepreneur Jim Host, a past president and member since 1972. “It’s not just a luncheon club. It’s what are we doing different? This year, we started a rodeo.”

The rodeo and other fundraisers, including Dancing with the Lexington Stars, raise money for charity projects and an endowment that since 1978 has funded many local non-profits.

The club’s biggest cause is Surgery on Sunday, a non-profit group founded in 2005 by Dr. Andrew Moore. Local medical professionals donate their time and talents to perform outpatient surgery for low-income people who don’t have health insurance and aren’t eligible for government insurance. Rotary provides about one-third of the organization’s funding, for about 1,000 surgeries a year.

A decade ago, Rotary led creation of the Toyota Bluegrass Miracle League, a baseball league that serves more than 100 handicapped children and adults. The $750,000 project included a specially designed athletic field at Shillito Park.

“Why we can raise that kind of money is the credibility of this club,” said Darrell Ishmael, a former president. “The influence of this club makes a huge difference in this community.”

The Lexington club was the 182nd to join Rotary, which began as a businessman’s networking group in Chicago in 1905.

The Lexington club’s first black member was admitted in 1983. Women have been members since 1988, after the U.S. Supreme Court forced the national Rotary to change its men-only policy. The Lexington club now has more than 50 women members, and three have been president.

The Lexington Rotary has always focused on helping youth, with scholarships, winter coats, Santa gifts and international exchange programs. The club was a major force behind creating Cardinal Hill Hospital, which was originally for handicapped children.

In the 1920s, the club bought a Woodford County camp that served area Boy Scouts until the larger McKee Boy Scout Reservation opened near Mount Sterling in 1960. Rotary just took over management of the annual “Brave the Blue” Boy Scout fundraiser, where donors get to rappel 410 feet down the glass walls of Lexington’s tallest building.

At times, the Lexington Rotary has been an influential voice on community issues. Most notably, it began pushing for merger of Lexington and Fayette County governments more than three decades before voters approved it in 1973.

As they celebrated a century and looked forward to the future, Lexington Rotarians said their most important goal is maintaining the special chemistry that has made their club a vital force for good in the community.

“Everyone pitches in, and not just as a leader,” said Virginia Carter, a member since 2001 and retired executive director of the Kentucky Humanities Council. “Even though everyone here is a leader.”

A 100th anniversary cake.

A 100th anniversary cake.

Past president Jim Richardson closed the anniversary program with a song he wrote about the club.

Past president Jim Richardson closed the anniversary program with a song he wrote about the club.


Broke Spoke shop celebrates 5 years of recycling unused bikes

September 13, 2015
Carl Vogel, right, measured the seat post tube of a high-end bicycle frame donated to Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop held by Andy Shooner. The shop's mission is to refurbish old bikes for use as basic transportation for people who need it, so this frame likely will be sold to raise money for other bicycle parts. Photos by Tom Eblen

Carl Vogel, right, measured the seat post tube of a high-end racing bicycle frame donated to Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop held by Andy Shooner. The shop’s mission is to refurbish old bikes for use as basic transportation for people who need it, so this frame likely will be sold to raise money for other bicycle parts. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Five years ago, Lexington cyclists Brad Flowers, Shane Tedder and Tim Buckingham wanted to open a different kind of bicycle shop.

Lexington was well-served by commercial shops that sold new bikes and accessories and had mechanics on staff to make repairs. But they wanted to organize volunteers to refurbish old bikes — like the ones gathering dust in your garage — and get them to people who need them for affordable transportation.

Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop has accomplished many of those goals. And, thanks to community support and a dedicated group of volunteers, the mission keeps growing.

“It has exceeded our expectations,” Buckingham said. “There has always been a consistent stream of folks dropping in to help out. And the really committed volunteers are what keeps the shop going.”

Jessica Breen, a doctoral student in geography at the University of Kentucky, adjusts a derailleur on an old French 10-speed bike donated to Broke Spoke Community Bicycle Shop. Breen recently started a women-only volunteer night at the shop.

Jessica Breen, a doctoral student in geography at the University of Kentucky, adjusts a derailleur on an old French 10-speed bike donated to Broke Spoke Community Bicycle Shop. Breen recently started a women-only volunteer night at the shop.

Broke Spoke now has dozens of volunteers, who celebrated the shop’s fifth anniversary last week with a bike progressive dinner.

You can celebrate, too, at Broke Spoke’s annual Savory Cycle fundraiser Sept. 27.

Participants ride routes of 25, 50 or 65 miles and enjoy food and beverages from Chef Ouita Michel’s restaurants, West Sixth Brewing and Magic Beans Coffee Roasters. The rides begin and end at Holly Hill Inn in Midway, and non-riding tickets are available for those who just want to eat. Space is limited.

Broke Spoke opened in November 2010 in a small room behind Al’s Sidecar bar at North Limestone and West Sixth streets. It quickly outgrew the space.

When the four partners who own West Sixth Brewery began renovating the Breadbox building at West Sixth and Jefferson streets in 2012, Broke Spoke became one of their first tenants. The shop’s current space is five-times larger than the original one, and it now has eight work stations instead of two.

