Like minimum wage increase, new overtime rule long overdue

July 5, 2015

Hard work should pay off. That belief is at the heart of the American dream.

It also is why the U.S. Labor Department’s plan to make more salaried workers eligible for overtime pay is good news for both workers and the overall economy.

Like an increase in the minimum wage, it is long overdue.

Since 1938, federal law has required hourly workers to be paid time-and-a-half for each hour worked beyond 40 hours per week. There is an exception for managers and professionals, who are presumed to get good pay in return for more flexibility and, often, longer work weeks.

But here’s the problem: the salary level at which that exemption kicks in has been increased only once in 40 years.

In 1975, more than 60 percent of salaried workers were eligible for overtime pay. Because of inflation, that figure has fallen to 8 percent, according to a recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.

As a result, salaried “managers” who earn as little as $23,660 a year often work many extra hours for no extra pay. Some end up earning less per hour than the hourly employees they manage. This happens most often in retail and service industries, such as fast food.

This antiquated threshold salary of $23,660 is below the poverty line for a family of four, which is now set at $24,250. As a result, some of these managers are eligible for public assistance, which means taxpayers are directly subsidizing business profits. That makes no sense.

President Barack Obama last year told the Labor Department to review the overtime rule. That resulted in a proposal, announced last week, to raise the salary threshold for workers exempt from overtime next year to $50,440, returning it to roughly the 1975 level, accounting for inflation.

The new rule calls for that threshold to rise over time with inflation, linking it to the 40th percentile of income, which is where it was when the Fair Labor Standards Act became law in 1938.

The White House says the rule change would increase pay for nearly 5 million workers in the first year, 56 percent of whom are women and 53 percent of whom have a college degree.

The president’s action, which does not require the approval of Congress, has drawn howls from business interests and the politicians who receive their campaign contributions and loyally push their agendas.

As with almost every regulation Obama has proposed to help average workers, expand health insurance coverage and clean up the environment, these politicians argue that it will “kill jobs” and hurt the economy. In fact, the opposite is true.

Under this rule, if businesses don’t want to pay overtime to low-salaried managers, they can hire more hourly workers at straight time. That also would give those managers more time for a second job to supplement their income or spend time with their families, as they choose.

Opponents argue that businesses can’t afford to pay workers more, that this isn’t a good time. Have you ever known them to say anything else?

The United States has had 63 straight months of job growth, with businesses creating more than 12.5 million jobs. The Labor Department reported Friday that 223,000 jobs were created in June and the unemployment level fell to a seven-year low of 5.3 percent.

But the problem is that, for nearly four decades, wages have not kept pace with improvements in worker productivity. They haven’t even come close. Middle-class pay has stagnated and been eroded by inflation.

Meanwhile, stock prices are near all-time highs. Executive compensation has soared into the stratosphere. And corporate profits have roughly doubled over the past three decades, rising from 6 percent to 12 percent of gross domestic product.

A recent study found that 90 percent of income growth since 2009 has gone to the richest 10 percent of families.

Why has recovery from an economic crash caused mostly by financial speculation been so slow and uneven? Here is a big reason: consumer spending is the largest driver of the economy, and most people don’t have much extra money to spend.

Like a minimum wage increase, this would help fix that problem and show average Americans that hard work does pay off.


History shouldn’t be erased, but made more accurate and complete

July 4, 2015
The statue of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan outside the old Fayette County Courthouse was erected in 1911 as part of a well-organized Confederate memorial movement. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The statue of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan was erected in front of the old Fayette County Courthouse in 1911 at the behest of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Taxpayers paid $7,500 of the $15,000 cost after private fundraising efforts fell short. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

I went to see Gone With The Wind last week at the Kentucky Theatre, the same place where I saw it the first time almost five decades ago.

The 1939 movie is a classic, and quite entertaining. As a credible account of history, though, it is laughable. Given modern views about racial equality, parts of it are downright offensive.

What I knew this time, but not the first, was that Gone With The Wind was the ultimate expression of how the Civil War’s losers fought long and hard to win the battle for collective memory.

By spinning history and erecting hundreds of monuments across the South, Confederate veterans, their descendants and sympathizers sought to sanitize, romanticize and mythologize the rebel legacy. It became a noble “lost cause” of gallant cavaliers, Southern belles, moonlight and magnolias.

Most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves but fought out of loyalty to their state. But the ugly fact is that the Confederacy’s main goals were to preserve an economy based on slavery and a society grounded in white supremacy.

As Robert Penn Warren, the grandson of a Confederate veteran, wrote in his great 1961 essay, The Legacy of the Civil War, “When one is happy in forgetfulness, facts get forgotten.”

As desegregation and civil rights began roiling America in the 1940s, many Southern whites embraced Confederate symbolism again, with a nasty twist. They added the battle flag on their state flags, flew it from public buildings and waved it in defiance.

Over the next half-century, discrimination was outlawed and racism became less socially acceptable. Confederate symbolism became more benign — at least to white people. Many now see the rebel flag as a symbol of “heritage not hate” and of regional pride and identity.

Besides, since so many outsiders look down on Southerners, we like being rebels, with or without a cause.

But the racist massacre at a Charleston, S.C., church has forced us to confront the fact that the Confederate flag has been tainted by racism as surely as the ancient swastika was by Nazism.

We also are re-evaluating the propriety of state-sanctioned monuments to the Confederacy. Should they stay, or should they go? It’s a complicated question.

A CNN/ORC poll surveyed 1,017 Americans last week and found that 57 percent see the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern pride, 33 percent see it as a symbol of racism and 5 percent see it as both. But there was a stark racial divide: while 66 percent of whites think it symbolizes pride, only 17 percent of blacks see it that way.

Interestingly, though, a majority of both blacks and whites said they were against renaming streets and highways that honor Confederate leaders.

That finding is pertinent to Kentucky, a divided slave state that remained in the union but embraced Confederate identity after the war, amid decades of racist violence.

What should be done with the Jefferson Davis statue in the state Capitol rotunda? Move it to a museum.

The physical heart of state government should be a place to honor Kentuckians of the past whose lives and ideals set examples for the future. There are many more worthy of that honor than the Confederate president.

What about the statues beside the old Fayette County courthouse of Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a Confederate raider, and John C. Breckinridge, a former U.S. vice president who became a Confederate general and secretary of war?

The Davis statue, placed in the Capitol in 1936, and Morgan statue, placed on what was then the courthouse lawn in 1911, have similar histories: they were erected at the behest of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Breckinridge’s statue went up in 1887. State taxpayers subsidized the cost of all three statues.

The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning will host a free public forum at 6 p.m. Tuesday to discuss these issues. Mayor Jim Gray is to be among the speakers.

To me, these two monuments present a more complicated situation than the Davis statue. The old courthouse is no longer a seat of government, but a space used to commemorate Lexington’s history. For better or worse, those men, their statues and the forces that put them there are significant parts of that history.

This is what I would do: leave Morgan where he is, but rewrite the historical marker to say that some thought he was a hero while others considered him a terrorist. And explain that this statue played a big role in the influential Confederate memorial movement.

As for Breckinridge, I would move him to the back of the old courthouse lawn. That is where, in 2003, a long-overdue historical marker was placed to explain that one-fourth of Lexington’s residents were held in bondage by 1860, and this was the spot where slaves were publicly whipped.

At the Main Street entrance to Cheapside park, where Breckinridge now stands, I would erect a significant memorial to those slaves and the abolitionists who fought for their freedom. It also should explain that Cheapside was once one of the South’s leading slave markets.

History should not be erased or forgotten, because it holds important lessons for the present and future. But we owe it to ourselves to make the retelling of that history accurate and complete.

  • If you go
  • What: Forum on race, Lexington’s history with slavery and Confederate statuary and symbolsWhen: 6-8 p.m. July 7
  • Where: Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, 251 W. Second St.
  •  More information: Carnegiecenterlex.org or (859) 254-4175

American Medical Association is again led by a Lexington doctor

June 30, 2015

Steven Stack, a 43-year-old Lexington emergency room physician, recently became the youngest president of the American Medical Association since 1854.

He will need all of the youthful energy he can muster.

The nation’s largest physician organization has some ambitious challenges, from helping sort out health care reform laws to rethinking medical education and trying to stem epidemics of diabetes and high blood pressure.

Stack is the second Lexington doctor to head the AMA in three years. Ardis Hoven, an infectious disease specialist, was AMA president in 2013. She now chairs the council of the World Medical Association.

“We live in the same Zip code,” Stack said. “But we never see each other in Lexington.”

Dr. Steven Stack, a Lexington emergency room physician, recently became the youngest president of the American Medical Association since 1854.  Photo provided

Dr. Steven Stack. Photo provided

Stack and his wife, Tracie, a physician and University of Kentucky graduate, moved to Lexington in 2006 to be closer to family in Ohio. He is from Cleveland and got his education from Holy Cross and the Ohio State University.

He is director of emergency medicine at St. Joseph East and St. Joseph Mt. Sterling hospitals. Before moving here, he directed emergency medicine at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis.

When I caught up with Stack by phone Monday, he was relieved that the U.S. Supreme Court had rejected a technical challenge to the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as the ACA or Obamacare.

“If it had come out the other way,” he said, “there was the risk of over 6 million Americans losing their health insurance that they had just recently gotten and throwing the entire delivery system into a whole new type of chaos with no clear path forward.”

