Kentucky development leaders showcase high-tech innovation

September 30, 2014

gamersJason Mize, left, a partner in the Lexington company Really Big Spiders, demonstrated its online game, “Tales from the Strange Universe,” to Jonathan Gay of the Kentucky Innovation Network. Lexington is now a hotbed for electronic game development. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Who knew Lexington was becoming a hotbed for electronic game development?

That’s exactly why Commerce Lexington and the state Cabinet for Economic Development brought seven freelance journalists here to visit with local game developers at Awesome Inc., the tech business incubator on Main Street.

At a reception Tuesday, they were to meet with other local business leaders, including Carey Smith, CEO of Big Ass Solutions, the giant fan company.

Earlier in the day, some of the journalists toured Northern Kentucky University’s College of Informatics, a new program that focuses on data science applications. Others went to Morehead State University to see the Space Science Center. Later this week, most will be covering the annual Idea Festival in Louisville.

“We just wanted to show them that from small business to big you can do it here in Lexington,” said Gina Greathouse, Commerce Lexington’s senior vice president for economic development.

Lexington has seven full-fledged companies developing electronic and online games and several programmers and artists who work on them part-time, said John Meister. He is a board member of RunJumpDev, a local organization that helps game developers network and promote their products.

Meister also is a partner in one of those companies, Super Soul. After working 10 years as a software engineer, he teamed up with artist Richie Hoagland to develop the Xbox game Compromised in 2012. Their company will soon release Speak Easy, a 1920s-themed fighting game for PlayStation 4.

Meister said game development has been growing in Lexington because many technology workers play games and become interested in making them. Lexington’s low cost of living helps, because it is much cheaper to develop games here than in many other cities with large high-tech communities.

While he wasn’t that interested in gaming, Terry Troy, a Cleveland-based journalist who writes for Scientific American magazine, said he came away from the tour with many story ideas. He was especially impressed by Morehead’s Space Science Center, which has become a national leader in developing small space satellites for research.

“Kentucky is a state of dichotomies; you have the Creation Museum and then over in Morehead is the cutting edge of satellite technology,” Troy said. “I knew there was a lot of innovation in the state, but you just don’t realize how much until you see it. I’m impressed.”


Uniquely Kentucky: Closing essay from Friday’s special section

September 30, 2014

abeEduardo Kobra’s mural of Abraham Lincoln in downtown Lexington, with the moon over his shoulder. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Kentucky has always been at a crossroads. Buffalo came looking for food and water. Native Americans came looking for buffalo. Pioneers and settlers came looking for land and opportunity.

Originally the Western frontier, Kentucky has been more or less at the center of the country geographically since the 1830s. Culturally, though, it remains a place unto itself. Many places, actually.

Early settlers came to the Bluegrass for fertile land and pure water to produce hemp, tobacco, strong-boned horses and good whiskey. Eastern Kentucky developed a rich, complex Appalachian culture as newer immigrants joined Anglo-Saxon settlers when railroads opened the mountains for timber and coal harvesting.

Communities along the Ohio River, long nourished by commerce, have created personalities all their own, as have those amid the farms of Southern Kentucky. Western Kentucky rolls out like a rumpled green carpet to the Jackson Purchase, encompassing many unique local cultures.

Ask someone in China what they know about Kentucky and they are likely to reply, “Kentucky Fried Chicken.” I went to church once with friends in a small Australian town and was introduced to the minister afterward. He immediately said, “Ah, the Kentucky Derby!”

The recent popularity of bourbon has given Kentucky another international claim to fame. Jimmy Russell, the master distiller at Wild Turkey, told me that when he travels to Asia, Europe and Australia he is treated like a rock star. As he should be.

Kentuckians know how to eat well. Nothing is better than Western Kentucky barbecue in the summer or spicy burgoo in the winter. Any morning that begins with country ham and biscuits is a good morning.

Louisville has the calorie-packed Hot Brown sandwich, otherwise known as “heart attack on a plate.” Want something lighter? Try benedictine, a cucumber spread long popular with Louisville ladies who lunch.

Immigration continues to enrich Kentucky’s culture and palate: Mexican, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and African. The newest menu item at the 134-year-old Fancy Farm Picnic in Graves County is barbecue nachos.

Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky, as was his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis. America’s greatest sports car, the Corvette, is made in Bowling Green. The stoplight was invented Garrett Morris, a black man from Paris.

Country music owes much of its sound to old-time Kentucky fiddlers and the hard-charging mandolin of Kentuckian Bill Monroe. And don’t forget Loretta Lynn, Jean Ritchie, Ricky Skaggs and Sam Bush.

Lexington’s Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning has started calling Kentucky the “literary capital of mid-America.”  Sure, it’s a big boast. But consider the evidence: Robert Penn Warren, James Still, Wendell Berry, Harriette Arnow, Bobbie Ann Mason, Barbara Kingsolver, Sue Grafton, Jesse Stuart, Silas House, William Wells Brown, Hunter S. Thompson, C.E. Morgan and too many more to mention. Outsiders may still joke that Kentuckians don’t wear shoes, but we sure can write.

That’s the good news. Now for some bad news: Kentucky lags most other states in many measures of health, education, social welfare and economic innovation.

Kentuckians tend to cling to what worked in the past rather than leveraging their unique assets, heritage, culture, location and know-how for a brighter future. We carelessly spoil beautiful landscape with strip mines and strip malls. We focus on fears instead of possibilities.

Remember what I said about Kentucky being at a crossroads?  It has never been more true than today.


Lessons for Appalachia in Wales’ recovery from coal’s collapse

September 29, 2014

SouthWalesThe Tower Colliery near the village of Hirwaun, in Glamorgan, South Wales, in 2009. Tower Colliery was the oldest continuously worked deep-coal mine in the United Kingdom, and possibly the world. Photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press. 

 

People in the remote hills and valleys were subsistence farmers before the mining industry came. For generations afterward, King Coal provided most of the decent jobs and dominated almost every aspect of life.

But mechanization gradually eliminated tens of thousands of mining jobs. When economic and political conditions suddenly changed, most of the coal industry shut down. Communities were left with high unemployment, a ravaged landscape and an uncertain future.

This is the story of Eastern Kentucky. It also is the story of South Wales.

These two regions separated by the Atlantic Ocean share many traits and experiences. Community leaders working to create a post-coal economy in Central Appalachia think there are lessons to be learned from Wales, which has been dealing with many of the same challenges for three decades.

Two longtime coal community leaders from Wales will be in Eastern Kentucky on Oct. 7 to speak about their experiences. The 7 p.m. program at Appalshop Theatre, 91 Madison Avenue in Whitesburg, is free and open to the public.

Hywel Francis and his wife, Mair, are no strangers to Kentucky. They have been coming here for years as part of a community exchange program started in the 1970s by Helen Matthews Lewis, a well-known Appalachian scholar and activist.

“The interest between these two areas has been there for a long time, but it has really picked up as we’ve seen the sudden decline of mining jobs here,” said Mimi Pickering of Appalshop. “We think this is an exciting opportunity for folks to talk with people from another place who have been though this.”

Francis is a member of the British Parliament, a college professor and labor historian. His wife is a founder of Dulais Opportunity for Voluntary Enterprise, known as the DOVE workshop, a women’s education and job-training organization.

South Wales was a few decades ahead of Central Appalachia, both in the development and collapse of its coal economy.

Beginning in the early 1800s, coal mines in South Wales fueled Britain’s industrial revolution and, in many ways, the British empire. At the industry’s peak just before World War I, more than 250,000 men labored in nearly 500 Welsh deep mines and open pits.

As in Appalachia, mechanization steadily reduced mine employment. After World War II, British mines were nationalized. In the mid-1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher closed unprofitable mines, sparking a bitter miners’ strike. The industry all but collapsed and 85,000 miners lost their jobs. Only a few hundred miners still dig coal in South Wales.

Tom Hansell, a filmmaker and professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., is finishing After Coal, a documentary comparing the experiences of coal communities in South Wales and Central Appalachia. He said it will be shown on Kentucky Educational Television next year or in 2016.

Hansell also helped organize a program in Elkhorn City two weeks ago about what Eastern Kentucky could learn from Wales’ tourism industry, which now employs 30,000 people.

A third forum will be at 6 p.m. on Oct. 28 at the Harlan campus of Southeastern Kentucky Community and Technical College. Richard Davies of College Merthyr Tydfil in Wales will lead a conversation about the role of youth and the arts in preserving vibrant coalfield communities.

While working on his film, Hansell said he made three trips to Wales. He noted that some of its circumstances are different than in Central Appalachia.

Because Welsh mines were owned by the government, laid-off miners got good severance payments to help them start businesses or train for new jobs. Britain also has a stronger social safety net than the United States, including a public health care system.

But Hansell said there is one smart thing Britain did that the United States could emulate: the government invested heavily in environmental reclamation, cleaning up the mess from generations of coal mining.

“There were jobs created with that, but more importantly it provided a foundation for future economic development,” he said.

Another good strategy: community funds have been created around major industrial investments, such as a wind turbine farm built by a Swedish company. The funds are similar in some ways to Kentucky’s coal severance tax, but transparently managed by local community boards rather than state and local politicians.

Wales has a focus on entrepreneurship and small-business development, which organizations such as Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. have done here. Everyone realizes that the future is lots of small employers rather than a few big ones, Hansell said.

“It would be misleading to say that Wales has solved all their economic problems,” he said, noting that unemployment remains high and many people in former mining communities commute to jobs in coastal cities. “But towns have found ways to survive and find creative ways to re-invent themselves.”


Concerns about militarized police ignore bigger, underlying issues

September 27, 2014

Should Andy Taylor and Barney Fife be equipped like Rambo?