Broke Spoke volunteers refurbish and sell about 30 donated bikes a month for between $50 and $300. The average bike sells for a little more than $100. Customers who can’t afford that can earn “sweat equity” for up to $75 by volunteering at the shop at a credit rate of $8 an hour.

Buckingham said Broke Spoke’s customers range from college students and young professionals to people from the nearby Hope Center and other shelters.

The shop is open to customers 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Volunteers also work on bikes in the shop 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesdays.

Jessica Breen started a women-only volunteer night the fourth Monday of each month to help them become more comfortable with repairing bicycles.

The shop accepts donated bikes when it is open. Donors also can drop off bikes and parts at the Habitat for Humanity Restore, 451 Southland Dr., and Pedal Power Bike Shop, 401 S. Upper Street.

“Some of our biggest supporters are the local bike shops,” Buckingham said. That support includes donated parts and referrals of customers who bring in old bikes that aren’t economical for the commercial shops to fix.

“I think it has been a good thing,” Pedal Power owner Billy Yates said of Broke Spoke. “The more people there are out there riding, the more visibility cyclists have and the safer it is to ride.”

Broke Spoke doesn’t sell any new merchandise, so it isn’t competing with commercial shops, volunteer Eileen Burk noted. By creating new cyclists, it can create future business for commercial shops.

A new section of the Legacy Trail recently opened beside Broke Spoke, so the shop will soon be sprucing up its entrance. A water fountain will be added, Buckingham said, as well as a bike repair station donated by the Bluegrass Cycling Club.

Broke Spoke’s operating expenses are now covered by bicycle sales. But the cycling club and the Kentucky Bicycle and Bikeways Commission have made donations for several special projects. Individuals have given more than $12,000 to Broke Spoke through the annual Good Giving Guide.

Pop cellist and singer Ben Sollee, who often travels to concerts by bicycle, has played several Broke Spoke benefits. “He’s probably helped us raise more than $10,000,” Buckingham said.

Future plans include more formal training in bike maintenance and repair for volunteers and customers.

Broke Spoke also wants to attract more volunteers so the shop can open more days each week, said Allen Kirkwood, a steering committee member. A special need is bilingual volunteers to improve outreach to Latinos and other immigrants.

“We have plenty of ideas for additional programming,” said volunteer Andy Shooner. “But it really takes having volunteers who get familiar with the shop and say, ‘Yeah, I want to make that happen.'”

If you go

Savory Cycle

When: Sept. 27

What: Fundraiser for Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop

Rides: Choice of three routes — 25, 50 or 65 miles — with food and beverages.

Where: Holly Hill Inn, Midway.

Cost: $100.

Tickets and more info: Savorycycle.org

Tim Buckingham, left, board chairman of Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop, and Andy Shooner discussed volunteer schedules at the shop in the Bread Box complex at the corner of Jefferson and West Sixth Streets. The shop is celebrating its fifth anniversary.

Tim Buckingham, left, board chairman of Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop, and Andy Shooner discussed volunteer schedules at the shop in the Bread Box complex at the corner of Jefferson and West Sixth Streets. The shop is celebrating its fifth anniversary.

A stack of wheels donated to Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop. Donors can bring old bikes to the shop when it is open, or to Pedal Power Bikes on Maxwell Street or the Habitat Restore on Southland Drive.

A stack of wheels donated to Broke Spoke. Donors can bring old bikes to the shop when it is open, or to Pedal Power Bikes on Maxwell Street or the Habitat Restore on Southland Drive.

John Klus works on an old Schwinn bicycle donated to Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop.

John Klus works on an old Schwinn bicycle donated to Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop.

Eileen Burk, a water quality specialist for Kentucky American Water Co., removes a seat from a child's bicycle donated to Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop.

Eileen Burk, a water quality specialist for Kentucky American Water Co., removes a seat from a child’s bicycle donated to Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop.

Eileen Burk, left, and Jessica Breen work on bicycles donated to the Broke Spoke Community Bicycle Shop. The 10-speed Breen is working on will be repaired for a second life. But Burk is dismantling the cheap children's bike she has for parts.

Eileen Burk, left, and Jessica Breen work on bicycles donated to the Broke Spoke Community Bicycle Shop. The 10-speed Breen is working on will be repaired for a second life. But Burk is dismantling the cheap children’s bike she has for parts.


Writers Crystal Wilkinston, Ronald Davis reopen Wild Fig Books

September 8, 2015
Writers Crystal Wilkinson and Ronald Davis are reopening their Wild Fig Books in a renovated turn-of-the-century house on North Limestone after closing an earlier store in Meadowthorpe. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Writers Crystal Wilkinson and Ronald Davis are reopening Wild Fig Books on North Limestone after closing an earlier store in Meadowthorpe. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Writers, partners and book-lovers Crystal Wilkinson and Ronald Davis struggled to run Wild Fig Books in the Meadowthorpe Shopping Center for nearly four years before they shut the doors for good in February.

“There was such an outpouring when we closed,” said Wilkinson, who also is Appalachian Writer in Residence at Berea College. “People were so upset.”

But those people were thrilled when they heard Wild Fig Books & Coffee was opening this week in a renovated turn-of-the-century cottage at 726 North Limestone.