The AMA has been generally supportive of the ACA, especially its goal of increasing insurance coverage. That doesn’t mean doctors don’t think the law needs improving.

“But you have to be willing to want to correct it and make it better as opposed to just ripping apart and destroying it,” he said. “If we want to make some things better about it, then we need to focus on those things and not on trying to cut the whole law.”

The ACA has both good and bad aspects, Stack said. A bigger issue is how it and other health-reform laws do or don’t work together. Insurance companies also have regulation and bureaucracy that makes doctors’ jobs more difficult and interferes with patient care.

“We spend too much to provide care to too few people with results that are not as good as they need to be,” he said.

In 2012, the AMA identified several broad areas where it hopes to have an impact over the next decade.

One is medical education. Stack said the AMA has invested $11 million in 11 medical schools around the country to pioneer ways of incorporating new technology, new learning methods and new leadership skills in the training of doctors.

Another big initiative is addressing the diabetes and hypertension (high blood pressure) epidemics through early diagnosis and prevention.

About 86 million Americans are thought to be pre-diabetic, “and nine out of 10 of them do not know they are,” Stack said. With better diet and more exercise in proven intervention programs led by partner organizations such as the YMCA, many pre-diabetic people can be prevented from developing Type 2 Diabetes.

Early diagnosis and disease management also are critical for hypertension, which affects 70 million Americans, or 1 in three adults.

“Those are two of the most prominent and prevalent conditions of chronic health in the United States, and they cost over a half-trillion dollars a year in healthcare expenditures,” Stack said.

“If we can improve the care of those conditions … then we could profoundly improve the health and wellness of the nation, improve their capacity for work and fulfilling lives, and improve the economy of the nation all at the same time.”

Kentucky’s diabetes and hypertension rates are some of the nation’s highest, but Gov. Steve Beshear’s embrace of the ACA, by creating a state insurance exchange and expanding Medicaid, has helped get more Kentuckians treatment for a variety of health problems, Stack said.

Another AMA goal is to help “restore the joy to the practice of medicine,” he said.

Doctors “have so much intrusion from governments and private payers and other regulators in their lives,” he said. “If we want to have a healthier, happier nation, we have to have healthier, happier physicians to partner with patients to make that possible.”


History will remember this month of seismic social change

June 27, 2015
A Pride flag held by Michael Harrington of Berea is backlit by the sun during the Decision Day Rally, celebrating Friday's marriage equality ruling, at Robert Stephens Courthouse Plaza in Lexington. Photo by Matt Goins

Michael Harrington of Berea holds a pride flag during the Decision Day Rally, celebrating Friday’s marriage equality ruling, at Courthouse Plaza in Lexington. Photo by Matt Goins

 

Social progress can seem painfully slow. And then, almost out of nowhere, events bring public opinion and the law together to produce head-spinning change.

This month will go down in history as one of those epic tipping points on several issues that have simmered below the surface of American society for generations.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Friday that same-sex couples in all 50 states have a constitutional right to marry. It was a landmark decision against discrimination that followed a seismic shift in public opinion toward gay rights.

Just a few years ago, gay marriage would have seemed unthinkable to most Americans. It was contrary to tradition and conservative religious beliefs, which were reflected in federal and state law.

But when the legal question finally reached the nation’s highest court, there was little doubt about the outcome. The legal arguments against same-sex marriage were almost laughably lame.

Equal protection under the law is one of this nation’s most cherished values. The Supreme Court majority correctly decided that gay people should not have their freedom to marry blocked by other people’s religious beliefs.

It was public opinion, not a court ruling, that swiftly turned the tide on another issue: state-sponsored veneration of the Confederacy, which has disrespected black people and fueled racial tensions since the Civil War.

Protests Tuesday at the South Carolina Capitol in Columbia. Associated Press photo.

Protests Tuesday at the South Carolina Capitol in Columbia. Associated Press photo.

Conservative politicians across the South were tripping over each other last week to call for removing Confederate flags from their state capitols, Confederate emblems from their state flag and license plates and statues of Confederate heroes from places of honor.

It was a stunning reversal. Many of these politicians, and others like them, had resisted this for years. Their predecessors helped erect these symbols, either to memorialize a mythical “Lost Cause” or to express defiance against federal civil rights legislation and court-ordered integration.

Then, suddenly, a heinous crime exposed these excuses and rationalizations for what they really were. A 21-year-old white man murdered nine black worshipers in a Charleston, S.C., church after touting his racism online with pictures of himself holding the Confederate flag.

Many white people defend Confederate symbols as expressions of “Southern heritage.” They view them as honoring the sacrifices of ancestors, most of whom did not own slaves and were fighting out of loyalty to their home states.

But these symbols have always had a different meaning for black people. Confederate leaders considered their ancestors to be less-than-human property, and they went to war to try to keep them enslaved.

Since the Civil War, white supremacists have often used Confederate imagery as a tool for trying to keep black people “in their place.” Celebrating the Confederacy for other reasons does not change that bitter fact.

That doesn’t mean every Confederate relic should be banished to a museum. But government, which serves all people in this increasingly diverse country, should be careful about how and where the Confederate legacy is enshrined.

Should Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ statue be moved from the state Capitol rotunda to a museum? Should statues of Lexington’s most prominent Confederate leaders, John C. Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan, be removed from the old courthouse lawn and Cheapside?

A monument honoring the hundreds of slaves sold on the auction block at Cheapside or whipped on that courthouse lawn now seems more appropriate.

How do we preserve, acknowledge and learn from our complex history, while at the same time honoring values we want to shape our future? It is a delicate balance.

Pope Francis. Photo by Andrew Medichini / Associated Press.

Pope Francis. Photo by Andrew Medichini / Associated Press.

The last major tipping point this month has received less attention, but it was a watershed nonetheless.

Pope Francis issued a strongly worded encyclical to the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics that clearly framed environmental stewardship, climate change and related topics of social justice and economic inequality as moral issues.

But the leader of the world’s largest Christian denomination will have a fight on his hands. His views are well-grounded in Christian theology, but they run counter to the way the world works.

Many powerful people worship a God found in bank vaults rather than Heaven. By shifting the moral conversation from sex to money, Pope Francis has made a lot of people nervous. It will be interesting to see what difference his leadership makes.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”


Move Jefferson Davis’ statue from state Capitol to a museum

June 23, 2015

The young, white thug who sat for an hour in a prayer meeting at a South Carolina church, then pulled a gun and murdered nine black worshipers, touted his racism by posting a picture of himself online holding the Confederate flag.

His heinous act has had one positive effect: It has forced conservative Southern politicians to rethink state-supported veneration of the Confederacy.

This is long overdue, and Kentucky leaders should join them by moving Jefferson Davis’ 15-foot marble statue from the Capitol rotunda to a museum.

Others have tried before and failed. Now, the idea is gaining rapid support from, among others, prominent Republicans including Sen. Mitch McConnell, state Senate President Robert Stivers and gubernatorial nominee Matt Bevin.

Attorney General Jack Conway, the Democratic nominee for governor, said Tuesday that he would have to think about it — a hesitation he might soon regret.

jeffdavisAcross the South, Confederate symbolism is suddenly under siege. The Confederate battle flag’s days on the South Carolina capital lawn appear numbered, and some Mississippi leaders are talking about removing the emblem from their state flag.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe ordered the battle flag removed from a license plate produced for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that Texas can refuse to allow the flag on its license plates.

Walmart and Sears announced that they will stop selling Confederate flag merchandise.

Since 1936, a statue of Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederacy, has had a place of honor in Kentucky’s Capitol, along with four other Kentuckians: his nemesis, Abraham Lincoln; statesman Henry Clay; pioneer physician Ephraim McDowell; and Vice President Alben Barkley.

Davis’ statue was put there at the urging of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In 1934, legislators appropriated $5,000 of taxpayer money to help pay for it. That sum is now worth about $89,000.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans campaigned for decades to erect memorials to their Confederate ancestors, including the statue of Gen. John Hunt Morgan on Lexington’s old courthouse square. They were more interested in history than white supremacy.

But the same cannot be said for the people behind many official displays of the Confederate flag around the South. Most of those flags appeared a half-century ago as acts of defiance against the civil rights movement. Intent is key, and their intent was racist.

Their sentiments live on in the underground white supremacy movement, which is bigger than most politicians want to admit. It is why the Confederate flag continues to be embraced by people such as the South Carolina murderer, whose name I will not dignify by publishing.

But let’s get back to Jefferson Davis.

A Mississippi planter’s son, he was born in Kentucky, near the Christian-Todd county line, where a 351-foot obelisk that’s now part of the state park system was dedicated to his memory in 1924. He went to prep school near Springfield and attended Transylvania University before graduating from West Point.

When Mississippi seceded from the union in 1861, Davis resigned his U.S. Senate seat and led a war against the country he had sworn to defend.

Late in life, Davis claimed that the Civil War had never really been about slavery, a ridiculous argument that some Confederate apologists still try to make.

The central issue of Southern secession was the preservation of slavery and the economic system that depended on it. It was about denying black people basic human rights because of a belief that they were inferior. Davis was the man in charge of that effort, and he doesn’t deserve our honor today.

Some people would say that moving Davis’ statue out of the Capitol is an attempt to rewrite history. That isn’t so.

Davis’ statue should be prominently displayed in a state museum along with other relics of Kentucky’s complex and controversial past. He should be remembered, and his story should be studied in the context of his era.