That has been a much-debated topic since police in Ferguson, Mo., responded with paramilitary aggressiveness to protesters after one of their white officers shot and killed a black teenager.

The situation focused public attention on the U.S. Defense Department’s 1033 program, which has given away hundreds of millions of dollars worth of “surplus” military equipment to state and local police forces, whether they need it or not.

Kentucky’s House Local Government Committee held a hearing last week on this issue. The 1033 program has furnished 33,000 military weapons and supplies, valued at more than $44 million, to Kentucky police agencies over the past decade.

That includes the Lexington Police Department’s two helicopters, hundreds of automatic rifles for the Kentucky State Police and a $689,000 mine-resistant vehicle for the Owensboro Police Department. And you know who is paying to buy, operate and take care of all these goodies. You are.

This trend raises many issues, but I haven’t seen some of the biggest ones discussed.

Access to this kind of firepower only increases the chances for abuse of power and tragedy among badly managed police forces. But problems such as those in Ferguson have more to do with what is in officers’ hearts than what is in their hands. Bull Connor’s Birmingham cops needed only fire hoses to show their moral bankruptcy in the 1960s.

Besides, I understand why police officers want and sometimes need military-style weapons. Thanks to the NRA and other gun-rights radicals, any Tom, Dick or lunatic now has easy access to military-style weapons, and many think they have a constitutional right to flaunt them in public.

It is no wonder the FBI reported last week that the number of mass shootings has increased dramatically in recent years. Authorities studied 160 shootings that killed or wounded 1,000 people, many of which occurred in schools or businesses. In one-fourth of those cases, the shooter committed suicide before police arrived.

Do we really have more crazy people than in the past? Or is it simply that society’s gun lust has made it easier for them to inflict maximum carnage? Until the United States is mature enough to enact common-sense gun control measures, police will sometimes need serious firepower to keep themselves and the public safe.

But the issues go much deeper. When I read about the Defense Department doling out all of this “surplus” equipment, I wonder why they have it all to give away.

As Dwight Eisenhower was leaving the presidency in 1961, he gave a famous farewell speech that warned about the corrupting influence he saw in the rise of America’s “military industrial complex.”

Eisenhower, a Republican and the greatest general of World War II, was no wild-eyed pacifist. But he clearly saw what was happening.

“The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist,” Eisenhower warned. “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Eisenhower’s fears have been realized, and the 1033 program is just a small example.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies in 2012 estimated U.S. military spending at $645 billion, more than half the government’s discretionary spending. It was 40 percent of the world’s total military spending — more than six times China’s $102 billion and 10 times Russia’s $59 billion.

Stories of wasteful, unnecessary and even fraudulent military spending are legion. In an unholy alliance with corporate “defense” contractors, Congress continues to appropriate billions for high-tech planes, ships, weapons systems and equipment the military doesn’t need and may never use.

In another speech, in 1952, Eisenhower said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

So the next time your congressman tells you we can’t afford better health care, better schools and better infrastructure, you will know why. That $689,000 mine-resistant vehicle in Owensboro is only the tip of the iceberg.


UK seminar will focus on challenges of local food economy

September 22, 2014

Creating strong local food economies has become a trend, if not a fad, all over the country. But the prospects in Kentucky seem more promising than in many places.

Kentucky’s fertile soil, temperate climate, abundant water, central location and dispersed population have made the state an agriculture powerhouse for more than two centuries.

Since the collapse of the tobacco economy, more Kentuckians have been exploring ways to recreate and reinvent local food systems like those that prevailed before World War II.

But local food is not just an issue of local economics and self-sufficiency.

It is often more nutritious than food grown in huge quantities and shipped great distances. That’s a big issue as America struggles with an obesity epidemic, lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and soaring health care costs. And local food also just tastes better.

But there are big challenges, from processing facilities to distribution networks. The biggest challenge is this: how can locally grown food be both profitable for farmers and affordable for consumers, especially those with low incomes?

Those questions are at the heart of this year’s Lafayette Seminar in Public Issues, an annual program sponsored by the University of Kentucky’s Gaines Center for the Humanities. The seminar will explore these issues in three programs over the next three weeks, all of which are free and open to the public.

The seminar’s keynote speaker at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Lyric Theatre is Robert Egger, who has spent 25 years feeding and providing food-related job training to poor people in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. His talk is called, “Revealing the Power of Food.”

As a young nightclub manager, Egger volunteered at what he found to be a well-intentioned but inefficient soup kitchen for homeless people in Washington, D.C. The experience prompted him to start D.C. Central Kitchen in January 1989 by getting a refrigerated van, picking up food left over from President George H.W. Bush’s inauguration and delivering it to local shelters.

The non-profit organization uses food donated by hospitality businesses and farms to feed hungry people and train poor people for food-related jobs. During 24 years as president of D.C. Central Kitchen, Egger helped start more than 60 similar community kitchens around the country.

Egger recently moved to Los Angeles to start LA Kitchen, which recovers fresh fruit and vegetables for use in a culinary arts job training program for men and women coming out of foster care or prison. He is author of the 2004 book, Begging for Change: The Dollars and Sense of Making Nonprofits Responsive, Efficient and Rewarding For All.

The seminar’s second session, at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 1 at the Lyric Theatre, is a panel discussion called “Whose Farm to Whose Table?” It focuses on increasing access to local food in Central Kentucky’s underserved communities.

Panelists are community garden activist Jim Embry; Mac Stone, co-owner of Elmwood Stock Farm and a founder of the Kentucky Proud program; Karyn Moskowitz of New Roots Inc. and the Fresh Stop Project; and Ashton Potter Wright, Lexington government’s new local food coordinator. The panel will be moderated by Lexington food blogger and cookbook author Rona Roberts.

The final session, at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 9 at UK’s W.T. Young Library, is a panel discussion moderated by former UK Agriculture dean Scott Smith. It will explore challenges of getting local food into universities, schools, businesses and other large institutions.

Panelists are Sarah Fritschner, Louisville’s local food coordinator; John-Mark Hack, executive director of the Midway-based Local Food Association; UK agriculture professor Lee Meyer; and Tony Parnigoni, Aramark Corp.’s regional vice president.

The topic is especially timely given UK’s controversial move to outsource its dining services to Aramark, the giant food corporation that is putting up $70 million to build new campus dining facilities.

Amid pressure from local food advocates, Aramark agreed to contribute $5 million to a new local food institute at UK and to purchase millions of dollars worth of food from Kentucky farmers.

“There has been a lot of buzz about local food and enhancing access to local food and capitalizing on the agricultural economy of the Bluegrass,” said Phil Harling, a UK history professor who recently became director of the Gaines Center. “We’re trying to bring together a bunch of different strands.”

If you go

  • UK’s Lafayette Seminar this year focuses on local food. All sessions are free and open to the public.

    5:30 p.m. Sept. 24, Lyric Theatre, 300 E. Third St. Robert Egger, founder of LA Kitchen and DC Central Kitchen, speaks on “Revealing the Power of Food.”

    5:30 p.m. Oct. 1, Lyric Theatre. Panel discussion about expanding access to local food.

    5:30 p.m. Oct. 9, W.T. Young Library, 401 Hilltop Ave. Panel discussion about challenges of getting local food into large institutions.


State audit of Fayette schools shows need to restore public trust

September 20, 2014

Superintendent Tom Shelton and a majority of the Fayette County Public Schools board reacted to the state auditor’s report Wednesday by emphasizing that no money is missing and no criminal activity was found.

But if they think the auditor’s damning assessment of “chronic mismanagement” is any vindication of their performance, they should think again.

The auditor’s staff spent the summer combing through the school system’s books after budget director Julane Mullins sent board members an email in May alleging that a $20 million budget shortfall resulted from irregular accounting made worse by “numerous acts of mismanagement.” She also contacted the auditor.

“Auditors did not find any evidence of alleged criminal activity,” Auditor Adam Edelen’s office said. “However, they determined that poor financial management, weak policies and failed communications culminated in a weakened financial position for the district.”

The investigation found that errors and mismanagement left the board unaware of the district’s true financial situation, and that information was concealed from board members.

Auditors also cited a pattern of high pay, big raises and perks for top administrators with a lack of transparency at a time when school programs are being cut and teachers are scraping for needed classroom supplies.

The schools’ Department of Financial Services spent $115,212 on travel, training and reference books over a four-year period. And a trust fund left by a deceased teacher for “enhancement and enrichment of the educational program” was instead used for administrators’ travel and training.

The auditor also made note of the number of highly paid administrators. The district has 36 people making more than $100,000 a year — for a total of $4.35 million — including three new positions with salaries totaling $386,000.

Shelton’s first response to the audit was to push back. While acknowledging there were problems, he told parents in an email that “some of the state’s assertions are based on faulty calculations, factual errors, and false assumptions.”

But somebody must have reminded Shelton that the auditor’s office is one of the most respected in state government, and that this is hardly the first school system it has investigated. A second email to parents had a much different tone: “I recognize that winning back the trust of our constituents will require swift and bold action.”

Shelton’s first move was to hire two financial and management consultants — although he couldn’t say how much their services would cost.

Shelton is a certified public accountant; finance is supposed to be his strength. Last year, he created a new chief academic officer’s position and hired Jessamine County Superintendent Lu Young to fill it. That should have given him more time to focus on management.

Yet, most of the problems the auditor found related to finance and management.

The auditor blamed several problems on a “toxic” relationship between the finance and budget directors. Shelton said he became aware of the problem soon after becoming superintendent in 2011. So why, two years later, is it still a problem?

There is little in this audit to inspire confidence in Shelton’s leadership.

