Development holds promise for downtown Lexington’s eastern edge

January 26, 2015

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holoubek

Developer Phil Holoubek

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Smith of Community Ventures Corp.

Kevin Smith of Community Ventures Corp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lexington starting to see the benefits of urban redevelopment

January 25, 2015

krogerThe new Euclid Avenue Kroger. Photo by Mark Cornelison

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Gray is right to focus on Town Branch Commons, old courthouse

January 20, 2015

141231Downtown0070Finding a way to renovate the old Fayette County Courthouse, which has been shuttered since 2012, is one of Mayor Jim Gray’s priorities for 2015. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

Mayor Jim Gray set the right tone in the first State of the City Address of his second term. After four years of getting Lexington’s fiscal house in order, he said, it is time to make critical investments for the future.

Gray’s strength as mayor has been his ability to tackle previously ignored problems while at the same time articulating an ambitious but sensible vision for Lexington’s future.

The mayor began by ticking off accomplishments, including public safety investments and tens of millions of dollars in cost-savings from restructuring city employee health care and pensions and “value engineering” sewer improvements.

But the heart of his speech was a call to action on two downtown projects that should be high on Lexington’s priority list. He also hinted at a third project, politically sensitive but long overdue.

The first project Gray highlighted is restoring and repurposing the old Fayette County Courthouse, a 115-year-old limestone landmark in the city’s historic center.

When the courts moved to new buildings down the street a dozen years ago, the abused and neglected old courthouse became home to the Lexington History Museum. It was shuttered in 2012 because of lead paint contamination, then officials discovered structural problems.

It is an embarrassment to Lexington to have its most iconic public building uninhabitable. Demolition would be a tragedy. It needs to be restored, but for what?

“The courthouse needs to be imaginative, innovative and functional … a gravitational pull that will attract citizens and visitors,” Gray said.

The mayor wasn’t more specific, but he said an assessment report would be released soon and public meetings would be scheduled in February and March. Gray said he would include funding for the project’s first phase in the budget he submits to the Urban County Council in April.

The best idea I have heard for the old courthouse is to make it Lexington’s version of Chicago’s Water Tower or Boston’s Faneuil Hall — a gathering place for locals and the spot where tourists start their visit to Lexington.

Such a plan could bring back a smaller history museum, as well as rotating exhibits to entice people to visit attractions such as the UK Art Museum and the Headley-Whitney Museum. Distillery and horse farm tours could leave from there, bringing visitors back to the bars and restaurants around Cheapside.

The second project Gray touted — and promised initial funding for in his budget — is Town Branch Commons. It is a brilliant plan to create a linear chain of small parks downtown along the historic path of Town Branch Creek.

Since the creek was buried nearly a century ago, and the railroad tracks beside it pulled up in the 1960s, much of the spine of downtown between Main and Vine streets has been a concrete jungle of parking lots and wasted space.

Turning some of that space into small parks should make downtown more inviting and attract valuable commercial development. The plan will require private as well as public money. It would be built in phases, likely starting with the city-owned parking lot behind the Kentucky Theatre.

“We also need to make plans for the Government Center, a historic building that is costing us far too much to operate and repairs,” Gray said.

The late Foster Pettit, the first mayor of Lexington’s merged city-county government, once told me that moving city offices into the old Lafayette Hotel in the 1970s was always viewed as a temporary solution.

For at least a decade, officials have mused about selling the old hotel to a developer who could restore its beautiful first and second floors and turn the floors above them into apartments or condos.

Such a deal would create more downtown residents, as well as help pay for more cost-efficient city offices elsewhere. One possibility for those offices would be a new building atop the city-owned Transit Center garage.

The biggest misstep of Gray’s first term was his aborted renovation of Rupp Arena and Lexington Center. It failed largely because University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto had other priorities, and Gray ignored the obvious signals.

Gray didn’t mention Rupp in Tuesday’s speech, but he went out of his way to offer an olive branch to Capilouto. He sat beside him at lunch, mentioned him twice in his speech and praised UK as “our cultural, intellectual and economic anchor and engine.”

In his first term, Gray set an ambitious course for a better Lexington. The test of the next four years will be his ability to bring people together to make it happen.


The Breakout Games offers ‘escapism’ for fun, teambuilding

January 18, 2015

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

January 17, 2015

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Best Friends seeks more male volunteers for Alzheimer’s care

January 13, 2015

150108BestFriends0012 Helmut Graetz, left, sits with Best Friends participant Velma Beatty as Tom Green performs. Graetz, 88, has been a Best Friend volunteer for many years, as have his wife and son.  Below, Graetz as a 16-year-old German paratrooper in World War II. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Conventional wisdom used to be that caregivers could do little to intellectually and emotionally reach some people with Alzheimer’s disease, who can get anxious, frustrated and angry.

Then, three decades ago, the Best Friends Day Center in Lexington began pioneering new approaches that have been copied in more than 30 countries around the world. Along the way, the center’s caregivers have challenged gender-role stereotypes, too.