If nothing else, Davis provides a great lesson for current and future Kentucky leaders, and that lesson is this: Doing what is politically and economically expedient but morally questionable can leave you on the wrong side of history.

Museums honor history. The Capitol rotunda — the very center of our state government — should honor those whose accomplishments and ideals we value.

State rules limit statues in the rotunda to people who have been dead for at least 40 years, according to David Buchta, the state curator of historic properties. That’s a good rule, because it gives time for famous people’s worth to be seen in perspective.

Moving Davis’ statue to a museum would make room for at least one other Kentuckian more worthy of our honor. I can think of several candidates, and some of them are of a different race or gender than the five white guys there now.


John Carroll remembered as ‘a great editor and an even greater friend’

June 22, 2015

Norman Pearlstine, the top editor of Time Inc. and, before that, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, stepped to the pulpit of Lexington’s First Presbyterian Church on Monday and got right to the point.

“John was our generation’s best, most respected, most beloved editor,” he said.

Anyone seeking confirmation of that had only to look out across the venerable old sanctuary. It was filled to capacity with John Sawyer Carroll’s family, friends and colleagues who flew in for his memorial service from as far away as China.

Carroll, 73, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and Lexington Herald-Leader, died June 14 at his Lexington home of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare, rapidly progressive dementia that he was diagnosed with in January.

Lexington Herald-Leader Editor John S. Carroll spoke as the newsroom staff celebrated a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting on April 18,1986. Reporters Jeffrey Marx and Michael York won the prize for articles in 1985 about cash and gifts given to University of Kentucky basketball players by boosters, in violation of NCAA rules. Photo by Charles Bertram

Herald-Leader Editor John S. Carroll spoke as the staff celebrated a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting on April 18,1986. Reporters Jeffrey Marx and Michael York won the prize for articles in 1985 about cash and gifts given to University of Kentucky basketball players by boosters, in violation of NCAA rules. Photo by Charles Bertram

Pearlstine was a classmate of Carroll’s at Haverford College near Philadelphia. His eulogy was followed by two more, from Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times, and Bill Marimow, the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Maxwell King, another former Philadelphia Inquirer editor, read a prayer selected by Carroll’s widow, Lee. The Rev. Mark Davis offered words of comfort and spoke of a life well-lived that ended too soon. Singer Calesta Day filled the sanctuary with a stunning a cappella rendition of Amazing Grace.

Friends and colleagues came to pay tribute to Carroll for five decades of remarkable journalism that produced more than two dozen Pulitzer Prizes and significant government and social reforms.

Among them: legendary Philadelphia Inquirer editor Gene Roberts, who hired Carroll for his first editing job, and Frank Langfitt, a National Public Radio correspondent based in Shanghai who worked under Carroll at the Herald-Leader and flew 18 hours to get back for the service.

“He had such an influence on my life,” Langfitt said. “I had to be here.”

The service and a reception afterward at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning drew a who’s who of Kentucky media and political figures, including Mayor Jim Gray; Rep. Andy Barr and his predecessor, Ben Chandler; and former Gov. Brereton Jones.

Those who eulogized Carroll spoke of an intellectually curious and demanding editor, an inspiring leader, a great mentor and a kind and modest man.

After editing the newspapers in Lexington and Baltimore, Carroll went to the Los Angeles Times in 2000 after a scandal in which the publisher cut a secret deal with advertisers that compromised ethical standards and demoralized the newsroom.

“What followed over the next several years should stand as one of the finest acts of leadership in a newsroom or anywhere else in modern times,” said Baquet, whom Carroll hired as his deputy in Los Angeles.

“John’s newsroom was fun and ambitious,” he said. “The key people who went to work for him came out different, with bigger, larger ideas and fewer limits. And with the belief in the power and the honor of journalism; that we were part of something much larger.”

Baquet said that when he was named the top editor of The New York Times a year ago, he spoke to his staff and described the kind of outstanding but humane newsroom he wanted to create. “John was deep in my head and in my heart when I said that,” he said.

Marimow, who became Carroll’s deputy in Baltimore after working for him in Philadelphia, told how his curiosity about a routine story about the scrapping of an aircraft carrier near Baltimore led to a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative series about the human and environmental toll of the global ship-breaking industry.

“As an editor, John was a visionary who reveled in great work as well as quirky stories and quirky colleagues,” Marimow said. “He saw the forest clearly, while most of us, including me, were lost in the trees.”

There were plenty of funny stories, too.

Pearlstine told how, when they were college students in 1962, he got Carroll out of jail after he and a friend ran onto the field of Connie Mack Stadium during the seventh-inning stretch to try to shake hands with Willie Mays.

Baquet recalled, early in their working relationship, a long, racy story about how the drug Viagra was changing Los Angeles’ pornography industry. Afraid Carroll might not want to publish it, Baquet gave it a bland headline and submitted it for approval. After a long silence as he read the story, Carroll started to chuckle.

“Then he said, ‘Great story. But why’d you put this really dull headline on it?'” Baquet recalled. “Then he pulled out a pencil, and I swear it took one second, and he scrawled down a new one: Lights, Camera, Viagra. He was the best headline writer in the business.”

Marimow recalled the last time he saw Carroll, when their families got together a year ago on Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts.

“John was tan, trim, vigorous and energetic; the picture of vitality,” he recalled. “It’s the way I’ll always remember him. A great editor and an even greater friend. An irreplaceable friend.”


Entrepreneur thinks he has a new angle for office furniture

June 21, 2015

Lexington software developer Wayne Yeager has spent a lot of time sitting in front of computers since he got his first one, a primitive Radio Shack TRS-80, at age 11.

“Thirty five years or so,” he said. “That’s a lot of sitting.”

Yeager knew studies have shown that sitting for long periods is unhealthy. It also became painful, so he looked for alternatives.

“I thought, I’ve got to get a standing desk; all the cool kids are getting them,” he said. “It was awful. I lasted about an hour.”

He tried sitting on a balance ball. Then he tried a standing desk with a treadmill, but found it hard to walk and concentrate on writing code at the same time.

Wayne Yeager demonstrates the LeanChair in his garage workshop. Photo by Tom Eblen

Wayne Yeager demonstrates the LeanChair in his garage workshop. Photo by Tom Eblen

“Then I saw where Hollywood actresses used to use these leaning boards between takes so they wouldn’t mess up their costumes,” he said. “I thought, that’s not a bad idea. I wonder if I can get any work done while doing that?”

After two years of tinkering, Yeager, 49, soon hopes to begin production of the LeanChair he designed. A user stands on an angled platform while leaning back and resting against a padded back and seat, which Yeager says takes about 25 percent of weight off the feet.

The pads are supported by two bent steel pipes with some spring. At arm level is a small, swing-out desk for a computer keyboard, mouse or writing pad. Yeager has his computer monitor on an adjacent standing desk at eye level.

The angle of lean is one of many things Yeager keeps experimenting with in prototypes he has made for himself and friends. So far, he hasn’t consulted with ergonomic experts.

“I have read three ergonomics textbooks, but that does not an expert make,” he acknowledged. “I am the world’s first guinea pig on this. I’ve been doing it for hours a day for a couple of years.”

Yeager launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $25,000 to begin manufacturing the chairs, which he plans to sell through his website, LeanChair.com. He reached his 30-day fundraising goal in a week, but is still accepting backers. (More information: Kickstarter.com and search for “LeanChair”.)

Some of Yeager’s backers are friends from Lexington and Salvisa, his hometown in Mercer County. He also has promoted the campaign on social media, which paid off when the technology website Gizmag.com noticed and wrote about it.

Among Yeager’s early backers was Warren Nash, director of the Lexington office of the Kentucky Innovation Network at the University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business and Economics.

Nash saw the LeanChair campaign on LinkedIn and was intrigued. He said he knows Yeager, but he isn’t a client.

“I always try to back entrepreneurs in the community,” Nash said. “In this case, it hit home because I’ve got a back problem and I’ve been looking for a solution. I liked that he knows the problem he’s trying to solve and has done a lot of customer validation. I think he’s on to something.”

Yeager’s biggest challenges may be how to scale up manufacturing to meet demand and lower costs, and how to make the LeanChair adjustable and customizable to meet a variety of customers’ needs, Nash said.

Yeager, who said he has started and sold several small technology companies, plans to use his Kickstarter funding to buy more tools and supplies. He joined Kre8Now Makerspace, a shared membership workshop that opened recently at 903 Manchester St., and plans to work from there.

He is getting help from his wife, Karen, a Lexmark retiree with a master’s degree in manufacturing engineering. He also plans to outsource some aspects of production.

“I don’t know anything about upholstery or esthetics,” he said, noting that prototypes so far have used backs scavenged from office chairs.

Yeager wants to keep tweaking the design even after he begins manufacturing. In addition to experimenting with angles, he wants to look at padding, lumbar support and knee rests. He also wants to make the chair lighter so it can be more easily moved. He is taking advance orders for LeanChairs online, at $295 each.

“I imagine most of the users are going to be computer desk jockeys,” he said. But anyone who spends hours at a desk could be a customer.

“Robots haven’t replaced us yet,” Yeager said. “We still have to find a comfortable way to get work done.”


Would a better flag boost Kentuckians’ pride in their state?

June 20, 2015

KyFlag

 

Kentucky needs many things: better health, more education, less poverty, less political corruption, a more-prosperous middle class, a less-polluted environment.