Parents, teachers and taxpayers (who just had their school tax assessment raised 2.3 percent) must be convinced that officials are more interested in educating Lexington’s children than in staffing central office with well-paid administrators.

Business leaders also need reassurance, because an excellent public school system is vital to Lexington’s economy. The auditor’s phrase “chronic mismanagement” is sure to resonate through the business community like fingernails on a chalkboard.

All of this comes at a critical time for Fayette County Public Schools, which has begun a major school redistricting process. Redistricting is a nightmare under the best of circumstances, guaranteed to make some people angry no matter how fairly the lines are drawn.

Efforts to restore credibility could be made more difficult by a divided five-member school board.

Chairman John Price and Vice Chairman Melissa Bacon voiced support for Shelton last week, as did board member Daryl Love. But board members Doug Barnett and Amanda Ferguson, whose persistent questioning of management was partially vindicated by the audit, expressed reservations about Shelton’s ability to continue as superintendent.

Shelton’s annual evaluation, which was postponed because of the audit, is now due. That should be interesting. His employment contract is up for renewal in June 2015.

But board members have as much work ahead of them as Shelton does. They must restore public trust in their ability to work together to provide effective oversight.

This audit is an embarrassment for Lexington as well as for the Fayette County Public Schools, and it should be a wakeup call. Our children deserve better.


Labor Day a reminder of how working people are falling behind

August 31, 2014

Each year on Labor Day, I think of Myles Horton and something he once told me.

Horton started Tennessee’s Highlander Center in 1932 and spent most of his 84 years crusading for racial, environmental and economic justice. Rosa Parks called him, “the first white man I ever trusted.” He was a mentor to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

During an interview in the 1980s, I asked Horton about his focus. “Working people,” he replied. “People who work for a living rather than own for a living.”

Labor Day celebrates Americans who work for a living, which is most of us. But each year there seems to be less to celebrate. Stock markets, corporate profits and executive compensation are hitting record highs. But at the other end of the spectrum, there aren’t enough good jobs for people who want to work.

There has been a lot of political talk about job creation, but a more important issue is the quality of jobs. More and more people are working hard at full-time or several part-time jobs and still can’t earn a decent living.

The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, a non-profit think tank in Berea, issued a report last week that offers a gloomy assessment of recent trends. The full report is at Kypolicy.org, but here are some key findings:

Kentucky is experiencing job growth, but still needs 80,800 jobs to get back to the pre-recession 2007 level and accommodate population growth since then. Nearly one in four Kentucky part-time workers say they would rather have full-time jobs.

A lack of jobs has led to a decrease in the labor force as many Kentuckians have given up looking for work. One third of Kentucky’s unemployed people have been that way for a long time.

Wages are depressed by high unemployment levels. The late 1990s, when the unemployment rate was below 4 percent, was the only time in the past 35 years when Kentucky workers’ real wages actually grew.

The inflation-adjusted median wage has fallen 8 percent since 2001, and low-wage workers’ pay has fallen by 7 percent. Much of that is because higher-paying jobs that produce goods — especially in manufacturing — have been replaced by service jobs. Many service jobs pay low wages, which have been further depressed by a $7.25 hourly minimum wage that hasn’t been raised since 2009.

What are some solutions? First, the center recommends long-needed reform in Kentucky’s 1950s-era tax code to reflect the modern economy. That would provide more revenue for the state to invest in education and infrastructure, both of which would create jobs and spur economic development.

Another good idea the center recommends is raising the minimum wage. The value of the minimum wage has been eroded by inflation to the point that it is too little for an individual, much less a family, to live on.

What is especially obscene is huge, profitable corporations that pay workers so little they are eligible for public assistance. That leaves taxpayers subsidizing the profits of companies such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s. Raising the minimum wage would save taxpayers money.

Opponents argue, as they always have, that increasing the minimum wage costs jobs and raises prices. But evidence shows those effects are minimal. A higher minimum wage, which also pushes up pay for workers just above it, puts more money in the pockets of people who will spend it, which boosts the economy.

Conservatives argue that Kentucky could spur economic growth by enacting anti-union laws and loosening environmental regulations. But that kind of growth does more harm than good. Pollution creates health problems and lowers the state’s quality of life. Anti-union laws boost business profits at the expense of workers.

Cynically named “right to work” laws make it harder for workers to organize for higher wages and better working conditions. States that enact those laws generally have lower average wages and more poor people than those that do not.

Similarly, repealing “prevailing wage” laws would make public construction projects cheaper, but only by taking money out of the pockets of the people doing the work.

It is no accident that the decline of the middle class since the 1970s has mirrored the decline of organized labor, which had a big role in creating the middle class in the first place. More and more of this nation’s wealth is rising to the top at the expense of everyone else.

Yes, we need to create more jobs. But we need to do it in ways that will improve the fortunes of people who work for a living and not just those who own for a living.

 


A century later, passenger pigeon’s extinction still offers lessons

August 26, 2014

passpigeons

Juvenile, male and female passenger pigeons, by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927)

 

One hundred years ago next week, a bird named Martha dropped dead in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo. She was the last known passenger pigeon, a breed that just a few decades earlier had been the most numerous bird in America.

It was the first big wakeup call about society’s potential to destroy the environment. Extinction was no longer just about Do-do birds or other rare species; it could happen to a creature once so plentiful that it was both a major food source and a pest of biblical proportions.

The Cincinnati Zoo is marking the anniversary with a series of events. (More information: Ohiobirds.org). The keynote speaker is Joel Greenberg, who recently published the acclaimed book A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (Boomsbury USA).

Greenberg, a naturalist, author and lawyer, also helped start Project Passenger Pigeon, a non-profit organization to raise awareness of current extinction threats and to promote environmental sustainability.

Unlike today’s rock pigeon, which was brought over from Europe, passenger pigeons were native to North America. They ranged from Canada to Mexico, and the immensity of flocks once seen in Kentucky is hard to imagine. Alexander Wilson, America’s first ornithologist, wrote of an 1805 nesting area near Shelbyville that covered almost every tree for 40 square miles.

Passenger pigeons were so notable in early Kentucky that Project Passenger Pigeon reports 44 places in the state named for them, from Pigeon Roost Creek in Boyd County to Pigeon Hollow in Edmonson County.

John James Audubon, the famous naturalist and bird painter, wrote about flocks he observed in 1813 while traveling from Henderson to Louisville. During his journey’s last 55 miles, “The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow. The pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers and continued to do so for three days in succession.”

Throughout the 19th century, many people reported similar events: sky-darkening flocks in the billions. When passenger pigeons chose to land, they could strip a field of crops or a grove of nut-bearing trees in no time.

But the docile birds had two great qualities: they were delicious and easy to kill. Long an important food source for Native Americans, a flock is said to have saved most of New Hampshire from starvation after a crop failure in 1781.

“The banks of the Ohio were crowded with men and boys incessantly shooting at the pilgrims, which there flew lower as they passed the river,” Audubon wrote of his 1813 sighting in Louisville. “For a week or more, the population fed on no other flesh than that of pigeons and talked of nothing but pigeons.”

So how did the pigeon population go from billions to zero in less than 50 years? Many questions remain, but scientists think one factor was widespread logging that destroyed forest habitat the huge flocks needed to reproduce.

But the biggest factor was excessive hunting. Once railroads and telegraph lines spread across the country, flocks could easily be tracked by commercial hunting crews and decimated.

kemper

Joseph H. Kemper

About this time, sportsmen hunters began adopting the conservation ethic that has made huge contributions to wildlife and habitat preservation. But it came too late for the passenger pigeon. After the 1870s, populations plummeted.

The Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, pastor of New Union Christian Church in Woodford County and retired executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, said family lore held that her grandfather, Joseph H. Kemper, a champion marksman, killed one of the last passenger pigeons near Mt. Sterling.

“It was an accident,” Kemper said. “He was hunting doves. Daddy always said (his father) was sad about it.”

The journal of the Wilson Ornithological Society in 1925 quoted a Lexington Herald report saying Kemper accidently killed passenger pigeons twice, in 1892 and 1893, while dove hunting on Slate Creek in Montgomery County. Others reported similar isolated shootings around the country as late as 1902.

The last captive passenger pigeons were at the Cincinnati Zoo. By 1910, only Martha remained. Upon her death, she was frozen in a 300-pound block of ice and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution, where she was skinned, stuffed and put on display.

This centennial of the passenger pigeon’s extinction is a good time to reflect on how little humans really know about nature. And to think about how society’s actions have consequences we often can’t begin to understand until it is too late.


Ale-8-One president sees a lot of opportunity to grow the brand

August 24, 2014

140818Ale8One-McGeeney-TE0024Ellen McGeeney, president of Ale-8-One Bottling Co., in Winchester. Photos by Tom Eblen  

 

WINCHESTER — As an 8th generation Kentuckian, Ellen McGeeney knew she was taking on something special when she became president of Ale-8-One Bottling Co. But the Louisville native, whose family is from Henderson and Owensboro, didn’t realize just how special.

Her first week on the job, a 20-something Lexington store clerk tearfully told her about his grandmother’s recent death from dementia, and how, in her last months, the only thing that made her smile was Ale-8-One. Then he hugged McGeeney.

And there was the businessman McGeeney met at a networking event a few weeks later. When she introduced herself, he dropped to one knee and kissed her ring.

“There’s a fervency about the brand in Central Kentucky,” she said of Ale-8-One, the ginger-and-citrus soft drink that has been made in Winchester since 1926. “So many people speak about it as if it’s theirs.”

140821Ale8One-TE0083The Rogers family took a big step a year ago when it hired an outsider for the No. 2 spot in the company now run by Fielding Rogers, 33, the great-great nephew of Ale-8-One inventor G.L. Wainscott.