Still, some friends wonder if Wilkinson and Davis have lost their minds. In a retail landscape dominated by Amazon.com, e-readers and chain stores, few business niches are tougher these days than the independent bookstore.

“We get these earnest looks,” Wilkinson said. “People cup our hands and say, ‘You are so brave!’ We just roll our eyes.”

Wilkinson and Davis hope things will be different this time, thanks to a new business format and location.

150901WildFig-TE023The first Wild Fig was a reincarnation of Morgan Adams Books, a used bookstore Mary Morgan ran for more than 20 years on Leestown Road. The couple bought her store in June 2011 as other shops and websites were becoming competitors. The big blow came when the chain Half-Price Books opened a second Lexington location.

The old Wild Fig had a stock of about 20,000 mostly used books, which it bought from customers. Davis said the new store, a much smaller space, will have maybe 4,000 books, most of them new literary titles.

The new store also will have a coffee bar run by their daughter, Delainia Wilkinson, who has worked four years for Pat Gerhard at Third Street Stuff & Coffee.

“We’re going to be a very niche market here,” Wilkinson said, more along the lines of the successful Morris Book Shop in Chevy Chase. “We’re going to have what I call a literary boutique — books, clothing items or bags that have literary themes. We’re not going to try to compete with the big-box stores.”

Davis said that while the Leestown Road location was convenient to their home in Meadowthorpe, many customers told them they lived in the redeveloping neighborhoods along North Limestone.

“So, after about three years of that, we said, apparently we need to be somewhere near Limestone,” he said.

Soon after the first Wild Fig closed, they began talking with entrepreneur and marketing executive Griffin VanMeter about an old house he had just bought to renovate and lease at the corner of North Limestone and Eddie Street.

150901WildFig-TE007The couple thinks the neighborhood is a good fit for their ambitions. For the past seven years, Al’s Bar down the street has been home to Holler Poets, a popular monthly series of readings organized by poet Eric Sutherland.

“There’s already sort of a literary community,” Wilkinson said. “So many of our art and literary friends are either over here or clamoring to get over here. There’s a happening.”

Wilkinson is already planning readings, literary classes and public discussions that could be held at various places in the neighborhood. “We know we won’t necessarily have the space, so we’ll have to collaborate, which is also exciting,” she said.

Davis just published a book of poetry and art, Caul & Response (Argus House Press, $18). Wilkinson is a widely published poet and short-story writer who was among the founders of the Affrilachian Poets group. In March, the University Press of Kentucky will publish her first novel, The Birds of Opulence.

One decision the couple faced when resurrecting Wild Fig was whether to change the name, which is taken from a 1983 poem, “Wild Figs and Secret Places,” by the reclusive Lexington writer Gayl Jones, one of Wilkinson’s favorites.

Because the old store and new one will be so different, they considered other names. Playing off the North Limestone area’s new moniker, NoLi, Davis suggested calling it NoLiBrary. But, after much debate, they stuck with Wild Fig.

“We’re artists who own a business, and we’re trying to figure out how to make that work,” Wilkinson said, noting that writers have a natural affection for bookstores. “We couldn’t imagine ourselves, as much as we like ice cream, having the same passion for owning an ice cream parlor or a tire-changing place or a laundromat, although we probably would make more money.”


New law, regulation mean slow start for commercial drone industry

August 30, 2015
This photo was pulled from high-definition video taken by an Unmanned Services Inc. drone camera high above Weisenberger Mill near Midway. Photo by Unmanned Services Inc.

This photo was pulled from high-definition video taken by an Unmanned Services Inc. drone camera above Weisenberger Mill near Midway. Photo Provided

 

MIDWAY — Standing beside South Elkhorn Creek with a remote-control device, Manfred Marotta uses joysticks and a video monitor to guide his small flying drone over and around a bridge, a waterfall and historic Weisenberger Mill.

The light is turning golden on this late-summer afternoon, and the tiny camera anchored to the drone’s belly captures stunning high-definition video.

Marotta is one of many people who think there is money to be made producing this kind of aerial imagery for a variety of clients, including utilities, real estate brokers, farmers, tourism promoters and news organizations.

But, so far, on-the-ground maneuvering with aviation regulators and government policy makers has been more complex than anything drone entrepreneurs face piloting their unmanned aircraft through the sky.

Marotta is chief executive of Versailles-based Unmanned Services Inc., which last month became the first Central Kentucky commercial drone operator to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration.

A drone operated by Midway-based Unmanned Services Inc. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Sky Drone Studios, owned by Lexington-based Post Time Productions, soon expects to get its FAA certification, known as a Section 333 Exemption, said Jeb Smith, one of the owners.

The field is likely to get more crowded, because of the growing popularity of relatively inexpensive drones and small video cameras. More than 1,300 FAA exemptions for commercial operators have been issued nationwide so far, including more than a dozen in Kentucky.

Aviation policy and privacy laws have struggled to keep up with drone technology, which has made big leaps thanks to military research and development investment during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Drones are limited to low-altitude flying, generally considered 400 feet or below. Ironically, though, commercial operators face far more FAA scrutiny than hobbyists, who usually have less skill and experience.

The FAA plans to announce new drone pilot training and certification rules in January. Currently, hobbyists flying small drones don’t need certification. But people flying drones commercially must have a civilian license to pilot manned aircraft.