And a better state flag. I have thought that for years, but I’ve always considered flag design a trivial issue in a state with so many bigger challenges.

Ben Sollee changed my mind.

If you don’t know Sollee, he is an enormously talented singer, songwriter and cellist (yes, a cellist) whose unique style of folksy, bluesy, socially conscious music has attracted an international following. He also is a proud Kentuckian.

Ben Sollee. Photo by Tom Eblen

Ben Sollee. Photo by Tom Eblen

Sollee performed in Frankfort this month at the Kentucky Historical Society’s annual Boone Day festivities. I sat on stage and interviewed him between songs about his Kentucky roots and how they influence his art.

Kentuckians have a lot to be proud of, Sollee said, but they don’t express that pride as much as do residents of some other U.S. states and Canadian provinces. He thinks part of the problem is our flag.

“When I travel and I see people in British Columbia or Colorado or California, they are proud of where they’re from,” he said. “And they wear it all over. Everyone’s sporting the state flag, the state image, the state logo.

“We don’t have that in Kentucky,” he added. “Our state flag is not adopted on a cultural level. We need a better state flag!”

Two men wearing antique clothing and shaking hands in the middle of a blue flag, surrounded by goldenrod weed and a lot of words just doesn’t cut it graphically.

The handshake guys make a fine official seal. “United We Stand, Divided We Fall” is a great motto for a commonwealth, which is a more noble thing to be than a mere state. Goldenrod is pretty,  even if it does make me sneeze. But all thrown together, these things make a boring flag.

“Sitting here at the Kentucky History Center, I understand that’s a bit of blasphemy,” Sollee said, although his comments drew loud applause from the audience.

“There’s a lot of heritage behind that flag,” he added. “But there’s a lot of new heritage that’s not being represented by that flag. It’s a bad design, and it doesn’t communicate to a wide swath of people easily.”

I think Sollee is right, and so do flag design experts. Yes, there are experts who study the design, use and cultural significance of flags. They are called “vexillologists” and among the places they hang out is the North American Vexillological Association.

Last year, the association published “guiding principles” for good flag design. Kentucky’s flag violates most of them. It is what vexillologists call an S.O.B. — seal on a bedsheet.

When you see Kentucky’s flag flying at a distance, which is the way we usually see flags, it is blue with a vague golden blob in the middle, virtually indistinguishable from the flags of a half-dozen other states.

What state flags do the vexillologists like? Those of New Mexico, Texas, Maryland, Alaska, Colorado and Arizona, to name a few. They approach the quality of great national flags, such as the United States, Canada, Great Britain and South Africa. Even some cities, such as Chicago and Washington, have flags designed so well that residents embrace them.

With few exceptions, well-designed flags are simple, with two or three basic colors and meaningful symbolism that is easily recognized. They are distinctive, and they avoid seals and writing of any kind.

As Ted Kaye, author of the book Good Flag, Bad Flag, puts it: “A flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.”

When designing a flag, experts recommend starting with a rectangle 1 by 1½ inches. If a design doesn’t work in that small a space, it just doesn’t work.

“We could have a crowd-sourced campaign, which is to say let’s get the in-state artists to submit designs and have a competition,” Sollee suggested. “Let’s create a new piece of art that can be our state flag that we can all get behind and adopt.

“It would do wonders for people outside of Kentucky recognizing and visiting this place,” he said. “It would do wonders to have a banner that we could all wave around. I think it’s a small step that we could make big strides with. Let’s do it!”


Chattanooga offers good lessons for Lexington’s downtown

June 16, 2015
In one of Chattanooga's most ambitious recent adaptive reuse projects, a former movie theater was transformed into The Block. The theater's garage is now faced with a 5,000-square-foot climbing wall, one of the nation's largest. The $6.5 million project is one of many that has transformed downtown Chattanooga from decay into a popular destination for both residents and tourists. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

A former movie theater has been transformed into The Block. The theater’s garage is now faced with a 5,000-square-foot climbing wall. The $6.5 million project is one of many that has transformed downtown Chattanooga from decay into a popular destination. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Downtown has made a lot of progress in recent years. But when I travel to other cities in the region, I realize how much further and faster Lexington needs to go.

Each June, I meet more than a dozen friends from Lexington and Atlanta somewhere in between for a week of bicycling. We look for a place with scenic, bicycle-friendly rural roads, not far from an urban center with great restaurants and interesting places to visit after each day’s ride.

I was impressed two years ago with Asheville, N.C. I was even more impressed last year by Knoxville, Tenn., whose downtown has improved dramatically since I lived there in the 1980s. This year’s destination was Chattanooga.

Lookout Mountain has been a tourist attraction since the Civil War, but Chattanooga’s downtown was long known for industrial grime and urban decay. In the 1960s, it was one of America’s most-polluted cities.

Boy, has that changed. Outside magazine readers recently voted Chattanooga as America’s Best Town.

Since 2002, a $120 million effort called the 21st Century Waterfront Plan has transformed the city’s once-derelict riverfront into a local amenity and tourist destination. That, in turn, has attracted private construction, new business and jobs.

Chattanooga is a great example of the concept that smart public infrastructure investment attracts private capital. It’s the same idea behind Town Branch Commons, the proposed linear park through downtown Lexington.

The waterfront plan helped prompt Chattanooga’s Hunter Museum of American Art to invest in a $22 million expansion. The Hunter is an excellent museum, and its prominent spot on a downtown bluff makes it easy to visit, unlike Lexington’s good but well-hidden University of Kentucky and Headley-Whitney art museums.

The Hunter is one of Chattanooga’s many examples of historic buildings being restored and adapted for new uses. The original portion of the museum is housed in a 1905 Classic Revival mansion, which since 2005 has adjoined a beautiful piece of contemporary architecture.

Another example is the Walnut Street Bridge, a 2,376-foot steel truss span built in 1890 and closed to vehicular traffic in 1978. After 15 years of neglect, it was converted into a pedestrian bridge that has become a popular gathering place.

Like the Old Courthouse in Lexington, it might have been easier and cheaper to just tear down the bridge rather than restore it and find a creative new use for it. But it is obvious now that Chattanooga made the right choice.

Chattanooga’s most famous example of historic preservation and adaptive reuse is Terminal Station, the 1908 Beaux Arts train depot that in the 1970s was converted into the Chattanooga Choo Choo, a hotel and convention center.

The Choo Choo struggled over the years, but as surrounding old buildings have been converted into trendy restaurants and shops, the area is coming back to life. An $8 million project is underway to restore the rest of the old depot and create more commercial space.

One of Chattanooga’s newest adaptive-reuse projects is The Block, near the Tennessee Aquarium. The $6.5 million project transformed the old Bijou Theater into a fitness and climbing complex. The cinema’s renovated parking garage is now faced with a 5,000-square-foot climbing wall that is both an eye-catching piece of architecture and a popular tourist destination.

Some of Chattanooga’s most important new public infrastructure isn’t visible. In 2008, the city-owned electric utility defied the cable-company monopoly and installed a gigabit broadband system that has attracted high-tech jobs.

Chattanooga’s population is a little more than half that of Lexington (168,000 vs. 310,000), although its metro area is a bit larger (528,000 vs. 473,000). But Tennessee’s fourth-largest city offers Lexington some great examples of how public-private partnerships can invest wisely in infrastructure that can attract economic development.

Chattanooga set a clear vision: Clean up the environment; showcase natural amenities, such as the Tennessee River; preserve history and local culture; encourage outstanding contemporary architecture; make it easy for people to live and work downtown; promote outdoor activity; and invest in beauty and public art.

Meanwhile, back in Lexington, last week marked six months since the Webb Companies had two giant tower cranes installed at CentrePointe, where they have done nothing toward turning the block-square pit into an underground garage.

The Hunter Museum of American Art is a prominent downtown destination in Chattanooga, perched on a bluff above the Tennessee River. Originally located in Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The Hunter Museum of American Art is a prominent downtown destination.

Moccasin Bend of the Tennessee River, as seen from Lookout Mountain, with Chattanooga to the right. While Lookout Mountain has been a tourist attraction since after the Civil War, Chattanooga has made substantial improvements to its downtown in recent decades, making it popular with both residents and tourists.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Moccasin Bend of the Tennessee River, as seen from Lookout Mountain, with Chattanooga to the right. While Lookout Mountain has been a tourist attraction since after the Civil War, Chattanooga has made substantial improvements to its downtown in recent decades.


Historical Frankfort church, once threatened, is saved for a new role

June 6, 2015
Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors.    Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

FRANKFORT — When Good Shepherd Catholic Church and School moved to a new suburban campus in 2011, many people worried about what would happen to its former site, a downtown landmark since before the Civil War.

First, the old church was in the way of construction for the Franklin County Judicial Center, which took out the school gymnasium next door. In the end, the church wasn’t harmed, but the Judicial Center wrapped it on two sides.

Then there was a lack of maintenance. Water seeped through brick, damaging plaster and endangering the church’s structural integrity. Roof leaks caused sections of the heart-pine floors to rot. A tree sprouted from the bell-tower steeple.

The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation listed Good Shepherd on its 2013 “eleven at the eleventh hour” list of Central Kentucky historic buildings in danger of demolition after plans fell through to convert it into a museum.