McGeeney, 52, brought a lot to the company besides Kentucky heritage. A Brown University graduate with an MBA from Yale, she was a business consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton and other firms in New York and Boston, specializing in logistics, branding, marketing and online strategies.

Between the births of their second and third children, she and husband Christian Thalacker moved back to Louisville to be closer to her family. She helped start Grasshoppers Distribution LLC, which sold fresh food from local farmers to customers around Louisville, and did strategy work for Rooibee Red Tea.

It was through the Louisville-based beverage company that she met Rogers, who was looking for someone to help him take Ale-8-One to the next level. McGeeney said the job is a perfect fit because it draws on all her skills.

“Literally, this is my dream job,” she said. “I was ready to have a real career again, and I really wanted it to be in Kentucky.”

McGeeney said another big attraction was the Rogers family’s business values. While the family wants growth, she said, it must be steady growth, without peaks and valleys, because Rogers doesn’t ever want to have to lay off any of his 100 employees. “He’s extremely cognizant of the importance of good jobs in this community,” she said.

140821Ale8One-TE0049Wainscott started in the flavored drink business in 1902. He launched RoxaKola in 1906, naming it after his wife. But when Coca-Cola started suing small cola competitors, he realized he needed a special flavor all his own.

Wainscott went to Europe after World War I and bought ginger beer recipes to experiment with. He launched his new drink at the Clark County Fair in 1926 without a name. After a customer remarked that it was “a late one” in the already crowded carbonated drink market, the name Ale-8-One stuck.

Ale-8-One has more caffeine and less carbonation than many soft drinks. Only four people know the secret recipe: Rogers, his brother, sister and father. Rogers now mixes the concentrate himself using his great-great uncle’s handwritten notes.

Ale-8-One distribution is focused on Central Kentucky, where its own delivery fleet covers 27 counties. It is one of the few bottlers in America that still uses some returnable bottles, a popular tradition the company plans to continue.

“I like to say we’re on the bleeding edge of obsolete technology,” McGeeney said. “And we’re very proud of it. We have invested a lot in making sure that that process is extremely safe and high quality.”

Through contracts with other distributors, nonreturnable bottles and cans also go to most of the eastern three-fourths of Kentucky and parts of Ohio and Indiana. McGeeney hopes to gradually expand distribution, at least to all of Kentucky’s 120 counties.

In addition to the original formula, Ale-8-One comes in caffeine-free and diet versions. While the original formula will “never, ever, ever” change, McGeeney said, she sees opportunities for additional beverages. She wouldn’t disclose specifics, but said she would love to do a seasonal beverage made with Kentucky ingredients.

“If you’re at a big company, you can throw a lot of stuff at the wall and see what sticks,” she said. “We can’t do that. We’re David in an industry of Goliaths. We have to do it differently.”

McGeeney said revenue growth has been up in her first year, to about 5 percent. Her goal is annual growth of 5 percent to 10 percent to keep the company financially resilient as the economy rises and falls. Ale-8-One doesn’t disclose revenues or profits, but McGeeney said the balance sheet is strong and future expansion will be self-financed.

“One of the real luxuries of being a private company, from my perspective, is the long-term view,” she said.

This spring, Ale-8-One did its first promotional packaging with a horse-racing theme. Football tailgate packaging will hit store shelves this week. Basketball packaging will follow that.

McGeeney hired a consultant to help refine Ale-8-One’s brand strategy. It revolves around the ideas of Kentucky pride, family ownership and independence. The working slogan: “The best of the Blue Grass in green glass.”

“I think there’s a proud story there,” McGeeney said. “We should be as much of a jewel of Kentucky as bourbon is. My fantasy is to get everybody in Kentucky to feel that way.”

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‘Room with a view’ exhibit features Lexington scenes from 1990s

August 23, 2014

140821Tharsing0004The view out the bay window of painter Robert Tharsing’s second-floor studio on High Street in the early 1990s. Below, the old Fayette County Courthouse.  Photos courtesy of the artist and Ann Tower Gallery

 

Before he retired as an art professor at the University of Kentucky, Robert Tharsing did his personal painting in downtown studios, first in the upstairs room of an old house on High Street and then above Cheapside Bar & Grill.

When he was between paintings — or stuck trying to figure out where to go with an abstract canvas — he did what many people do when they need a break: he stared out the window. In Tharsing’s case, he also painted what he saw. The result was about 20 views of the Lexington skyline and scenes of downtown life in the 1990s.

In anticipation of retirement, Tharsing built a home studio in 2001. When he moved, he left most of these paintings stacked in the Cheapside space, which wife Ann Tower uses as storage for her gallery on Main Street. Tharsing never showed them in public — until now.

Robert Tharsing: Room With A View, an exhibit of 14 pictures painted over the course of a dozen years, went up last week in the East Gallery at UK Chandler Hospital. The free exhibit will be up for six months.

140821Tharsing0003“I had seen a few hanging in his studio a long time ago and thought they were interesting,” said Phillip March Jones, who curates the hospital’s art exhibits. “I also thought it was interesting they had never been shown as a body of work.”

Jones said viewers from Lexington will easily recognize these scenes, as well as what has changed, and appreciate the bird’s-eye view Tharsing had from his studio windows.

The vividly colorful scenes are awash in light, but often devoid of people. Most of the time Tharsing spent in these studios was at night and on weekends, before downtown became a popular destination for restaurants, bars and festivals.

“Wherever I’ve been, I’ve always painted the scene as well as other interests I have,” said Tharsing, 70, who has lived in Italy and spends summers in Nova Scotia.

Tharsing said these small pictures were often a release, a distraction when he was working on large, abstract paintings. “It was a way to paint something that’s very tangible that I knew what it was,” he said. “With an abstract painting, I often don’t know what it is. In that sense, it’s like being a novelist; you have to let the characters develop and see what they’re going to tell you about themselves. The painting has to do that, too. It has to tell you what it is, what it’s all about.”

The High Street studio had a big bay window that looked down on Vine Street and a cluster of 1980s office towers. Tharsing said he liked how light played off the buildings, streets and parking lots in different seasons.

“That part of Lexington is all about very simple geometry,” he said. “There’s hardly anything that distinguishes itself as being real architecture. So what you’re left with is these volumes and planes and reflections. More than half the buildings down there have got these mirrored windows, so it’s not only the building I’m looking at but I’m looking at myself through the glass across the street. That interested me.”

Cheapside had more people on the street, and a building that did interest Tharsing: the old Fayette County Courthouse, which was then still in use. The massive circa 1900 building or pieces of it appear in six of 14 paintings in the exhibit.

“I really liked it because there was a lot of coming and going,” he said. “It was very much small-town life.”

Tharsing said “the icing on the cake” came one day when he looked down and saw perennial candidate Gatewood Galbraith in his trademark hat. He was accompanied by a single sign-carrying supporter and was being interviewed by a TV news crew.

To accompany the exhibit, Jones is producing old-fashioned perforated postcard books with 10 of the pictures, for sale ($10) at Ann Tower Gallery, The Morris Book Shop and Institute 193, his nonprofit gallery.

These paintings are reminiscent of the plain, colorful style of Edward Hopper (1882-1967), who was one of Tharsing’s inspirations. Another inspiration was the Venetian landscape painter Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1697-1768).

But Tharsing said he resisted Canaletto’s occasional tendency to improve the skyline, tempting though it was in Lexington’s case. “He rearranged the city to suit himself,” he said. “It is like urban renewal; it’s an interesting idea.”


When it comes to broadband, why is Kentucky stuck in slow lane?

August 17, 2014

broadband

 

When Dr. Pamela Graber traveled in Uzbekistan and Turkey, she was surprised to find fast, reliable Internet connections. She just wishes she could get that kind of service at her home, 20 miles from Kentucky’s State Capitol building.

“I sit here and wait for things to come up” on the screen, said Graber, an emergency physician who lives in the Beaver Lake area of Anderson County.

She and neighbors have petitioned a major Internet provider in their area for service, with no luck. So they use a satellite dish service. With data charges, Graber’s monthly bill is more than $100 — much higher than she pays for excellent service in Florida, where she lives and works each winter.

While slow Internet is annoying for Graber and her husband, Melvin Wilson, it’s a serious problem for two neighbors who have home-based online jobs. “When there’s a wind storm, they can’t work,” she said.

“Internet’s the main infrastructure we’re going to need to work in the future,” Graber said. “It’s going to be a huge issue.”

It already is. Akamai Technologies’ quarterly State of the Internet report last week highlighted Kentucky — and not in a good way. It said that while Alaska has the nation’s worst average Internet connection speed, at 7.0 megabits per second, Kentucky, Montana and Arkansas are almost as bad, at 7.3 Mbps.

By comparison, 26 states have average connection speeds of 10 Mbps or above, which is now considered a minimum by tech-savvy homeowners. The fastest average speeds are above 13 Mbps in Virginia, Delaware and Massachusetts.

Kentucky also was near the bottom of the list when it came to improvement of average speeds over the past year. And when Akamai measured states’ “readiness” for ultra-high definition (4k) video streaming, Kentucky was dead last.

“Embarrassing, actually,” is how Brian Kiser described the report. He is executive director of the Commonwealth Office of Broadband Outreach and Development, and I called to ask him why Kentucky is so far behind.

“Our broadband speeds are left up to the providers, and I’m not sure the providers are investing enough in infrastructure,” said Kiser, who takes between three and 10 calls a day from citizens wanting help with Internet service.

Other studies rank Kentucky 46th nationally in broadband availability, with 23 percent of state residents having no access at all.