Military drone pilot certification doesn’t count, although Unmanned Services has applied for an exemption until the new rules are issued. Until then, the company must hire a licensed pilot to do commercial jobs, but not free demonstrations.

150813Drones-TE011Marotta, 35, said he spent five years flying drones in the Navy and another three as a government contractor. Chris Stiles, 30, president of Unmanned Services, said he has a decade of drone pilot experience, as a government contractor and before that flying Army drones for battlefield surveillance during two tours of duty in Iraq. They said that, combined, they have logged more than 7,500 hours of drone flight time.

Marotta and Stiles met while they were government contractors. They started their company in 2011 and moved two years later to Versailles, where Marotta grew up before moving to Pennsylvania. His father, Manfred Marotta, played football for the University of Kentucky in the early 1970s.

Their business partner, Weston Amos, is learning to fly drones, but has no military or commercial drone experience.

“For the past two years, we’ve spent a lot of time building up potential clients,” Marotta said. “In the past month, we’ve been able to go out and actually have customers.”

So far, Marotta said, they have done commercial jobs for real estate agents and a television station. A typical job costs clients between $150 and $500.

In addition to high-definition video, from which still images can be made, Unmanned Services’ cameras can do video downlinks for live television broadcast and infrared and thermal imaging, which are useful in utility line inspection, field and crop analysis for farmers and search-and-rescue operations.

Marotta thinks a big market can be developed in utility line inspection, which must be done annually.

“We don’t believe that the drone can take over the entire market,” he said. “But it can sure save them a lot of money and save them a lot of time rather than using manned aviation.”

The Unmanned Services partners also are spending a lot of time meeting with government policy makers to try to prevent legitimate concerns about safety and privacy from resulting in what they would consider bad laws and regulations.

“Talking to the right people and finding those right people has been a lot of our workload,” Marotta said. “We’re trying to protect the industry and ourselves.”

Chris Stiles of Unmanned Services Inc. caught a videography drone as it came in for a landing. It was being controlled by Mickey Marotta, right. They were filming a demonstration video at Weisenberger Mill near Midway. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Chris Stiles of Unmanned Services Inc. caught a videography drone as it came in for a landing. It was being controlled by Mickey Marotta, right.  Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Mickey Marotta of Unmanned Services Inc. flew a drone shooting video high above the Weisenberger Mill near Midway. The control device is visible at lower right, and the drone at right surrounded by trees. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Mickey Marotta of Unmanned Services Inc. flew a drone above Weisenberger Mill near Midway. The control device is  at lower right, and the drone at right surrounded by trees. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Mickey Marotta of Unmanned Services Inc. controled a drone that is shooting video high above the Weisenberger Mill near Midway. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Marotta operates the drone controls while standing beside South Elkhorn Creek.  Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Demonstration video by Unmanned Services Inc.


A century ago, this Lexington boy ran away and joined the circus

August 23, 2015
E.C. Fain of Lexington, who was assistant manager of the famous Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey annex, or side shows, during a decade with the circus is shown in the ticket booth at left in this undated photo from the early 1900s. Photo courtesy of Joe Petro III

E.C. Fain of Lexington stands in the booth at left while Zip the Pinhead performs at the Barnum & Bailey Annex in this photo from the early 1900s. Photos courtesy of Joe Petro III

 

It was a cliché of a more innocent age, a time when people didn’t travel much and before radio, TV and the Internet opened windows to a world beyond small-town America.

If a boy wanted adventure, he could run away and join the circus. And that is exactly what 17-year-old E.C. Fain of Lexington did in 1904.

What’s more, Fain kept running back to the circus for 14 seasons. For most of his career, he helped manage some of the biggest sideshow stars of the circus’ golden age.

The Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus makes its annual stop at Rupp Arena this weekend, so I thought it would be a good time to tell Fain’s story, or at least what I could find of it.

For years, Lexington artist Joe Petro III has collected vintage sideshow memorabilia. His collection has been shown at museums around the country, including the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Conn., and a 1997 exhibit at the University of Kentucky Art Museum.

E.C. Fain of Lexington, who was assistant manager of the famous Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey annex, or side shows, during a decade with the circus is shown in the ticket booth in this undated photo from the early 1900s. Photo courtesy of Joe Petro III

E.C. Fain of Lexington was assistant manager of the Barnum & Bailey Annex, or sideshow, during its heyday in the early 1900s.

Petro, my first cousin, mentioned one day that he had some personal papers and photographs of a Lexingtonian who really had run away and joined the circus. He didn’t know a lot about Elmore Crenshaw Fain except that he spent several years as assistant manager of Barnum & Bailey’s famous Annex, as the sideshow was called.

Petro had postcards Fain sent home from his circus travels, first to his mother, then to his girlfriend who later became his wife, and then to their son. He also had vintage photographs of Fain working the Annex, some of which were taken by the famous circus photographer Frederick W. Glasier.

There were snapshots of Fain with some of the Annex’s biggest stars, including Zip the Pinhead (William Henry Johnson) and the giant George Auger.