“That building has been threatened for years, and there was a lot of concern that we were going to lose it,” said Craig Potts, executive director of the Kentucky Heritage Council and the state’s historic preservation officer.

“I was particularly concerned,” he added. “I was married in that church and live just a few doors down from it.”

Unlike some other recent preservation stories, this one seems headed toward a happy ending. Joe Dunn, an Oldham County developer who specializes in adaptive reuse of old buildings, is finishing a beautiful renovation of the circa 1850 sanctuary.

It has been leased to event venue operator Denise Jerome, who this summer will reopen it as The Lancaster at St. Clair, a place for weddings, receptions, music performances and other gatherings. A public preview is planned 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Aug. 20. Rental information: michaelisevents.com.

The remaining part of the old gymnasium’s lot at the corner of Wapping and St. Clair streets is being converted into a garden-like outdoor event space enclosed by a wrought-iron fence.

After that is finished, Dunn will renovate the school building, which opened in 1923, and lease it for office space.

Dunn and his son, John, were already familiar with downtown Frankfort, having renovated the McClure Building, a 1906 office building, and the Market Square Apartments, a former Odd Fellows lodge built in the 1850s.

When Dunn first looked at the Good Shepherd campus, he was only interested in the school building. But the real estate agent insisted that he walk inside the church.

“I thought, what would I do with a church?” he recalled. “But, being raised Catholic, I thought I should look at it, and, wow! You could just feel the reverence of the place.”

Dunn was captivated by the old sanctuary’s Gothic Revival arches, colorful stained-glass windows, bell tower and working pipe organ.

“I had the same feeling he did when I walked into the space,” said Jerome, who manages several event venues in metro Louisville.

So, in May 2014, Dunn bought the church, school and what was left of the former gymnasium lot. He expects to spend about $500,000 on the church and garden renovation.

Dunn and Jerome named the venue for Father J.M. Lancaster, who came to Frankfort in 1848 to lead a 20-year-old Catholic congregation that was suddenly swelling with immigrants escaping military conscription in Germany and famine in Ireland.

The next year, he paid $5,000 for a small Presbyterian church on Wapping Street, where the congregation worshiped as its members literally built their new church around it. When the new church was finished, the old one was dismantled. Since then, Good Shepherd has played a big role in Frankfort society.

“He has done a good job with the renovation,” Potts said of Dunn. “And I think he has a good idea for its reuse that is going to help all the revitalization efforts already underway downtown. Frankfort is kind of buzzing right now.”

While restoring Good Shepherd was a big job, Dunn said the project has gone more smoothly than many do.

“There was a lot of damage, and I did have to say a few prayers, ‘Is this what you want me to do?'” Dunn said. “But the pieces fell into place pretty easily. Sometimes you feel like there are other hands guiding you.”

Joe Dunn, who is renovating the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort for use as event space, plays a few notes on the organ, which is in good working order. The building was built about 1850.   Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Joe Dunn, who is renovating the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church for use as event space, plays a few notes on the organ, which is in good working order.

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors.    Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors.

The tower bell in the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort still works.   Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The tower bell in the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort still works.

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors.    Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space.

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The organ is in good working order. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The organ is in good working order.

The event venue in the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, will be named in honore of Father J.M. Lancaster, the first priest there, who was memorialized in a stained-glass window.   Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The event venue in the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, will be named in honore of Father J.M. Lancaster, the first priest there, who was memorialized in a stained-glass window.

The former Good Shepherd Catholic Church, built in 1850 at the corner of St. Clair and Wapping streets, had suffered water damage from a leaking roof and deteriorating brick walls. The building was surrounded when the Franklin County Justice Center was built.   Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The former Good Shepherd Catholic Church, built in 1850 at the corner of St. Clair and Wapping streets, had suffered water damage from a leaking roof and deteriorating brick walls. The building was surrounded when the Franklin County Justice Center was built.

Developer Joe Dunn, who is renovating the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, also bought the nearby parish school building, circa 1920. He plans to renovate it and lease it as office space.   Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Developer Joe Dunn also bought the nearby parish school building, circa 1923. He plans to renovate it and lease it as office space.


New workshop offers tools, space for entrepreneurs and tinkerers

June 2, 2015
Rob Savard, left, Doug Clarke and Ben Van Den Broeck on Saturday will open Kre8now Makerspace in the Distillery District, a monthly membership workshop with tools and space for people who like to make things.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Rob Savard, left, Doug Clarke and Ben Van Den Broeck on Saturday will open Kre8now Makerspace in the Distillery District. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

People who like to make things often share a common problem: They never have enough tools or a big enough workshop.

Kre8Now Makerspace, which has its grand opening 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at 903 Manchester Street, has a solution.

For $35 a month, members will have access to every tool in the 12,000-square-foot workshop they can demonstrate competency to safely use, from sewing machines and saws to 3-D printers and welding equipment.

“It’s like a gym membership for your creativeness,” said Doug Clarke, one of three partners in the business. “We want to have a creative community where people can learn new skills and get hands-on experience through collaboration.”

Kre8Now also offers individual work and storage space next to the shared shop at $1 per square foot. The business also has a shared lounge and a classroom.

“We’re going to be teaching classes for both members and the general public in anything and everything that has to do with making,” said Clarke, a welder, machinist and former project engineer.

The partners see the space as both a place for tinkerers to hang out and for people to start businesses. They have about 40 members so far, about one-fourth of their goal.

While the space is still coming together, there is a complete wood shop, a metal shop with welding and steel-cutting equipment, a shop for building and using 3-D printers, a costume-making shop, a shop for making drone aircraft, and a variety of tools for other uses.

Many of the tools so far belong to Clarke and his two partners, Rob Savard and Ben Van Den Broeck. They all ended up in this venture because, well, they needed more tools and workshop space.

“I had my own machine shop for the better part of two decades, but I was at the point where I was going to have to invest a small fortune to expand it,” said Savard, who makes prototypes for others in addition to his personal projects.

“I also have a background in woodworking,” he added. “So my wife is expecting some furniture out of this.”

Savard thinks Kre8Now’s success will depend a lot on fostering a creative community. “It’s good to come in and see what other folks are doing and get inspired,” he said.

Van Den Broeck said he was a visual effects artist for the Cartoon Network for seven years, where he learned to use 3-D printers for prototyping cartoon characters that might work as toys. He then started a 3-D printing business, making objects for various corporate clients. Now he makes 3-D printers for various uses.

The three partners began the business with 1,800 square feet in the Old Pepper Distillery complex, another piece of Manchester Street property owned by Distillery District developer Barry McNees.

As membership increased, they outgrew the space and rented their new space from McNees. It is a former wholesale food warehouse that also houses photographer Mary Rezny and The Grand Reserve, an events venue.

“I’ve spent a lot of money bringing this place up,” Clarke said. “But it’s a great location. I see a lot of potential in the Distillery District.”

The Grand Reserve and Rezny have bought their space from McNees, who is now trying to sell the former 1860s bourbon warehouse next door that used to be Buster’s night club.

McNees and his partners bought up a lot of vacant industrial property along Manchester Street nearly a decade ago, hoping to create a mixed-use entertainment district just west of Rupp Arena.

The turnaround has been slow, mostly because of the area’s antiquated public infrastructure,. But it has become more viable and popular in the past couple of years as businesses such as Barrel House Distillery and Ethereal Brewing opened.

“What’s happening now is what I hoped would happen in the first couple of years,” McNees said. “But at least it’s happening.”


National Avenue business district has new name: Warehouse Block

May 28, 2015
Greg Walker of Walker Properties announces the renaming of his family's redevelopment district along National Avenue as Warehouse Block. Behind him is his father, Randy Walker, left, and Mayor Jim Gray. Photo by Tom Eblen

Greg Walker announces the renaming of the district along National Avenue as Warehouse Block. Behind him are his father, Randy Walker, left, and Mayor Jim Gray. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

The mixed-use business district Walker Properties has been developing in a former industrial area along National Avenue has a new name: Warehouse Block.

The family-owned company announced the name, which was voted on by tenants, at a news conference Thursday. The name and a new logo will be used in signage and other branding for the district.

Warehouse Block has a diverse mix of tenants in its renovated buildings. The New York Times featured the development in a story earlier this year as an outstanding example of adaptive reuse and urban redevelopment.

“It’s not every day that Lexington gets in the New York Times,” Mayor Jim Gray said. “What the Walkers have done is a perfect example of creative place-making.”

Randy Walker, an electrical contractor, said he started buying and renovating buildings along National Avenue three decades ago, “at a time when the neighborhood was barely nice enough to be sketchy. Coming from the construction industry, I couldn’t stand letting these buildings go un-maintained and unused.”

Walker Properties worked with city planners to revise zoning codes to allow a return to the way cities used to before the mid-20th century trend of strict segregation of land uses. The company is now run by his sons, Greg and Chad.

Greg Walker said the Warehouse Block has been about much more than renovating old buildings. “We and our clients and tenants are building a community,” he said.

Walker said the company will sponsor the first Warehouse Block party Aug. 21. National Avenue will be closed off for live music and food vendors.


When candidates talk about prosperity, whose do they mean?

May 10, 2015

Have you ever wondered why Kentucky is always near the bottom when states are ranked by economic health and well-being?

There are several reasons. But one is that many of our politicians are either wealthy business executives who fund their own campaigns or people who suck up to wealthy business executives to fund their campaigns.