Part of the issue is a chicken-and-egg problem. Virtually all of Kentucky’s Internet providers are private companies, which are reluctant to invest in infrastructure if they can’t see a potential return on their investment. Providers usually want at least a dozen customers per mile in rural areas. “The problem is that 10 minutes outside our biggest cities it’s rural,” Kiser said.

Kentucky has one of the nation’s lowest demand rates for home Internet, at about 60 percent. “Surveys show people say either it’s too expensive or they don’t see a need for it,” he said.

(It’s worth noting that Kentucky has a high adoption rate for smart phones. Kiser said that’s because smart phones can be a more economical way for poor people to meet many needs — phone, Internet, camera, entertainment — especially in rural areas under-served by broadband.)

Kiser said his office has partnered with Community Action Kentucky to build 30 public Internet facilities in rural parts of the state to encourage technology literacy and use. The centers have proven quite popular for things such as résumé writing and social media use. “We just want people to not be intimidated by it,” he said.

Internet costs in Kentucky are comparable to neighboring states. But Internet all over the United States is much more expensive than in many other countries. “The real problem, I think, is we don’t have enough competition,” Kiser said.

Connected Nation, a national broadband advocacy group, says that improving Internet service requires a two-prong strategy: pushing Internet providers to offer better service and making the public more technologically literate and savvy, so they will create the business demand for that better service.

Tom Ferree, the president of Connected Nation, said the states with the best Internet infrastructure are those that have had strong leadership on the issue at both state and local levels, plus a lot of grassroots advocacy.

Many states got a jump on Kentucky because they were well-positioned with “shovel ready” broadband expansion plans in 2009 when Congress and the Obama administration put about $7 billion in economic “stimulus” money into data network development.

But there may be more funding opportunities ahead, Ferree said. The Federal Communications Commission is changing policy to shift subsidies away from traditional telephone service to digital data networks. That could be a big opportunity for states that develop good broadband plans.

As an outgrowth of the bipartisan Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative, Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers have proposed a $100 million public-private effort to begin building a 3,000-mile, high-speed fiber optic network across Kentucky to connect with local Internet providers.

“I cannot emphasize enough the need for local planning and plan building,” Ferree said. “I think that plan holds great promise. I hope Kentucky makes the most of it.”


Lexington’s under-appreciated Modernist buildings worth a look

August 16, 2014

140814MidCenMod0002People’s Bank on South Broadway has been vacant for many years and is flanked on either side by an apartment building and a parking garage. Architect Sarah Tate says it is an excellent example of good Modernist architecture that has been altered little over the years. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

Controversy over the demolition of several Mid-Century Modern buildings on the University of Kentucky campus this summer marked a change in Lexington’s conversation about historic preservation.

It made it clear that a building doesn’t have to be more than a century old to be architecturally or historically significant enough to be worth saving.

Architect Sarah Tate was most upset by UK’s destruction of the 1941 Wenner-Gren Laboratory, where early NASA space research was conducted. Its front façade featured elegantly curved walls of brick and glass block.

Tate has spent three decades documenting Modernist commercial structures in Lexington built during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.

“There is no doubt that the Modern movement is as extraordinary as any movement in architecture in the history of mankind,” said Tate, who became a registered architect in 1975 and retired five years ago from her firm, Tate Hill Jacobs Architects.

140814MidCenMod0003Modernism was the first architectural movement in centuries that didn’t draw its inspiration from the past. It was the result of wholly original thinking about how buildings should look and how people use them, with an emphasis on clean lines rather than classical forms from antiquity.

“These buildings show how we got where we are now from building Greek temples and office buildings that looked like Greek temples,” Tate said. “They tell a whole lot about the 20th century — how construction methodology changed as materials changed. The Space Age thrust imprinted America’s psyche, and these ’50s and ’60s buildings are the ones that really show that.”

In Lexington, at least, these buildings also reflect the rise of automobile culture and suburban growth — when a horse and university town rapidly expanded with the arrival of new industries and people from elsewhere.

Tate admits that some of these buildings are not great pieces of architecture. “Some of them are awkward,” she said. “Some of them are really bad.”

But others are very well done, said Tate, who hopes to educate people about the Modernist architecture that remains in Lexington in the hope that it can be sensitively reused rather than replaced.

Tate’s favorite Modernist commercial structure in Lexington is People’s Bank on South Broadway, which is almost hidden between an apartment tower and a parking structure beside the Rupp Arena parking lot. It was designed by Lexington architect Charles Bayless and finished in 1961.

Most recognizable for its blue tile walls and zig-zag roof, People’s Bank has been empty for years. But because it didn’t have another occupant after the bank, the building was never altered much.

“It’s just beautifully composed,” Tate said. “It was ahead of its time from the structural engineering aspect. And the detailing is like a jewel.”

Other Tate favorites include the Catalina Motel on New Circle Road, with its huge 1960s neon sign and Roto-Sphere evoking the Space Age; Chapman Printing Co. on Russell Cave Road, which has a curved wall of narrow brick laid “jack on jack” style without overlapping; and a former dairy processing plant on East Second Street.

Another remarkable example is Collins Bowling Center on Southland Drive, whose owners have preserved not only the building’s style but its iconic sign: a giant bowling ball suspended atop three pointed spikes. Tate also loves the clean lines of the bus stop and sign for Gardenside Plaza shopping center on Alexandria Drive.

Other Modernist landmarks in Lexington include the Paul Miller Ford showroom on New Circle Road, whose glass walls rise from the car lot in a dramatic “V” shape; and Lexington architect Ken Miller’s Southern Hills United Methodist Church on Harrodsburg Road, whose copper-roofed sanctuary looks like a space ship.

Tate said many people don’t like Modernist architecture, perhaps because they grew up with it and consider it commonplace — even though it is becoming increasingly rare because of demolition and remodeling.

“But when they understand what it is and how it got that way, they do like it and they can value it,” she said. “It’s hard for people to think of modern buildings as historic. But these tell a story about who we are and how we got where we are.”

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Before vacation season ends, experience wonders close to home

August 12, 2014

140731Maker'sMark0168This art glass installation in the ceiling of a barrel warehouse is the newest visitor attraction at the Maker’s Mark distillery in Marion County. Below, Ward Hall in Georgetown is a Greek Revival masterpiece. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

There’s a chill in the air this week. Schools are back in session. Fall is beginning to arrive.

But if you want to stretch vacation season a little longer, here’s an idea: Find time to visit some Central Kentucky wonders. You know, the places tourists come from around the world to see but locals often forget about.

Here are a few suggestions. For more details on many of them, go to Visitlex.com, the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website.

Horses. This may be the horse capital of the world, but when did you last see one? Spend a day at the Kentucky Horse Park (Kyhorsepark.com) or visit a Thoroughbred farm. Several farms welcome visitors who schedule in advance. Or you can do like out-of-towners do and book a horse farm bus tour.

Keeneland Race Course is the best place to see Thoroughbreds in action. The park-like grounds are open year-around. The yearling sales are Sept. 8-21. The fall racing meet is Oct. 3-25. More information: Keeneland.com.

Bourbon. More than 90 percent of this globally popular whiskey is made within a short drive of Lexington. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is becoming a major tourist draw. My favorite distilleries to visit include Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Wild Turkey and Four Roses near Lawrenceburg, Maker’s Mark near Lebanon and Woodford Reserve near Versailles. More information: Kybourbontrail.com.

Country roads. Some of my favorite places to enjoy Central Kentucky’s beauty are the country roads that connect the region like a vast spider’s web. These are perfect for scenic drives. I like to go by bicycle, but it takes experience to know which roads are safe and comfortable for cycling. The Bluegrass Cycling Club has well-managed group rides each week. Check the calendar: Bgcycling.net.

Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.comArchitecture and history. This was a rich agricultural region before the Civil War, and remnants of that era can be seen in Central Kentucky’s grand mansions. Architectural styles include Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate and Gothic Revival.

Many historic homes are still private residences, but some of the best are open for tours. Among them: Ward Hall in Georgetown, White Hall in Madison County and these in Lexington: Waveland, the Hunt-Morgan House, the Mary Todd Lincoln House and Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. Other must-sees: Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Mercer County and the Old Capitol in Frankfort.

Nature. Perhaps the least-known attractions in Central Kentucky are natural areas, but they can be spectacularly beautiful. I especially love the Palisades region of the Kentucky River, which stretches from Boonesboro to Frankfort.

Lexington’s Raven Run park is the most-visited natural area in the Palisades region. Others include Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve (lowerhowardscreek.org), Floracliff Nature Sanctuary (Floracliff.org) and Buckley Wildlife Sanctuary, all of which have more-limited public access.

Julian Campbell, a botanist and authority on native Kentucky plants, has begun leading monthly hikes to promote awareness and conservation of natural areas. More information: Bluegrasswoodland.com or email campmeet@gmail.com.

But you don’t have to go hiking in the woods to see Central Kentucky’s oldest and most magnificent natural specimens.

A unique feature of the Bluegrass landscape is huge burr and chinkapin oak, blue ash and kingnut hickory trees, some of which are thought to be 300-500 years old. Tom Kimmerer, a forest scientist, has launched a non-profit organization to study how to better care for these “venerable” trees, as he calls them. More information: Venerabletrees.org.

Because Lexington has literally grown up around these old trees, they can be found in some strange places.

Recent brush-trimming has highlighted a magnificent burr oak that Kimmerer is conserving for Ball Homes beside a new subdivision at Harrodsburg Road and Military Pike. In the 1990s, a parking structure for medical offices was built around another huge oak tree, near the corner of Harrodsburg and Mason Headley roads.

Other notable examples can be found in front of an Avis car rental office on South Broadway; on the lawns of Sullivan University and the mansion at Griffin Gate; and scattered among new buildings along Sir Barton Way in Hamburg.