Fain also worked with such sideshow legends as Skeleton Dude (Eddie Masher), the midget Princess Wee Wee (Harriet Elizabeth Thompson) and “the armless wonder” Charles B. Tripp, who signed souvenir photos in perfect penmanship with his feet.

People have always been curious about human oddities, and in those days it wasn’t politically incorrect to stare. And this was before America had much of a social safety net, so performing in sideshows and selling souvenir photos was a way for these special-needs people to make a living — sometimes a very good one.

So-called “freaks” were a big part of low-brow American entertainment from the early 1800s until as late as the 1960s. Petro’s collection includes a handbill from the 1836 North American tour of Eng and Chang Bunker, who inspired the term “Siamese twins.” They appeared in a dozen Kentucky towns, including Lexington.

Fain seems to have liked the traveling life of a seasonal circus manager, but his postcards indicate that it got harder each year to leave his wife, Ruth, and young son, White, back home in Lexington.

“How is Daddy’s little man?” Fain wrote to his son from Stamford, Conn. “Take good care of Mother until I get home.”

The Lexington Leader wrote a brief about Fain in 1908, saying he was on his way to New York’s Madison Square Garden for his fifth season with Barnum & Bailey. Fain was mentioned several times in entertainment industry magazines, such as The Player and The Billboard.

The Billboard’s last mention of him was on March 30, 1918, noting that Fain had left the circus business “and become interested in an enterprise in his hometown, Lexington, Ky.”

In December 1917, Barnum & Bailey executive Charles R. Hutchinson wrote a recommendation letter for Fain to the Chicago meatpacker Swift & Co., calling him “a man of education, refinement, of excellent presence and a gentleman at all times.”

Fain spent the rest of his working life as a Lexington-based salesman and manager for Swift, living at 217 Catalpa Road with his wife, son and daughter, Barbara. He retired in 1951 after 34 years with Swift and died in 1973 at age 86.

Fain’s Herald-Leader obituary mentioned his career with Swift, that he was a charter member and former treasurer of the Church of the Good Shepherd and that he belonged to the Oleika Temple Shrine and another Masonic lodge.

But it never mentioned that Fain had once traveled the country with midgets, giants and Zip the Pinhead during the heyday of The Greatest Show on Earth.

E.C. Fain of Lexington, who was assistant manager of the famous Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey annex, or side shows, during a decade with the circus is shown in the ticket booth in this undated photo from the early 1900s. Photo courtesy of Joe Petro III

E.C. Fain of Lexington, right in ticket booth, at the Barnum & Bailey Annex.


Fifth book about Louisville’s Bingham family is the most revealing

August 22, 2015

The disintegration of the Bingham family’s Louisville media dynasty in 1986 prompted no fewer than four books about patriarch Robert Worth Bingham and the two talented but troubled generations he left in his wake.

Each book was revealing, but the basics were well-known: ambitious politico loses his wife in a tragedy and remarries America’s richest widow, who soon dies mysteriously. With his inheritance, he buys a newspaper and influence, which includes the ambassadorship to Great Britain. The Courier-Journal becomes a great newspaper until squabbling among his grandchildren prompts its sale to a chain.

150823Bingham002AThe juicy secrets revealed in previous Bingham books are nothing compared to those in this fifth one, the second written by a family member.

Emily Bingham’s Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux $28) is a thoroughly researched, well-written and frank biography of the great-aunt her elders never wanted to discuss.

Bingham, a Harvard graduate with a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina, will talk about and sign her book at 3 p.m. Sunday at The Morris Book Shop, 882 East High Street.

Henrietta Bingham was intelligent, beautiful and seductive. But she was forever traumatized by witnessing her mother’s death when a commuter train hit their car, and she could never escape the emotional grip of her narcissistic father.

She also was bisexual. Her most intense relationships were with John Houseman, who later became a legendary film producer and Oscar-winning actor, and the 1930s tennis star Helen Jacobs.

Other lovers included three members of England’s famous Bloomsbury set: writer Mina Kirstein, painter Dora Carrington and sculptor Stephen Tomlin. Then there were the actresses: Hope Williams and, probably, Tallulah Bankhead. And, possibly, black musicians of both sexes in Harlem.

Henrietta spent the Jazz Age and Great Depression living high on daddy’s money. Had she been straight, she, rather than her younger brother Barry, would have inherited the family’s media empire.

Instead, she lived a life of leisure, attracting lovers then pushing them away. Her only real accomplishment was a late-in-life career as a Thoroughbred horse breeder.

Despite years of psychoanalysis with Ernest Jones, a famous protégé of Sigmund Freud, Henrietta could never escape her demons. She died in 1968 at age 68 from the effects of alcoholism and mental illness.

Emily Bingham, author of "Irrepressible: The Jazz Age life of Henrietta Bingham." Photo by Leslie Lyons

Emily Bingham. Photo by Leslie Lyons

After reading this book, I had to ask Emily Bingham: what did the family think of her unflinching book?

“My generation has just all been fascinated,” said Bingham, 50. “We had only heard these sort of negative stories. It’s as if this whole part of our family tree is alive instead of shriveled.”

Her mother, Edie Bingham, and aunts, Sallie Bingham and Eleanor Bingham Miller, the last survivors of their generation, passed along photographs and heirlooms and have been very supportive of the book, she said.