Either way, the interests of wealthy business executives are what become priorities, and they have as much in common with the interests of average Kentuckians as, well, night and day.

This is why politicians perpetuate several economic myths, and why many policies that would improve the economy and lives of many Kentuckians are rarely enacted. What are these myths?

To start with, business executives are not “job creators.” In fact, executives often make more money and Wall Street rewards their companies when they cut jobs rather than create them.

The real job creators are average people who buy the goods or services businesses produce. Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of all economic activity and indirectly drives much of business capital spending and investment. The more money people have to spend, the more jobs will be created.

Many successful executives also keep wages for everyone but themselves as low as possible to boost “efficiency” and profits. That’s why average people should beware of politicians who are against raising the minimum wage, which has declined in value for decades as executive compensation has soared.

Opponents always argue that raising the minimum wage would do more harm than good, but decades of experience has shown otherwise. Raising the minimum wage also leads to higher pay for other low-wage workers, giving more people more money to spend and boosting the economy.

Beware of politicians who advocate so-called “right to work” laws. These laws aren’t really about protecting anybody’s “right to work”; they are about weakening unions and protecting big employers’ “right” to pay workers as little as possible.

Beware of politicians who rail against government regulation. Sure, you can always find examples of over-regulation. But regulation keeps business executives from cheating and hurting the rest of us and ruining the environment we all share.

It is no coincidence that America’s economy was most prosperous in the decades when average workers’ wages were higher, unions were stronger and government was a watchdog of business instead of a lapdog.

Things started changing in the 1980s with “pro-business” policies and “trickle-down” economic theories that resulted in the highest level of wealth inequality in nearly a century, not to mention the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression and a slow, uneven recovery.

Beware of politicians who want to abolish “Obamacare.” They want to take health care away from several hundred thousand Kentuckians with no plan to replace it other than vague promises of “free-market” solutions.

The free market has never provided good health care for low-wage people. Most hospitals and clinics began as charities, not businesses. Almost every other industrialized nation has a health care system run largely by government, delivering better care at less cost than our private insurance-based system.

Beware of politicians who are “friends of coal.” Kentucky will continue mining and burning coal for decades, but coal is the past, not the future. Most coal jobs will never return. Repairing coal’s damage to Kentucky will be a huge, costly challenge, and we don’t need to make the mess any bigger than it already is.

Renewable energy is the future, and the more Kentucky politicians deny climate change and cling to the past to protect coal-industry profits, the further behind this state will fall.

What Kentucky needs are leaders willing to invest in education, entrepreneurship, economic infrastructure beyond just highways and the social services necessary to keep average people healthy and able to work.

We need leaders with enough courage to create a modern tax system that grows with the economy and eliminates special-interest loopholes that sap government of the resources needed to address Kentucky’s many challenges.

As you listen to the candidates for governor seek your vote in the May 19 primary and Nov. 3 general elections, ask yourself this question: When they promise prosperity for Kentucky, whose prosperity are they talking about? Yours or theirs?


How would you #FillCentrePit? Water, trampoline, donuts and more

May 8, 2015

CentrePointeIllustrationIllustration by Chris Ware, photo by Faron Collins

 

If developer Dudley Webb can’t finish his long-stalled CentrePointe project, how would you fill the massive hole in the heart of Lexington?

That was my challenge in Wednesday’s column, and did you ever respond, on Twitter, Facebook and email. I quit counting suggestions after a couple hundred. But I read them all, and here are some of the best, most creative and most bizarre.

This game was prompted by city officials’ demand that Webb fill the hole with rock and dirt, since he had made little visible progress for nearly a year in filling it with the underground garage and mixed-use development that he has promised for seven years. City pressure seemed to prompt news Friday that Webb is talking with another, unidentified developer about partnering on the project. City officials have met with that developer and say they are optimistic.

But if things don’t work out, Lexingtonians have plenty of other ideas for this limestone pit, 35 feet deep and a full city block square.

The most popular suggestion by far is to finish the underground garage and put a park on top of it. So many people liked CentrePointe as a grassy meadow, which it was from 2009 to 2013 while Webb searched for financing.

Readers thought retired racehorses could graze there, and it would make a great place for pony rides. Or it could be Lexington’s version of New York’s Central Park, Chicago’s Millennium Park or San Francisco’s Union Square.

Commercial real estate folks say this block is too valuable for a park, and that what Lexington needs is a tax-generating complex of offices, apartments, restaurants and shops.

Several readers wanted to see a development with outstanding architecture, such as the CentrePointe design that Jeanne Gang, the Chicago architect and MacArthur Foundation “genius” award winner, created in 2011 but that was later discarded.

Others who wanted the parking garage completed had other ideas for the top: a huge grocery store, a public market, a new city hall, a symphony hall, a glass-domed aviary or butterfly house, a museum complex, an Imax theater or hanging gardens.

“And Christmas lights,” wrote Christian Thalacker. “Lots of Christmas lights.”

A retired University of Kentucky professor suggested turning the site over to UK administrators, who could quickly fill it with dormitories, since Webb had already torn down all of the block’s historic buildings for them.

Others wanted to make better use of the hole than as a place to park cars. It could become an amphitheater, sunken gardens or a sports arena.

Others suggested a below-ground horse-racing track, basketball and racquetball courts, a zoo, a giant sandbox, a skateboard park, a roller derby rink, a go-kart track, a giant Ferris wheel, the world’s largest burgoo pot or a fire pit for community marshmallow roasts.

More adventurous readers wanted to create the world’s largest plastic ball pit. Others wanted the hole filled with foam or blue Jell-O or Vaseline and glitter. Several suggested installing the world’s largest trampoline.

“Are the food trucks still looking for permanent spots?” Lara Bissett asked via Twitter. “#FillCentrePit with food smells and watch people fall in like lemmings.”

Noting that Webb had once proposed creating a “Lake Lexington” water feature, many readers wanted to see the pit filled with water.

CentrePointe could become a wave pool, fishing pond or swimming pool, complete with a resort-like water bar on the end near McCarthy’s Irish Bar. The idle construction cranes could stay on as diving platforms.

Melody Hughes Ryan suggested other local-themed water park features, including The Great Compromiser No Wave Pool, honoring Henry Clay, and the Belle Brezing Hot and Steamy Tub.

Some suggested a water slide coming off the roof of the Lexington Public Library or a zip line down from the top of Lexington Financial Center or a bungee slingshot from High Street.

“Fill it with North Lime donuts and West Sixth beer and let us swim in the deliciousness,” Matt Gordon tweeted.

Others wanted paddle boats, a Noah’s Ark replica or a riverboat casino on the lake.

Some suggested the pit as a place to put Webb, Congress, various other politicians, liberals, Republicans, Duke basketball fans and impudent newspaper columnists. Among readers with this line of thinking, Webb was the overwhelming choice.

“Fill it with all of Dudley’s broken promises,” tweeted Rob Morris, a blogger and car-repair shop owner who has been a longtime critic of CentrePointe. “Wait. We’ll need a much bigger hole.”


Tell me how you would #FillCentrePit if Dudley Webb can’t build

May 5, 2015

CentrePointeThe CentrePointe pit in downtown Lexington. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Ronald Reagan: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Jim Gray: “Mr. Webb, fill in this hole!”

That historical reference, from a former colleague, is one of many quips and wisecracks I have heard since city officials notified CentrePointe developer Dudley Webb last week that they consider him in default.

Before the city gave Webb permission to excavate his long-stalled development’s underground garage, he had to pledge $4.4 million in December 2013 to restore the property to a grassy meadow if he stopped work for 60 days.

If Webb did not fill the hole, the agreement gave city officials the right to take out a mortgage on the property to pay for the work.

Although there has been no obvious progress since last summer, Webb disputes the city’s claim that work has stopped. He has demanded that city officials retract their default notice, and his attorney has threatened to sue if they don’t.

“We’ve made great progress,” Webb told the Urban County Council last Thursday. “We’re so close to getting this deal done.”

Council members listened politely but said nothing. After seven years of empty promises, Webb’s credibility is lower than the bottom of CentrePit.

If Webb and city officials can’t reach agreement, the issue will end up in court, which could make for an interesting discovery process. Who was the mysterious dead investor? Did he ever exist?

Nobody really expects the hole to be filled. That would make no sense. Lexington needs the underground garage — and a successful, tax-generating development on top of it.

The “restoration” agreement was an attempt to give the city some leverage to keep Webb on task — or force him to turn the property over to another developer if he can’t get the job done.

Until then, the fenced-off crater, where two tower cranes have stood idle since they were installed in early December, will continue hurting surrounding businesses and sucking life out of an otherwise rebounding downtown.

CentrePointe has become a Lexington joke, so we might as well have a few laughs. Here is my challenge to you: How would you fill this hole?

Post your suggestions on Twitter or Facebook, with the hashtag #FillCentrePit so I can find them. If you don’t use social media, send me an email at teblen@herald-leader.com. No phone calls, please.

I will write a follow-up column Saturday based on the best of your suggestions. I’m looking for humor and creativity more than practicality.

To kick off the conversation, here are some ideas I have seen and heard:

■ Many have suggested drilling a few feet sideways into the Town Branch Creek culvert and allowing CentrePit to fill with water. Then, Webb would have a version of the Lake Lexington water feature he proposed years ago. (Drill carefully; a major sewer line runs between the pit and Town Branch.)