Here’s an idea: as you drive around on your weekly errands, start an ancient tree scavenger hunt! Anything to make the lazy days of summer last a little longer.

140807Gainesway0018This burr oak tree on Gainesway Farm is likely several hundred years old. 


Eastern Kentucky jobs outlook: health care and more broadband

August 11, 2014

crouch1Ron Crouch is the director of research and statistics for the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet in Frankfort. He says a growing health care industry in Eastern Kentucky should help offset jobs lost to coal’s decline. Photo by Mark Mahan

 

There is more talk than usual about the need to create jobs and a more diverse economy in Eastern Kentucky because of the coal industry’s decline.

It made me wonder: what are the latest trends? For some answers, I called Ron Crouch, director of research and statistics for the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet. He previously headed the Kentucky State Data Center for two decades and is better than anyone I know at analyzing this sort of information.

People are alarmed because coal-industry employment in Eastern Kentucky has dropped to about 7,300 — half what it was five years ago. Coal-mining jobs have been important to the region because they pay well: about $65,000 a year.

President Barack Obama’s critics have blamed stricter environmental regulations for the sudden drop in coal employment. But the biggest factors have been cheap natural gas and the fact that Eastern Kentucky’s best coal seams have been depleted over the past century; the coal that is left is more costly (and environmentally damaging) to mine.

But Crouch notes that coal employment in Eastern Kentucky has been declining steadily for more than six decades — even accounting for periodic booms and busts — mainly because of mechanization. Coal production peaked in 1990, but coal employment peaked in 1950, when there were 67,000 miners.

Some Eastern Kentucky leaders have pursued manufacturing as a source of new jobs. But Crouch says the long-term prospects for manufacturing aren’t too good, either, also because of automation.

“Manufacturing is coming back to the United States, but not necessarily manufacturing jobs,” he said. “We’re producing far more goods, but with far fewer workers.”

Still, Crouch sees hopeful signs for Eastern Kentucky.

While the region still lags the state in college degrees, high school graduation rates have improved significantly, as have the number of people completing other levels of training between high school and a bachelor’s degree. Many new, good-paying jobs are for people with that level of education.

Those areas include health care as well as professional, scientific and technical services. Some of these jobs pay well. For example, the number of registered nursing jobs, which pay about $55,000, is growing significantly.

Eastern Kentucky’s health care industry should see big growth in coming years. One reason is demographics. Baby Boomers are now entering their 60s and 70s and will require more health services. Another reason is the Affordable Care Act.

“You’re going to see a huge increase in the number of people in East Kentucky who have health insurance,” Crouch said.

Because Eastern Kentucky families are smaller than in the past, there will be less pressure for young people to leave.

“You now have a population with more people in their 40s, 50s and 60s than in their teens and 20s,” Crouch said. “If those young people can get the education and training they need after high school, there will be jobs for them in East Kentucky.”

But many of the growing economic sectors in the region, such as health care, have traditionally been dominated by women, while shrinking sectors, such as mining and manufacturing, have been mostly male. In some Eastern Kentucky counties, women now have higher employment rates than men.

“The good news is the economy has been transitioning to a broader economy,” Crouch said. “But how do you transition a population of males who have been involved in mining and manufacturing to jobs in professional, technical services and food services and health care, which have largely been female?”

Crouch said improving broadband service in Eastern Kentucky, which has the state’s poorest connections to the Internet, is vital.

“That would accelerate the growth in higher-skilled jobs,” he said.

Crouch is troubled that many Eastern Kentucky counties have high percentages of working-age people not in the formal labor force. He thinks many are “getting by” in the cash and barter economy, some of which is illegal.

He also is concerned that much of the job growth has been in low-wage service industries. Because the legal minimum wage hasn’t kept pace with inflation, full-time work in many low-wage jobs doesn’t produce a living wage for a family.

“The good news is that East Kentucky is not having a brain drain, despite what people think; it’s having a brain gain,” he said. “But, as the saying goes, we’re halfway home and have a long way to go.”


The real issues in this Senate campaign? Speeches offer a clue

August 9, 2014

140806Clinton-TE0255Former President Bill Clinton appeared at a fundraising luncheon in Lexington on Aug. 6 for Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

I spent time in the past week listening to a lot of speeches by the two U.S. Senate candidates and their surrogates.

We don’t hear as many political speeches as we used to. Campaigns have mostly become a series of TV attack ads in which candidates trash their opponents and stretch the truth as much as they can in 30 seconds.

Political speeches are longer than attack ads, increasing the odds that a candidate might mention accomplishments or goals or reveal the values behind his or her campaign.

When Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, faced off Aug. 2 at the Fancy Farm Picnic, they mostly mocked each other and professed more love for the coal industry than for clean air, clean water and good health.

McConnell used the rest of his time to slam Gov. Steve Beshear, Attorney General Jack Conway, the “liberal” media and President Barack Obama, perhaps the only politician with a lower approval rating in Kentucky than his own.

McConnell vowed to repeal Obama’s health-care law, which has provided insurance to tens of thousands of Kentuckians who didn’t have it. He also urged voters to re-elect him to lead Senate Republicans so the gridlock in Washington can continue.

What McConnell did not mention was any accomplishments during his three decades as Kentucky’s longest-serving senator. He also didn’t say what he would do to improve the lives of average Kentuckians.

At least Grimes used some of her time to talk about how she would try to grow a middle class that has been shrinking for three decades because of globalization and “trickle down” economic policies that favor the wealthy.

Grimes called for raising the minimum wage and legislating equitable pay for women, both of which McConnell opposes. She also voiced support for strengthening Social Security and Medicare, making college more affordable and protecting the right of workers to bargain collectively for better pay and benefits.

With polls showing the race essentially tied, Grimes brought in former President Bill Clinton to campaign for her Wednesday in Lexington and Hazard. Clinton carried Kentucky in both of his presidential elections, and his administrations presided over an era of balanced budgets, job growth, welfare reform and economic prosperity.

Clinton is a gifted speaker with a knack for putting things in perspective.

“Creating jobs and raising incomes and giving poor people a chance to work into the middle class, that is the issue,” Clinton told those who attended a Grimes fundraising luncheon in Lexington.

He endorsed Grimes’ call for raising the $7.25 federal minimum wage, which hasn’t been increased in five years.

“We have not kept up with inflation,” Clinton said, adding that a reasonable increase in the minimum wage will create jobs, not kill them as Republicans always claim. “These people are going to spend that money; it’s going to circulate in their communities; all the local merchants are going to be better off; incomes will go up; more people will get hired; more people will get a pay raise.

“Creating more jobs and shared prosperity, as opposed to fewer jobs and more concentrated wealth with all the benefits going to people at the top, is the main issue people face in country after country and country,” he added. “We Americans have not done enough for broadly shared prosperity, because we have not done enough to create jobs.”

Clinton also discussed the political obstruction McConnell has led in Congress since Obama became president in 2009.

He contrasted McConnell to former U.S. Sen. Wendell Ford, a Democrat who while in Senate leadership worked well with colleagues and presidents of both parties, and to Beshear, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican, who together last year formed the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative to help diversify Eastern Kentucky’s economy.

“I’ve been everywhere, and I’m telling you: whenever people are working together, good things are happening,” Clinton said. “Whenever they spend all their time fighting, good things are not happening. The founders of this country gave us a system that requires us to treat people who disagree with us with respect and dignity and to make principled compromise so that something good can happen. Cooperation works, and constant conflict is a dead-bang loser.”

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‘What’s behind the wall’ beside Jefferson Street restaurants?

July 27, 2014

140722Apiary

This rendering shows what the Apiary will look like when finished this fall. The catering company and event space is in the Jefferson Street restaurant district on the site of a special-effects company’s building that burned in July 2008. Photo: EOP Architects. 

 

Nobody paid much attention to the old industrial building on Jefferson Street until July 17, 2008, when a spectacular two-alarm fire gutted Star Light & Magic, a theatrical special effects company.

Jefferson Street is a much busier place now, having blossomed into a popular restaurant district, so a lot of people are watching and wondering about the construction going on there behind an elegant wall of brick, stone and wrought iron.

For nearly two years, the first phase of the project has been a commercial kitchen for Apiary Fine Catering & Events. When finished in October, the facility also will include The Apiary, an event space designed for an urban infill setting.

The Apiary is owned by Cooper Vaughan, 39, a graduate of Transylvania University and Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in London. Before moving back to his hometown in 2006, Vaughan was a chef at Blackberry Farm, the luxury resort in Tennessee.

140710Apiary0010

Cooper Vaughan

Working in partnership with his parents, Neal and Derek Vaughan of Lexington’s G.F. Vaughan Tobacco Co., he hopes to create a unique 15,500-square-foot food and beverage destination. And, as the name implies, Vaughan said he also wants it to be a hive of activity, a gathering place for people interested in food, wine and cooking.

“We want to be a place other chefs can use when they don’t have the facilities,” he said. “That’s the sort of energy we want around here.”

The Vaughans’ vision for the Apiary included special architecture and landscaping, a place with modern lines but a warm, timeless feel. To achieve that, they hired three top-notch local professionals: architect Brent Bruner, garden designer Jon Carloftis and interior designer Matthew Carter.

The Apiary’s biggest venue will be the 2,000 square-foot Orangery room, which has a 10-foot by 30-foot skylight and 18-foot-tall windows designed to match antique French shutters. When finished, the room will contain orange, lemon and pear trees. There also will be a 1,000-square-foot Winter Room, an intimate tasting room beside the kitchen and a French limestone terrace that can accommodate a big tent.