“But if my grandparents (Barry Bingham Sr. and his wife, Mary) had been living, this would have been hard to do,” she acknowledged.

“I think they were quite understanding, actually, about that part of Henrietta’s life,” she said. “They also were the ones who bore the brunt of being worried for her, and the shame that came with that. People couldn’t talk about mental health, either.”

Emily Bingham said that every day growing up at the Binghams’ Melcombe estate she saw a framed photograph of an octagonal barn at her great-aunt’s horse farm, now the Harmony Landing Country Club at Goshen.

“I just remember being told she was an accomplished horsewoman,” she said. “It would be the one thing they would say and then the conversation would end. I got the feeling that she was sort of not very interesting. And that was obviously wrong.”

In an interview with her grandmother before she died in 1995, Mary Bingham finally talked about Henrietta.

Only after Emily Bingham and her husband, Stephen Reily, named their daughter Henrietta, because they liked the old-fashioned name, did her startled father, the late Barry Bingham Jr., discuss his aunt, whom he called “a three-dollar bill.”

He told his daughter there might be a trunk of Henrietta’s stuff in the attic. There she discovered personal possessions and old clothes, including one of Jacobs’ monogrammed tennis outfits. Then she found another trunk stuffed with nearly 200 love letters to Henrietta from Houseman and Tomlin.

That trunk, stored for decades above her childhood bedroom, led her to search out archives containing the revealing letters, diaries and memoirs of her great-aunt’s friends and lovers.

But Henrietta’s own voice is largely missing from this biography; she left no diary, and fewer than a dozen letters. She seems to have destroyed most evidence of her homosexuality.

“This project was like putting together a broken mirror and knowing that you were only going to see bits of the person in the end,” the author said.

Bingham would love to know more about Henrietta’s passion for black music in the 1920s and her relationships with famous performers she knew. She wishes she could have “been on the couch with her” during psychoanalysis, especially to understand more about Henrietta’s complex relationship with her father.

And, in a life with so many passionate, complicated relationships, she said, “I would want to ask her, ‘Who did you really love?”

Bingham thinks her great-aunt’s alcoholism and mental illness were fueled in part by social pressure to keep her lesbian relationships secret. Her efforts to live a lie included a brief, failed marriage in 1954.

Henrietta’s life could have been much different had she lived today, her great-niece thinks. She could have enjoyed openly gay relationships and become more independent from her controlling father.

Bingham hopes readers come away with a desire to find out more about the gaps and silences in their own family histories.

“They don’t not matter because they haven’t been talked about,” she said. “Often, they are creating some of the reality you are living with; you just don’t know how they shaped it.”


Former EKU VP’s retirement job: piloting the Valley View Ferry

August 16, 2015
James Street looks out from the pilot house of the Valley View Ferry. Street has always loved boating and earned his maritime licenses, so since he retired as an Eastern Kentucky University vice president he has worked a few days a month piloting the ferry across the Kentucky River between Madison County and Fayette and Jessamine counties.  Photos by Tom Eblen

James Street looks out from the pilot house of the Valley View Ferry. Street has always loved boating and earned his maritime licenses, so since he retired as an Eastern Kentucky University vice president he has worked a few days a month piloting the ferry across the Kentucky River. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

VALLEY VIEW — Some executives dream of retiring to a big boat on a big body of water, and that is just what James Street did.

Since retiring as Eastern Kentucky University’s vice president for administration in July 2013, Street and his wife, Stacey, have spent a lot of time on their 34-foot Beneteau 331 sailboat on Kentucky Lake and their Catalina 22 on Cave Run.

But several days a month, Street pilots a less glamorous craft: the Valley View Ferry.

The ferry is a small tugboat lashed to a barge and tethered to an overhead cable. It goes back and forth across the Kentucky River more than 100 times a day, carrying a maximum of three vehicles between Tates Creek Road in Madison County and Tates Creek Road on the Fayette-Jessamine line.

Valley View, the last of dozens of ferries that once plied the river, is Kentucky’s oldest continuously operated enterprise — seven years older than the state itself. The ferry’s first owner, John Craig, got a charter in 1785 from Virginia’s governor, Patrick Henry.

The three counties bought the ferry from private owners in 1991 and operate it with local and state government funding. Passengers are a mix of tourists and commuters crossing to jobs in Lexington, Nicholasville and Richmond.

“I’ve always wanted to be a captain since I was a little kid,” said Street, 60, who got his first sailboat at age 19.

Street last year earned Coast Guard certification to pilot ferries and charter boats. So Roger Barger, a Madison County magistrate who pilots and manages the ferry, asked him to help when he could.

“Oddly enough, you still need a full license to pilot a boat on a rope,” Street said.

Piloting the ferry is a 14-hour workday — 12 hours of operation and an hour on either end for maintenance.

Usually, the pilot has help from a Madison or Jessamine jail trusty, who secures the barge to cleats on each shore’s ramp so cars can load and unload. But when a trusty isn’t available, the pilot does that in addition to running the boat and recording each car’s license information and number of occupants.

Piloting the ferry is very different from the fast-paced, high-pressure jobs Street had at EKU for two decades. And that is what he likes about it.