■ A manipulated photograph making the rounds on social media shows CentrePointe restored to its fenced-meadow state with the People’s Bank building, which must be moved from South Broadway or it will be demolished, placed there.

■ Several people have suggested putting the Noah’s Ark replica proposed for a Northern Kentucky religious theme park, which has been controversial because of tax breaks it has received and requested, in CentrePit, either to float or be buried.

■ One friend suggested a public contest to guess how many dump truck loads of soil and rock it would take to fill the hole.

■ Another friend suggested filling CentrePit with water and renting paddle boats. A pay lake for fishing might be more appropriate. Every time I think about how Lexington got into this mess, the phrase “hook, line and sinker” comes to mind.

The best solution, of course, would be for Webb to get financing and get to work — or turn the block over to someone who can. Until then, we might as well laugh about CentrePointe. Otherwise, we’ll just want to cry.


Can North Lexington revival avoid the pitfalls of gentrification?

April 24, 2015

Rand Avenue. Rock Daniels   Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.comRecently renovated houses on Rand Avenue off North Limestone Street. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

My column last Monday about the quickening pace of renovations in the North Limestone corridor generated some heated discussions on social media about “gentrification.”

In case you aren’t familiar with the term, it was coined in the 1960s to describe the displacement of poor residents when people with more money move into a neighborhood, leading to higher property values, rents and taxes.

It is a politically charged word sometimes used to try to shame people interested in historic preservation, or who want to improve property in neighborhoods where they wish to live or invest.

As urban living has regained popularity in Lexington after decades of suburban sprawl, re-investment in old neighborhoods has led to worries about gentrification.

It is a legitimate issue, because business practices and trickle-down economic policies have created a widening gap between rich and poor. Many hard-working people struggle to make ends meet after years of stagnant wages.

But gentrification can be subjective and complicated, because it involves touchy issues of class, race and capitalism. There are no easy solutions.

Two thoughtful essays about gentrification in Lexington were written by Bianca Spriggs in Ace Weekly last June and Joe Anthony in North of Center in May 2012. Both are worth reading online.

Here’s my view:

Neighborhoods are not static. They are constantly changing for many reasons. Some of those changes are good and others are bad, depending on your perspective. I see a lot more good than bad happening in North Lexington these days.

Many of these neighborhoods were created a century or two ago for wealthy and middle-class homeowners. Suburban flight led to disinvestment, deterioration and crime. A lot of owner-occupied homes became low-income rentals owned by people who didn’t take care of their property.

There are many good houses and commercial buildings there worth preserving and reusing. There also is a lot of community fabric and culture worth respecting and nurturing.

The return of more owner-occupied housing in these neighborhoods is a good thing. It is a fact of life that homeowners have more political clout than renters. That often results in more investment, better policing and less crime in neighborhoods with a significant share of owner-occupied homes.

That doesn’t mean rental property is undesirable. In many neighborhoods, such as mine, renters contribute a lot to community life.

Thanks to investment by new residents, businesses, non-profit groups such as the North Limestone Community Development Corporation and some professional renovators, many of North Lexington neighborhoods are becoming safer and more economically diverse places to live.

That doesn’t mean I like every house-flipper’s craftsmanship or tactics. But some of them are doing good work.

It is inevitable that some renters will be displaced. But I think renovators and re-sellers have a moral obligation to treat people fairly and, when possible, help longtime residents stay in the neighborhood.

Lexington is still small enough that business people’s reputations precede them. Quality work and good ethics will pay off for those who practice it, especially if others in the community speak out about bad actors.

Some absentee landlords will be displaced, too, and that is a good thing. Poor people often pay high rents and utility costs for substandard housing — and then get kicked out if they complain to Code Enforcement.

There are better solutions to affordable housing than steadily deteriorating homes owned by absentee landlords. The Urban League, Community Ventures, Habitat for Humanity, AU Associates, churches and others have done a lot of good work on affordable housing over the past two decades.

This wave of private investment in North Lexington, and the city’s new affordable housing trust fund, provide a good opportunity to address some of these gentrification issues in new and creative ways.

For one thing, people who choose to live in urban neighborhoods rather than more homogenous suburbs are seeking cultural diversity. That’s because diverse neighborhoods are more interesting places to live.

How can the city, non-profit groups and developers work together to keep low-income people in these neighborhoods, while at the same time improving the quality of housing they can afford? How can neighborhood revitalization work for everyone?

Neighborhoods are like any natural environment: The more diverse they are, the more healthy they are and the more sustainable they will be over time.


New crop of ‘community supported art’ on sale this week

April 21, 2015

Central Kentucky’s farmers are just getting their plants in the ground, but a new crop of local art is ready for harvest.

For the fifth season, the Lexington Art League is selling 30 CSA “shares” of “community supported art” using a similar model to what local farmers have been doing for years with “community supported agriculture”.

csaThe 30 shares will be on sale through Thursday for $400 each. Each share includes an original piece by nine local artists: ceramics, paintings, leatherwork, screenprints and photography.

This year’s artists are Brian and Sara Turner of Cricket Press, Matthew D. Cook of Borderstate, Elizabeth Foley, Lennon Michalski, Joe Molinaro, Nadezda Nikolova, Brandon C. Smith and Melisa Beth.

The artists were chosen by the league’s curator, Becky Alley. Each artist is paid $600 for their work. Since the program began, the league says its CSA program has sold 1,890 pieces of locally produced art, providing $37,800 in income for local artists.

“CSA is a celebration of local talent and an investment in the artists whose creativity and unique abilities distinguish and enrich our community,” said Stephanie Harris, the league’s executive director.

Shares can be purchased online at Lexingtonartleague.org or by calling (859) 254-7024. Shares in future CSA “seasons” also are for sale.

The Lexington Art League, headquartered at Loudoun House in Castlewood Park, also sponsors the annual Woodland Art Fair each August.


Rand Avenue renovations add to North Limestone renaissance

April 19, 2015

150416RandAve0008Real estate entrepreneur Rock Daniels has been buying, renovating and reselling former rental houses in the first block of Rand Avenue. His contractors are basically rebuilding many of the century-old bungalows, which were structurally sound and have nice architectural detals, but had badly deteriorated after years as rental units.   Photo by Tom Eblen

 

First it was downtown mansions. Then East Lexington bungalows. Now, North Lexington cottages. The popularity of in-town living has brought another wave to Lexington’s home renovation market.

With most of the antebellum houses and Victorian mansions redone and selling for more than $500,000, a good business has developed in complete renovations of homes built a century ago for working-class families.

The wave that started in neighborhoods such as Hollywood, Kenwick and Mentelle has washed up North Limestone.

150408RandAve0022Rock Daniels, a real estate agent who twice ran unsuccessfully for the Urban County Council, is buying and virtually rebuilding early 1900s houses in the first block of Rand Avenue, just north of Duncan Park, as well as some houses on nearby streets.

Laurella Lederer was doing the same thing before him. Having redone much of Johnson Avenue, she is now working on the second block of Rand.

Broken Fork Design has redone several houses and multi-family units, including the Fifth and Lime Flats. It was a much-needed renovation of an apartment complex built after the 1963 demolition of Thorn Hill, a circa 1812 mansion where Vice President John C. Breckinridge was born.

Chad Needham, who redid the old Spalding’s Bakery at East Sixth and North Limestone and the building that now houses North Lime Coffee & Donuts across from it, has done several other houses and commercial buildings in the area.

Needham’s most recent project is especially impressive: an early 1800s house at the corner of North Limestone and West Fifth Street that became commercial space long ago and had fallen into terrible shape. Beautifully renovated, it now houses Fleet Street Hair Shoppe.

Rand Avenue, created in 1892, still has most of its original houses. A notable exception is No. 264, a vacant lot since about 2001. It was the childhood home of Elizabeth Hardwick (1916-2007), whose father was a plumbing contractor.

Hardwick left Lexington for New York in 1939 and became a famous fiction writer, essayist and critic, a founder of the New York Review of Books and wife of poet Robert Lowell. She was recently inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.

Since the 1980s, though, Rand Avenue has largely been rental property. Broken Fork did one of the first renovations there — the house where the Spalding family started frying their famous donuts in 1929.

Daniels, who lives in the Hollywood neighborhood, saw Rand Avenue as a promising area for young professionals who wanted to live near downtown, wanted a house and yard rather than a condo, but couldn’t afford larger renovated houses.

The first house he renovated sold in November for $182,500. He is now doing nine more on Rand, three of which are already under contract, two to medical school residents and one to a physical therapist, he said.

Daniels showed me through one of them, a circa 1910 frame cottage with about 1,200 square feet. It had been a rental house for years. He bought it for $36,000, is investing about $80,000 in renovation and hopes to sell it for about $165,000. His nearby renovated houses are priced around $145,000.

With each house, his contractors install a new roof, take the house down to the studs and make any needed structural improvements. They preserve what historic fabric they can. But except for restored heart-pine floors, most things will be new: windows, wiring, plumbing, heating and air, insulation, kitchens and siding on the non-brick houses.

Many houses have small interior coal chimneys that can’t be reused. They are removed for a more open floor plan, but the bricks are reused for walks.

“We try to save and repurpose as much as possible,” said Daniels, who grew up in a National Register historic house in Bristol, Tenn.

Daniels wants to buy all of the rental houses he can on the street, he said, but none that are owner-occupied. In fact, he said, he has offered to make improvements on those houses at cost.