Salvage materials are a big part of the design. Reclaimed brick, wood flooring and beams came from old tobacco warehouses. Stone was salvaged from a farm that belongs to Vaughan’s uncle. Pavers were once part of a barn at Hamburg Place horse farm. Massive pine doors came from Argentina, and two antique stone fountains in the courtyard are from Europe.

The brick and stone courtyard walls are accented with custom wrought iron created by artists Matthew and Karine Maynard of Maynard Studios in Lawrenceburg.

“They wanted it to have a substantial feel that at the same time is modern and fits into an urban setting,” said Bruner, a principal at EOP Architects. “The level of craftsmanship they wanted is not what you see a lot these days.”

Good planning allowed Carloftis to get a head start on the landscaping so it wouldn’t look new when the Apiary opens. It includes a “green” wall of plantings in the courtyard and a well-established pear tree cultivated espalier-style.

140710Apiary0015

Brent Bruner of EOP Architects

Since the kitchen opened, Vaughan has given rent-free office space to Seedleaf, a Lexington nonprofit. Seedleaf works to increase the supply of affordable, nutritious and sustainably produced local food for people at risk of hunger in Central Kentucky. It sponsors community gardens, restaurant composting programs and classes that teach cooking and food-preservation skills.

The outdoor event spaces will include raised-bed vegetable and herb gardens designed by Carloftis and cared for by Seedleaf. Ryan Koch, Seedleaf’s founder and director, said they will both supply Apiary with food and subtly educate guests.

“It will be a unique opportunity to show how beautiful perennial herbs and some vegetables can be and how important local food is,” Koch said. “If we can help Apiary buy less food off the truck and get more out of their yard, I think people enjoying the space will appreciate that.”

The Seedleaf gardens and other landscaping will be irrigated with rainwater collected in a 12,000-gallon underground storage tank.

Vaughan declined to say how much his family is investing in the Apiary.

The designers’ goal with the building and grounds is to create indoor and outdoor spaces that gradually reveal themselves to visitors as they walk through. Vaughan hopes guests will notice something new each time they come.

“One thing we’ve been able to achieve is that not any one element screams,” he said. “A great event always has these elements of surprise. What’s behind the wall?”

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Morehead space program shows Eastern Kentucky can aim high

July 26, 2014

140721KySpace-TE0025

Zach Taulbee, 21, of Prestonsburg uses a computerized CNC machine to make an aluminum part for a small “cubesat” satellite. Taulbee is an undergraduate and machine shop manager at Morehead State University’s Space Science Center.  Photo by Tom Eblen

 

MOREHEAD — When people talk about diversifying an Eastern Kentucky economy dominated for a century by coal mining and poverty, they often don’t aim very high: low-wage factories and corporate call centers.

But you can see another possibility at Morehead State University’s Space Science Center. Over the past decade, in partnership with the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. and the University of Kentucky, the center has become a world leader in designing and building small, high-tech spacecraft of the future.

One morning last week, I stood with Kris Kimel, president of KSTC, in the center’s control room as engineers used computers to locate two Morehead-built satellites now circling the Earth. Faculty and students use the control room to download data and upload instructions to the satellites as they pass within range of one of the world’s biggest space-tracking antennas, visible out the window on a nearby hilltop.

“This is a different kind of call center,” Kimel said.

Lexington-based KSTC was created 27 years ago as a non-profit corporation to develop innovation-driven, entrepreneurial companies in Kentucky. A decade ago, Kimel saw an opportunity to grow Morehead’s already strong astrophysics program in a new direction.

He realized that the micro-technology then revolutionizing computers and cellphones would also change spacecraft, especially as NASA was turning over much of its traditional work to private industry. Somebody needed to design and build this new stuff, Kimel thought. Why couldn’t it be done in Kentucky?

“We knew we had really smart people here; we knew we had smart students,” he said. “But we had to be aggressive and ambitious and move quickly.”

140721KySpace-TE0086KSTC set up a lab in California’s Silicon Valley. Benjamin Malphrus, chairman of Morehead’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences, and UK engineering professor James Lumpp spent several weeks there in 2005 with about 20 graduate students, learning all they could about new satellite technology.

They collaborated with engineers at NASA and Stanford University. Among them was Robert Twiggs, who helped develop some of the first small satellites, including the CubeSat, which has become an industry standard. Twiggs left Stanford in 2009 and moved to Morehead to teach.

KSTC created Kentucky Space LLC in 2010 as a non-profit corporation to coordinate this university research with industry. Last week, KSTC created Space Tango, a for-profit enterprise, to commercialize the work.

Much of that work involves designing and building CubeSats, which are 10-centimeter cubes packed with off-the-shelf technology and powered by solar panels.

When launched from a rocket or the International Space Station, the satellites take advantage of space’s zero-gravity environment to gather a variety of scientific and commercial research data. Other CubeSat uses range from tracking ships at sea to making high-resolution photographs of Earth for mapping and surveillance. Almost all of Kentucky Space’s hardware and software is designed and built in Kentucky.

“We’re trying to develop a home-grown set of technologies that can integrate into spacecraft,” Malphrus said. “There’s an incredible variety of applications people have thought of, but we don’t even know what all the applications are yet.”

Another Kentucky Space product is the DM processor, whose development was funded by the Defense Department. It is a supercomputer — 20 times more powerful than a desktop computer — that can be built into a small satellite for such applications as on-board processing of high-resolution images. It weighs about 12 ounces.

Kentucky Space, Morehead and UK have had several experiments on the Space Shuttle and International Space Station. They also have built two research platforms on the space station and are developing more.

“We’re clearly one of the global leaders in trying to work on and design this next generation of spacecraft,” Kimel said. “Our specialty is building small machines quickly.”

Kentucky Space also recently announced a partnership with FedEx Corp. to develop a Space Solutions division to help global clients safely move payloads between laboratories and launch sites.

Morehead’s space studies program now has about 60 students. This fall, it will start its first master’s degree program, in space systems engineering, with 10 students. While many are from Eastern Kentucky, about one-third of the students are internationals who sought out Morehead, Malphrus said.

140724KySpace0103Kentucky Space and Space Tango are small, with five contract employees and one full-time engineer: Twyman Clements, 27, a UK engineering graduate who grew up on a farm near Bardstown. But Kimel said a half-dozen small companies already have been created out of Kentucky Space’s work, and he said he thinks that is just the beginning.

Spacecraft might seem an unlikely Kentucky product, but it’s not. Aerospace products have become Kentucky’s largest export, edging out motor vehicles and parts, according to the state Cabinet for Economic Development. A diverse array of aerospace exports totaled $5.6 billion last year — 22 percent of the value of all Kentucky exports.

Economic development strategies are changing from the old model of luring corporate branch plants with jobs that are here today and may be gone tomorrow when incentives run out or cheaper labor is found elsewhere. There is more long-lasting economic impact in creating specialized knowledge and an environment where entrepreneurs can use it to create high-value companies.

“This is not just about education; we’re growing a new industry here,” Kimel said. “If we don’t commercialize this technology, these students won’t stay here, because there won’t be opportunities for them.

“I’m not one of these people who thinks everyone should stay in Kentucky; they shouldn’t,” he added. “But for those that have the opportunity and want to, great. And we want people to come here from other places who are interested in this industry. We want them to say this is the place to be.”

Eastern Kentucky has a long way to go in creating the workforce to support many high-tech companies, but Kentucky Space shows what is possible. It isn’t the only answer for the region’s economic challenges, but neither are low-wage factories and call centers.

“Kentucky historically has done an excellent job of putting together other people’s ideas,” Kimel said. “What we need to start doing is building our own ideas, because that’s where the value proposition is. We have to find things that we can do better than anybody else.”

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Crisis of children at the border brings out worst in some adults

July 22, 2014

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Child detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Brownsville, Texas, on June 18. Photo by Eric Gay/Associated Press.

 

I feel sorry for the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children who have crossed our Southern border, desperate to escape the widespread violence and poverty in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

But the people I pity are the adults in this country who — wrapped up in selfishness, mean-spirited politics or misguided patriotism — have tried to make the lives of these vulnerable kids more miserable than they already are.

Protesters have tried to block buses taking young refugees to shelters. They gathered in cities across the country last weekend — including a dozen or so on a New Circle Road overpass in Lexington — to hold up signs such as, “1 flag, language, country” and “Americans First.”

Some members of both parties in Congress are shamefully seeking to revoke refugee protections they passed during the Bush administration so these children can be deported without hearings.

Some Kentucky politicians fretted that these kids might be given shelter at Fort Knox pending deportation hearings, but Health and Human Services officials chose other locations. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, pandering to his right-wing base, called out the Texas National Guard at a cost of $12 million a month to assist the U.S. Border Patrol, which didn’t ask for his help.

Republicans are blaming President Barack Obama for lax border security. But the problem of child refugees has been building for more than a decade. Overall, illegal immigration is down and deportations are up in the six years since George Bush was president.

A former colleague, Mike Luckovich of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, summed up my thoughts in a recent editorial cartoon. It showed the Statue of Liberty with a new inscription: “I’ll trade you your huddled masses for my racist nitwits.”

Immigration controversies are nothing new. “We have always been a nation of immigrants who hate the newer immigrants,” comedian Jon Stewart said recently.

“Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens?” Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1751, about the time some of my ancestors were arriving in Philadelphia from a village near Stuttgart.

Ignoring the fact that the English took Pennsylvania from Native Americans, Franklin added that “swarthy” Germans “will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion.”

America’s immigration policies have always been twisted by prejudice, politics and powerful economic interests. Chinese immigrants were banned for 60 years after thousands were allowed in to build the Transcontinental Railroad because they would work cheaper than Irish immigrants.