“Care-giving has usually been looked on as a woman’s role,” said Best Friends director Sherri Harkless. “I don’t think men have necessarily felt that they were needed or wanted.”

But they are at Best Friends, which has found that male volunteers can be especially successful at forming breakthrough relationships with participants — mainly men, but also some women.

“Our men volunteers are invaluable,” Harkless said. “They are very compassionate, and they bring a lot of ‘men skills’ with them that can be key.”

The Best Friends approach was started in 1984 by Virginia Bell, then a graduate student at what is now the Sanders-Brown Center for Aging at the University of Kentucky. After 20 years at Second Presbyterian Church, the center moved in 2013 to larger quarters at Bridgepointe at Ashgrove Woods, an assisted living facility in Jessamine County.

Bell has co-authored several books about Alzheimer’s therapy, and remains the driving force behind Best Friends at the energetic age of 92. She said she found that people with dementia respond well to a volunteer who learns the person’s life story, listens and uses respect, patience, empathy and humor to develop a friendship.

Connecting with memories and experiences locked deep in the brain can help a person with dementia become calmer and happier. That is one reason old popular music is often used as therapy.

“Under the dementia, there’s a real person,” Bell said. “People have had amazing lives, and if you know their story you can relate to them. A person may not know what day it is, but they can intuitively sense if you care.”

Caring is the main job of Best Friends’ volunteers, who spend at least two hours a week with one of the center’s 32 participants, 12 of whom are men. Volunteers range in age from high school students to people in their 80s and 90s.

Only 18 of current 88 volunteers are men, and Best Friends would like to have more. Bell said men are especially helpful with male participants, who sometimes have no interest in the center’s arts and crafts activities but enjoy talking about sports, their careers or their military service.

“We’re always looking for men volunteers,” Bell said. “They’re harder to find. But we have found some special ones.”

Tom Meyer, 72, started volunteering four years ago after moving to Lexington from Virginia. He spent his career in the Army and as a military contractor, and he thinks his experiences help him relate to participants who are veterans.

Volunteer Helmut Graetz, 88, a retired IBM engineer, also can relate to some participants’ wartime experiences — even though he was fighting on the other side.

Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.comGraetz was 16 when he became a German Army paratrooper. He fought in Italy, was captured in 1944 and spent four years in a British POW camp in Egypt. He then married Goodie, his wife of 62 years, in Germany and they eventually made their way to Canada and the United States. IBM brought them to Lexington.

After years as a volunteer riding instructor for Pony Clubs, Graetz got bored in retirement. His wife has volunteered at Best Friends for 22 years, so she suggested he try it. That was more than a decade ago. Now their son, Michael, 57, also volunteers.

“It’s wonderful to try to communicate with someone and try to make them feel better,” Graetz said. “I fought against the Americans and British, but I come over here and see that everyone is the same.”

Bill Tatman, a UK staff retiree, started volunteering two years ago after the death of his wife, who had been a Best Friends participant.

“I felt guilty the first day I brought her here, but I didn’t realize what a good place this was,” he said. “Now, being a volunteer is the best day of my week.”

 

Want to volunteer?  Best Friends Day Center needs volunteers, especially men. For more information, call volunteer coordinator Bobby Potts, (859) 258-2226.

 

150108BestFriends0016
Musician Tom Green performs for Best Friends participants and their volunteer helpers.

Three Lexington projects finalists for $5 million in Knight grants

January 12, 2015

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

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

The Lexington finalists are:

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

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

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

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

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


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

January 11, 2015

ark3

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody say amen.


Wendell Berry first living inductee in Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame

January 10, 2015

111218WendellBerryTE0032AWendell Berry at home, December 2011. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

When the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning announced plans in July to select the first living member of its Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, I wrote that the process should be a search for Wendell Berry.

Kentucky has many fine writers working today, but none can match the range, craftsmanship and international acclaim of Berry, 80, who writes and farms in Henry County, where his family has lived for five generations.

So the Carnegie Center’s announcement this week should come as no surprise. Berry will be inducted into the Hall of Fame at 7 p.m. Jan. 28 along with five deceased writers, who will be identified that night.

The ceremony at the Carnegie Center, 251 West Second Street, is free and open to the public. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Kentucky Educational Television plans to live-stream the event on Ket.org.

“To be recognized in that way at home is a very pleasing thing,” Berry said when I talked with him by phone last week. “And a relieving thing, actually.”

The Carnegie Center, a non-profit organization that promotes literacy education, reading and writing, created the Hall of Fame three years ago to draw attention to Kentucky’s rich literary legacy.

In its first two years, 13 deceased writers were honored: Harriette Arnow, William Wells Brown, Harry Caudill, Rebecca Caudill, Thomas D. Clark, Janice Holt Giles, James Baker Hall, Etheridge Knight, Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, James Still, Jesse Stuart and Robert Penn Warren.

hall-of-fame-logo-final-300x165Neil Chethik, executive director of the Carnegie Center, said about 200 members of the public nominated more than 75 writers for the honor this year, including about 25 living writers. A short list was sent to a committee of writers and readers headed by Lori Meadows, director of the Kentucky Arts Council, which made the selections along with the Carnegie Center staff.