He will soon be building a new porch for homeowner Janice Hamilton and her husband. She has lived there since 1981 and likes what is happening on her street.

“When I first moved here it was a lot of older people, most of them homeowners,” Hamilton said. “And then a lot of them died out and it became rental property. So it became a little this and that.

“Now I’m glad to see it coming back to the way it used to be,” she said. “A lot of people give Rand Avenue a bad rap. We had some bad tenants years ago. But it’s quiet, it’s close to town. Everybody looks out for each other. I’m looking forward to new homeowners.”

Daniels sees a lot more potential for restoring North Lexington neighborhoods.

“Of course, we’re looking for what the next Rand Avenue is going to be,” he said. “There are so many people who want to move downtown.”

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A Lexington landmark saved, but Georgetown treasure may be lost

April 14, 2015

150410OddFellows0064Ben Kaufmann, left, and Rob Rosenstein joked with each other April 10 while inspecting the 1869 Odd Fellows Temple at 115-119 W. Main St., for the first time.  “As long as you’re smiling, I’m OK,” Rosenstein told Kaufmann. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

For people who care about Kentucky’s history, culture and irreplaceable architecture, the past week was one of highs and lows, thanks to two good guys and one who should be ashamed.

First, the good guys:

“Let’s chase the ghosts away!” Ben Kaufmann said as we entered the front door of the Odd Fellows Temple at 115-119 West Main Street last Friday morning, setting off a burglar alarm.

Kaufmann, a real-estate investor and financial adviser, had bought the 1870 Italianate and Second Empire-style building 10 days earlier at a Master Commissioner’s sale and was getting his first look inside the $750,000 investment.

150127OddFellows0006The building housed Bellini’s restaurant until it closed Jan. 1. The building and restaurant owner, NGS Realty, was in bankruptcy last year and neglected the building. In late January, city Code Enforcement officers stepped in to board up missing and broken windows to protect the building and passing pedestrians.

Kaufmann and Rob Rosenstein, former owner of Liquor Barn, plan to renovate this landmark, designed by noted Lexington architect Cincinnatus Shryock, and then rent it, mostly as restaurant space.

Over the decades, the building housed offices, restaurants, bakeries, bars and stores, most notably Skuller’s Jewelry, which was there for more than 70 years. Skuller’s recently restored sidewalk clock has been a downtown icon since 1913.

The building’s hidden treasure is the third-floor ballroom, which hasn’t been used publicly for years because it lacked an elevator and modern stairway. But it may be the best-preserved part of the building, whose last major rehab was in 2000.

The white ballroom is stunning: 40 feet wide and nearly 60 feet deep, with a vaulted ceiling 25 feet high and original plasterwork. Tall, arched windows look out on Main Street, although the view is now dominated by the idle CentrePointe pit.

A quick inspection revealed few structural problems in the building and only a couple of small roof leaks behind the ballroom, where interior walls had been torn out for a renovation that was never completed.

The first floor, where Bellini’s operated, has beautiful mosaic tile floors, vintage tin ceilings and two long, handsome bars. The second floor also had been partially stripped out for renovation. It originally housed law firms and, in recent years, apartments.

“Watch out what you wish for, you might get it,” Kaufmann joked as he added up renovation costs in his head.

“As long as you’re smiling, I’m OK,” Rosenstein kept saying with a laugh.

These guys enjoy teasing each other, but they realize the Odd Fellows Temple is a diamond in the rough. When polished, it should be a hot property. Old downtown buildings have become the preferred location for upscale restaurants and bars.

Kaufmann and Rosenstein are good businessmen looking for a profit. But they also are doing Lexington a favor by saving one of its architectural gems, a place that holds generations of memories and should create many more in the future.

“This is an important building,” Kaufmann said. “I want to restore it to its original beauty.”

Lexington is lucky to have these guys. If only Georgetown were so lucky.

Sanders-Kocher copyScott County is about to lose its first brick house, a Georgian mansion that early Thoroughbred breeder Robert Sanders built on Cane Run Creek south of town in 1797. The house has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973.

The property’s condition has deteriorated since a company owned by Kenneth A. Jackson of Kentuckiana Farms acquired it in 2007. The Scott County PVA values the house at $121,120 and its 25.5 acres at $202,299, according to the Georgetown News-Graphic. United Bank of Georgetown holds a mortgage on the property.

Preservationists say Jackson has rebuffed their attempts to help him protect the house or find a buyer at a reasonable price. Jackson recently sold adjoining parcels for development. A salvage crew has been removing fine interior woodwork — the house’s most distinguished feature — with demolition scheduled to follow.

Efforts to save the house did not appear to be fruitful by late Tuesday afternoon, said Jason Sloan, director of preservation for the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.

All indications are that the house will be torn down Wednesday, Sloan said.

Some people would say this is Jackson’s property and he should be able to do with it as he pleases. But when someone buys a National Register house of this significance, I think he assumes a responsibility to Kentucky’s heritage, whether he likes it or not.

To neglect this house for years and then demolish it in the hope of pocketing a bigger profit may be legal, but it’s not right.

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


Studying great art can help improve everyday observation skills

April 13, 2015

150330ArtPerception0088Gray Edelen, left, an art history student from Bardstown, talked with medical students Taylor Gilbert of Lexington, center, and Amanda Pursell of Louisville about Robert Tharsing’s 2011 painting “A Natural History of Kentucky”, which hangs in the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

On a recent afternoon, small groups of University of Kentucky students huddled around paintings and sculptures on display at UK’s Chandler Medical Center.

As you might expect, some were art history majors. But they were there to help 17 medical students.

The medical students weren’t really there to learn about art, but to observe it — very closely — and then describe what they saw and what they thought it meant.

The goal was to improve the medical students’ observation and communications skills to make them better at diagnosing patients’ illnesses.

“It’s good to learn how to see the bigger picture by looking at the details,” said Taylor Gilbert, a medical student from Lexington.

The exercise grew out of a presentation by Amy Herman, a lawyer and art historian who travels around speaking about what she calls “the art of perception.” In early February, Herman spoke to a packed classroom at UK’s College of Medicine.

Herman began this work more than 15 years ago when she was education director at the Frick Collection, an art museum in New York City. She had heard how art historians at Yale and the University of Texas worked with medical students to improve their perception skills, so she set up a similar program at the Frick for the nearby Cornell University medical school.

Amy Herman. Photo provided

Amy Herman. Photo provided

When a friend heard what Herman was doing, she suggested that these skills could help other professionals, too. Homicide detectives, for example. Herman contacted the New York Police Department and, within six months, she was training every newly promoted captain.

A Wall Street Journal reporter wrote about the program in 2005 and, Herman said, “My world exploded.” She left the Frick to start her own consulting business. In addition to medical students and New York cops, she now trains agents for the FBI, CIA and even Navy SEALs.

As Herman began showing slides of paintings to the UK medical students and asking them to describe them, she forbid the use of two words: obviously and clearly.

“We work and live in a complex world, and very little obvious and even less is clear,” she said. “No two people see anything the same way, and we have to understand and enrich our appreciation for that fact.”

Herman showed what appeared to be an abstract painting, but was really a picture of a cow. Few saw the cow until she brought attention to it. She then drew lessons from landscapes, still life paintings and portraits of “handsome women of the 18th century” that held subtle clues about their lives.

“Perception goes both ways,” she said. “How do patients perceive you when you walk into the room? Do you put them at ease? Is it easy to ask questions? Your patients may have an entirely different perspective than you do.”

Herman said people often make mistakes by trying to “solve” problems too quickly, before they have taken time to assess a situation.

“Before you decide what to think and what to do, you need to say out loud what the issue is,” she said, adding that some of those things may seem too obvious or be embarrassing to mention but can be vital details.

Herman showed a painting of an elderly, obese and naked woman sitting on a sofa. When asked to talk about it, an audience member began by describing the sofa’s upholstery.

“You need to say what you see and not dance around it,” Herman said. “I always tell police officers you will never get in trouble for saying what you see. Saying what you think is an entirely different story.

“Raise the issue, even if you can’t explain it,” she added. “Raise any inconsistency, because with more information somebody else may be able to answer the question for you. Also think about what’s missing. What should be there but isn’t?”

Herman said she recommends that child abuse investigators ask a child to smile. Seeing whether a child’s teeth are clean says a lot about the care they are receiving.

“Small details can provide volumes of information,” she said. “Body language and facial expression tell us a whole lot.”

When describing observations, choose words carefully to be precise. And don’t make assumptions. The three most important questions to ask when problem-solving: What do I know? What don’t I know? What more do I need to know?

“There are often things hiding in plain sight that you are consciously or unconsciously not seeing,” said Herman, who gave an embarrassing personal example.

Several years ago, while running in New York, she noticed a man in a wheelchair walking a puppy. She loves puppies, so she asked him if she could pet it. After playing with the puppy for several minutes, they parted. Within minutes, she realized that the man had looked familiar. It was Chuck Close, a famous artist she admired but had never met.

“He’s one of my favorite artists in the world, but I was so focused on his puppy that I didn’t even notice the man was a captive audience right in front of me,” she said. “Don’t miss what’s right in front of you.”

150330ArtPerception0095Christina Romano left, an art education major from Louisville, talked with medical students Katie Donaldson, center, of Independence, and Amy Chen of Davis, Calif., about Warren Seelig’s stainless steel and fabric mesh sculpture, “Gingko”.