On the eve of World War II, a ship carrying nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees from Hitler was turned back from our shore amid anti-immigration public sentiment. Anyone feel good about that decision?

Many of today’s protesters insist they aren’t against legal immigration. And they point out — rightly so — that America can’t take in everybody. But our immigration system is broken, and protesters like those hanging banners that say “No Amnesty” are the biggest obstacle to fixing it.

Complex problems rarely have simple solutions. Progress in a representative democracy requires compromise, which today’s angry fringe abhors.

There are a couple of claims that need addressing. The first is that these children are “not our problem.” That assertion ignores the root causes of Latin America’s chaos: a violent drug trade whose demand we fuel, and more than a century of U.S. support for oppressive “banana republics” — either to advance American business interests or out of anti-Communism paranoia.

The second claim is that undocumented immigrants are a drain on our economy and society. In most cases, I would bet they give more than they take. If all the undocumented immigrants in Central Kentucky disappeared tomorrow, the equine, agriculture, construction and many low-wage service industries would be crippled.

No, the United States cannot take in every refugee and immigrant. But I cannot look at the pictures of these frightened children without thinking of my grandson and his mother and her sister when they were young.

The United States needs a just and rational immigration system. Until our dysfunctional elected leaders achieve that, I would much rather my tax dollars go toward treating these children with fairness and compassion than building more fences, which never have and never will solve the real problem.

This a humanitarian crisis, both on our Southern border and in our national soul. How we resolve it will say a lot about what kind of people we are.


Plan would create 200 miles of multi-use trails in Scott County

July 15, 2014

legacyGabe Schmuck, 9, left, Nate Schmuck, 5, and their father, Paul Schmuck, rode on the Legacy Trail in Lexington in 2012. Photo by Mark Ashley.

GEORGETOWN — The popular Legacy Trail out of Lexington now stops just short of the Scott County line at the Kentucky Horse Park. But what is now the end of the trail could someday be just the beginning.

Scott County leaders have worked for three years with the regional visioning group Bluegrass Tomorrow and the National Park Service to develop an ambitious plan for Kentucky’s most extensive trails network. Plans call for 200 miles of biking, hiking, horseback riding and waterway trails throughout Scott County.

“Our vision is that this is going to eventually branch out and include the whole region,” said John Simpson, director of Georgetown/Scott County Tourism.

The Bluegrass Bike Hike Horseback Trails Alliance unveiled a draft of the proposed master plan Monday at the monthly meeting of the Georgetown/Scott County Chamber of Commerce.

Alliance leaders hope to finish the plan by the end of the year and begin negotiating property easements, designing trails, raising private money and applying for federal transportation grants.

Some trails would be shared, with bike/pedestrian and horse paths side-by-side, but most would be separate. The plan was developed with help from interested residents during a June 2013 design workshop, and the alliance is eager for more public participation.

At this point, there are no cost estimates, but such a trails network would run well into the millions of dollars. Still, many officials think it would be a great investment.

“This has the potential to have a tremendous impact, economically and socially, on the community,” said Russell Clark, the alliance’s National Park Service representative.

Clark and Rob Rumpke, president of Bluegrass Tomorrow, cited the economic impact that trail systems have had on Damascus, Va., a once-depressed logging town where hikers and mountain bikers now flock to the Appalachian and Virginia Creeper trails; Loveland, Ohio; and Indiana’s Brown County.

The trails alliance has more than a dozen partners, including the cities of Georgetown, Sadieville and Lexington; Scott County Fiscal Court; the state tourism department; the Horse Park; the Kentucky Horse Council; Georgetown College; the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture; the Bluegrass Area Development District; St. Joseph Health System/Kentucky One; and several horseback-riding and cycling groups.

Rumpke said horse trails should be especially popular, given the number of local horse enthusiasts and the tourists who come to Central Kentucky to see horse farms and events.

“We’re the horse capital of the world; why are there so few horseback-riding facilities?” he asked. “This is an opportunity to address that.”

The first step in the plan is to extend the Legacy Trail 6.6 miles from the horse park to Georgetown. Christie Robinson chairs a steering committee that commissioned an engineering feasibility study, which was recently completed. The study estimates the total cost at about $8.3 million, including trailheads, bathrooms and other amenities. It could be built in four phases as money became available.

Georgetown recently awarded the Legacy Trail committee $25,000 as a match to a $100,000 federal grant that it will apply for this fall, Robinson said. That would move the design process forward.

Claude Christensen, mayor of Sadieville, said he sees the trail system as an opportunity to revitalize his town of 303 people at the northern tip of Scott County. Sadieville is applying for “trail town” status with state tourism officials. But it needs trails.

“It’s huge for Sadieville,” Christensen said. “It makes us a destination.”

Simpson, the tourism official, said many Scott County business and government leaders support trails development because they have seen the economic benefit that road cycling enthusiasts have had in the area.

The Bluegrass Cycling Club’s annual Horsey Hundred ride each Memorial Day weekend is based at Georgetown College. This year, more than 2,000 cyclists came from all over North America to ride Central Kentucky’s scenic back roads on marked routes ranging from 25 to 104 miles.

Georgetown hosted a downtown party for the cyclists, who filled Georgetown College’s residence halls and more than half of the 1,100 local motel rooms. A big group from Ontario, Canada, came for an entire week of cycling before the event.

An extensive trail network, along with Central Kentucky’s world-class cycling roads, could make Georgetown a major recreation destination, Simpson said.

“We’re at the starting point of something that could be phenomenal,” he said. “It could bring thousands of tourists to our community and enhance our own quality of life.”


Book chronicles Lexington’s early ‘contemporary’ homebuilder

July 13, 2014

140709Isenhour0001This house,built on Breckenwood Drive in 1958, shows characteristics of Richard Isenhour’s contemporary homes: native Kentucky stone, lots of glass, cathedral ceilings, exposed post-and-beam construction and an effort to integrate indoor and outdoor spaces.

 

Richard Isenhour was a chemical engineer at Dupont in the late 1940s when he questioned his career choice in a letter to the Lexington woman who he would marry.

“The kind of job I’d like would be one that’s creative and always changing, where I can see what I’m accomplishing,” he wrote Lenora Henry. “I’d like to work on things I can improve.”

The Isenhours moved to Lexington in 1952, and he took up the occupation of his father-in-law, homebuilder A.R. Henry. Before long, Isenhour began looking for ways to improve his houses with modern styles and materials, as well as new ideas about how a house should function.

Richard Isenhour

Richard Isenhour

Isenhour went on to earn an architecture degree at the University of Kentucky and design and build nearly 100 unique homes in Lexington between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s. Now locally famous, these “Isenhour houses” were some of the first contemporary-style homes built in Lexington.

Larry Isenhour, a retired architect and one of the Isenhours’ four children, has just written a handsome, well-illustrated book documenting his father’s work: The Houses of Richard B. Isenhour: Mid-Century Modern in Kentucky(Butler Books, $45) He will sign copies at 2 p.m., July 19, at The Morris Book Shop. Information about other book events: Greenschemedesign.com.

Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and later Modernist architects, as well as by contemporary homes he saw in magazines and on family vacations, Isenhour experimented. This was at a time when people from all over the country were moving to Lexington to work at IBM and UK’s new College of Medicine.

His first bold design was for his own family’s 1956 home on Blueberry Lane. It helped Isenhour find clients who wanted something different than a traditional brick box with shutters.

140709Isenhour0008Isenhour’s designs featured post-and-beam construction and open floor plans. They had exposed wooden beams, cathedral ceilings and walls of glass and local limestone. On building lots, he preserved as many trees as possible. His houses seem more spacious than their modest sizes, and they are as much about utility as style.

“Isenhour’s best work is full of light, creating an inspirational sense of the blending of outdoors and indoors,” Lexington architect Graham Pohl writes in the book’s forward.

Jan and Phyllis Hasbrouck, a physician and nurse, came to Lexington in 1962 for his internship. They had grown up in Ithaca, N.Y., admiring contemporary architecture, so when they were ready to build a home, they asked Isenhour to design it.

“I’ve loved every bit of it — the glass, the stone, the openness,” said Phyllis Hasbrouck, who has lived there since 1967. “I feel closed in when I’m in a regular home now where the ceilings are low.”

Larry Isenhour

Larry Isenhour

But Isenhour houses were not for everyone. The book reproduces a 1968 letter a Lexington bank officer sent to one Isenhour client, declining his loan application. “We have difficulty in making the maximum loan on contemporary style homes because they are usually custom designed for a limited market,” the letter said.

Larry Isenhour, who lives in a contemporary home of his own design, began working on the book soon after his father’s death in 2006, collecting old drawings, photos and documents. His goal was to create a chronological catalog of his father’s best work to show how it evolved.

“I worked in almost all of them, either as a kid picking up wood or drawing the plans,” he said. But he never interviewed his father about the thought processes behind his designs — and wishes now that he had. Isenhour also had never written a book. Fortunately, his got help from his wife, Jan, a writer and retired director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.

Only one of the 98 Isenhour houses has been demolished. Most have been well cared for, expanded and updated as tastes and technologies changed. They have been especially sought-after in recent years with the renewed popularity of Mid-Century Modern style.

At least four of the houses are now owned by architects. One is Tom Fielder, who got to know Isenhour and his work when he was an architecture student at UK.

When Fielder moved back to Lexington in 1990, he wanted his three children to attend Glendover Elementary School. So he drove around that neighborhood, which has the largest concentration of Isenhour houses, until he found one for sale. Then he called his real estate agent and asked her to put in a contract on it.

“She said, ‘I can’t do a contract on a house when you haven’t even seen the inside,'” he recalled. “I knew that Dick had designed the house and it was next to Glendover school. That’s all the information I needed to know.”

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