“I don’t miss answering the phone and email and text messages,” he said, noting that Valley View is a cellphone dead zone. “It’s a real change-up from what I did for most of my professional life.”

Before joining EKU, Street was Lexington’s commissioner of public works.

“I actually administered the purchase of this boat,” he said of the John Craig, which was filling in for a newer tug, the John Craig II, which was having mechanical trouble. “Talk about coming full circle.”

Street prefers chatting with ferry passengers to wrestling budgets, employees and deadlines. “I grew up in Madison County,” he said, “so I see people here I’ve known all my life.”

The free ferry carries 200 to 400 vehicles a day, operating 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekends. It often is shut down for days at a time because of high water in the spring and summer, and ice in the winter.

What Street enjoys most about this job is the beauty of Valley View. Some mornings, especially in the early fall, the river is shrouded in fog until the sun rises from surrounding hills to burn it off.

“I love getting down here and watching the dawn break,” he said. “There’s a subtle palette. The light is never the same; the mist is never the same.”

Between the morning and afternoon rushes, there are times when Street is alone on the river. He shuts off the tug’s noisy diesel engine and enjoys the silence.

“It’s so peaceful here,” he said, nodding toward a flock of geese swimming nearby with their goslings. “I enjoy watching the geese grow up.”

As the morning rush subsides, Street and I talk. He suddenly realizes it has been 10 minutes since his last trip. He steps into the pilot house and kills the engine — just as a car appears across the river looking for a ride.

“Almost had some silence,” he said with a sigh as he restarted the engine.

James Street piloted the Valley View Ferry across the Kentucky River for Madison County commuters on their way to Lexington before sunrise on Aug. 7.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Street piloted the Valley View Ferry across the Kentucky River for Madison County commuters on their way to Lexington before sunrise on Aug. 7.

James Street looks out from the pilot house of the Valley View Ferry. Street has always loved boating and earned his maritime licenses, so since he retired as an Eastern Kentucky University vice president he has worked a few days a month piloting the ferry across the Kentucky River between Madison County and Fayette and Jessamine counties.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Street looks out from the pilot house of the Valley View Ferry.

When James Street, a former Eastern Kentucky University vice president, pilots the Valley View Ferry, he usually has help from a prisoner trusty from Madison County. When they are unavailable, he must do everything, from piloting the boat to helping vehicles on and off.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

When Street pilots the ferry, he usually has help from a jail trusty. When one is not available, he must do everything, from piloting the boat to helping vehicles on and off.

Valley View Ferry pilot James Street waved to a friend driving onto the ferry. He grew up in Madison County, where he retired last year as a vice president at Eastern Kentucky University, so he knows many of the patrons.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Street waved to a friend driving onto the ferry. He grew up in Madison County,  so he knows many of the regular passenger.

When James Street, a former Eastern Kentucky University vice president, pilots the Valley View Ferry, he usually has help from a prisoner trusty from Madison County. When they are unavailable, he must do everything, from piloting the boat to helping vehicles on and off.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Street secures a safety rope on the ferry between trips.

While piloting the Valley View Ferry, James Street records the license information of vehicles that use the free service across the Kentucky River between Madison County and Fayette and Jessamine counties. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Street records the license information of vehicles that use the free service across the Kentucky River.


CentrePointe deal looks promising, but city must scrutinize details

August 11, 2015
CentrePointe

CentrePointe is bounded by Main, Limestone, Upper and Vine Streets. Photo by Charles Bertram.

 

At first blush, this deal would appear to have the potential to write a dream ending for Lexington’s biggest downtown development nightmare.

Two young men with finance and development experience and access to big money say they are taking over CentrePointe, the mixed use project that after seven years of false starts is nothing more than a giant hole in the center of the city.

But due diligence is needed, because dreams often don’t come true.

Investor Matt Collins and Atit Jariwala, who heads the New York development firm Bridgeton Holdings, seem to be saying all the right things to try to turn this disaster of a project into a civic asset.

Collins said he and his family aren’t just invested in CentrePointe; they have an agreement to take over the project. (I’m holding my breath until all of the papers are signed.)

Property owner Joe Rosenberg and Dudley Webb, the previous developer, will no longer have control or decision-making roles, Collins said. They will only be minority equity partners, reflecting the current value of their investments.

“We’re calling the shots,” Collins said.

Collins and Jariwala also are thinking about renaming the development, since CentrePointe and its pretentious spelling carries a lot of baggage. Good idea.

The partners said they want to make this project a landmark, an iconic piece of architecture, but one that looks like it belongs in Lexington. Another good idea.

This was one of Webb’s mistakes. He had a chance for great architecture with the design developed by Studio Gang of Chicago and later adapted by Lexington’s EOP Architects. But Webb’s sixth and latest version of CentrePointe’s design was barely better than his first three attempts, which were generic and forgettable.

I hope, though, that Collins and Jariwala won’t limit their vision to a look that mimics Lexington’s historic buildings. To be a landmark, a contemporary structure needs to be contemporary, not a riff on architectural history.

Collins and Jariwala said they plan to stay with plans for an underground garage, hotel, apartments, shops and restaurants. But rather than a commercial office tower, they want a new government center, which the city would lease.

Lexington needs a new government center to replace the old Lafayette Hotel building, which badly needs renovation and would be better suited for a hotel, condos or apartments.

City officials have been exploring the idea of selling the old hotel and constructing a new government center on city-owned land downtown. Would it make sense to lease from a private developer instead? Maybe, if the numbers work.

With Webb essentially out of the picture, there is no political reason not to consider incorporating city hall into this development. But Collins and Jariwala will have to negotiate a long-term lease that makes financial sense for taxpayers.

Mayor Jim Gray and the Urban County Council will have to look closely at those numbers, and at something else: Collins and Jariwala said they may want the city to guarantee $25 million in tax-increment financing bonds to build the garage.

City officials weren’t willing to guarantee those bonds for Webb, viewing the risk as too great. If these men want the city to do it for them, they will have to make a case that they are a better risk and structure a deal that protects taxpayers.

After several years of work in banking and international development, Collins said he moved to Lexington two years ago to attend law school at the University of Kentucky. When he finishes school, Collins said he wants to make his home in Lexington, where his Frankfort-born father, international financier Tim Collins, spent part of his childhood.

I think local ties are important. I agree with Collins’ belief that Lexington has a lot of untapped potential, and that it needs a more vibrant downtown to achieve it. I also agree that a landmark building on the CentrePointe block would be a catalyst.

CentrePointe doesn’t just need new financing — it needs new vision, talent and leadership. I am hopeful that Collins and Jariwala can offer that. But city officials must evaluate this deal and its many complexities with open eyes and a clear head.

The big mistake Lexington leaders made seven years ago when CentrePointe was announced was to take everything Webb said at face value. We can’t afford to make that mistake again.


Ignore political scare tactics; EPA’s Clean Power Plan will be good for Kentucky in the long run

August 9, 2015

Here’s some advice for Kentucky politicians freaking out about the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Power Plan: Calm down, take a deep breath and face reality.

On second thought, maybe they shouldn’t take that deep breath. Kentucky has some of America’s dirtiest air, and most of that pollution comes from the coal-fired power plants those politicians are trying to protect.

Kentucky leads the nation in toxic air pollution from power plants, according to a 2012 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Those plants also are the main source of man-made greenhouse gasses that are causing climate change.

The Clean Power Plan, unveiled in final form last week, is the Obama administration’s better-late-than-never attempt to fight climate change. Its goal is to cut carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s power plants by 32 percent from 2012 levels by 2030. That is tougher than the 30 percent in an initial proposal, but states would be given more flexibility and two additional years to meet their targets.

Still, the EPA’s goal is modest by international standards. Many European nations have pledged to do more, and scientific studies show carbon emissions must be cut dramatically if the world hopes to curb the disastrous effects of climate change.

Despite the politicians’ howling, Kentucky was on track to meet its initial EPA target of an 18 percent cut in carbon emissions. That’s because utilities already were planning to phase out old coal plants or convert them to natural gas to save money.

The final plan calls for Kentucky to cut emissions by nearly 30 percent — a tougher goal, but still one of the least-stringent among the states. In addition to phasing out coal-fired power plants, Kentucky can meet its target by adding more renewable power sources and improving the energy efficiency of buildings, two areas where it lags behind many other states.

As with previous environmental rules, segments of corporate America and the politicians they sponsor are fighting back.

Kentucky is one of 16 states suing to block the Clean Power Plan, with Attorney General Jack Conway taking a lead. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has urged states to simply ignore the EPA’s requirement to submit a compliance plan — and risk having one imposed on them if the new rules are upheld in court.

It is no coincidence that Kentucky, West Virginia and other states leading opposition to these rules are places where the coal industry dominates the economy or politics, or where energy-intensive manufacturers have long enjoyed cheap electricity subsidized by damage to the environment and public health.

It will be up to the federal courts to decide whether the EPA’s modest and long-overdue plan to cut carbon emissions, clean the air and water, and improve public health will take effect next year.

But Kentuckians should ignore the scare tactics of politicians, who know they must toe the coal industry’s line if they want to get campaign contributions and votes.

The EPA’s Clean Power Plan won’t ruin the economy or “kill jobs.” It will require some difficult transition. But a number of studies predict that, in the long run, the move toward cleaner, renewable power will create a stronger economy with more jobs. At least for those states that embrace inevitable change rather than fight it.

Think about it: Since environmental laws first were enacted 40 years ago, each new regulation, from cutting automobile emissions to curbing acid rain, has been met with corporate and political opposition and dire predictions of economic disaster.

Those predictions have never come true. In fact, just the opposite. That is because environmental regulations have stimulated innovation, creating jobs and growing the economy. Since 1970, air pollution nationwide has been cut by 70 percent and the size of the U.S. economy has tripled.

Regardless of your views on climate change, cleaner air and water mean a better quality of life, a stronger work force and better public health. Those are not small issues in a state like Kentucky, which has some of the nation’s highest cancer and asthma rates.

Kentucky and its leaders have a simple choice. They can cling to the past and fight a losing battle to preserve pollution. Or they can face reality and realize that change is inevitable, pollution is unhealthy, global warming is a threat, renewable energy is the future, and innovation will create a stronger economy.