“Everybody pretty much said, ‘It’s going to be Wendell, right?'” Chethik said. “His command of all three major areas of writing — fiction, non-fiction and poetry — and his influence statewide and internationally brought us to him.”

Chethik said future classes of inductees may include a living writer, but not always. The criteria for all nominations is that a writer must be published; must have lived in Kentucky for a significant period or have a strong tie to the state; and must have produced writing of “enduring stature.”

All of which makes Berry a natural for the honor. The former University of Kentucky English professor has written more than 60 volumes: novels, poetry, short-story collections and essays. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he received the National Humanities Medal in 2010 and gave the prestigious Jefferson Lecture in 2012.

The major theme of Berry’s work is that people should live and work in harmony with the land and their community. “He is so rooted in Kentucky,” Chethik said. “He speaks for a lot of Kentuckians.”

The-Unsettling-of-America (1)Berry’s 1971 book, The Unforeseen Wilderness helped rally public opposition to a plan to flood Red River Gorge. His 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, is a bible of the international movements for sustainable agriculture and locally produced food.

Over the years, Berry has participated in protests against nuclear power and coal strip-mining. He was among a group of environmental activists who camped in Gov. Steve Beshear’s outer office in 2011 to protest state government support for the coal industry’s destruction of Eastern Kentucky mountains.

A year earlier, Berry cut his ties to UK and withdrew his papers to protest the university’s renaming of the basketball team residence hall Wildcat Coal Lodge in exchange for $7 million in donations from coal executives.

“The actual influence of writers in Kentucky is in doubt,” Berry said when I asked about his activism, and whether he thought it would ever sway public policy.

“As far as the future is concerned, I don’t sit around and think about the future in regard to what I’ve done,” he said. “It seems to me to be a distraction from the things I ought to be doing.”

Berry said he has been busy writing poetry and working on several long-term projects. He also is writing a short speech for his Hall of Fame ceremony about “Kentucky writing and what it means to be a Kentucky writer.”

“Kentucky writers over the years have given us a kind of record of life in this state, what it has been like to live in it,” he said. “Sometimes they have given us very important testimony about things that were wrong.

“They have been an extremely diverse set of people, and I think the quality of their work has been remarkable,” he added. “I don’t think there’s any worry about it continuing.”


Urban-rural divide will challenge Kentucky economy in 2015

January 5, 2015

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

January 3, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lexington curator bringing Kentucky artists to New York gallery

December 29, 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Looking at Christmas again through a child’s eyes

December 23, 2014

Looking through old family photographs recently, one jumped out it me. My father made it on Christmas morning 1960.

In the black-and-white picture, I am beside our tree, surrounded by toys, sitting in a pedal-powered fire engine my grandfather just gave me. I am grinning ear-to-ear.

I was 28 months old in that picture, a month younger than my grandson will be Thursday when he comes over to sit beside our tree, surrounded by toys and adults who adore him.

601225Christmas001 copyChristmas is many things: a religious holiday, when Christians celebrate the birth of their savior; and a commercial enterprise, a frenzy of buying and selling, giving and getting that fuels some of our best and worst instincts.

In my family, Christmas also is a time when everyone steps back from hassles of everyday life to enjoy spending time with one another. Those gatherings are never more enjoyable than when they include young children, whose sense of wonder helps us remember when we were just like them.

When I was a boy, Christmas began in November with delivery of the Sears Wish Book. My brothers and I would study each page of the toy offerings so our letters to Santa would precisely reflect our material dreams.

Several items from our lists would usually be under the tree Christmas morning. And when we tired of them, Dad would bring out his 1930s electric train and sit on the floor and play with us.

Christmas was always about special food, too. My aunt in California would send a box of chocolates. Salesmen would send Dad crocks of cheese and boxes of sausages. Some sent fruitcake, too, and some of it was edible.

If Dad had gone hunting that fall, there would be fried quail or rabbit for breakfast. Otherwise, he and Mom would fix country ham and eggs.

Christmas meant oysters, too. My parents developed a taste for them when Dad was in the Navy and they lived in a fishing village on the coast of Maine. Each Christmas, they would splurge so we could enjoy oyster stew, scalloped oysters, fried oysters with cocktail sauce and raw oysters on Saltine crackers.

For Christmas dinner, there was turkey and giblet gravy to go with oyster stuffing, celery sticks with cream cheese, green bean casserole and cranberry sauce shaped like its tin can. There was a plate of olives, too, if I didn’t eat them all before dinner.

My mother always made a jam cake, which required two or three weeks of cold storage to properly moisten. Because refrigerator space was tight, the cake would age in the trunk of her car as she ran errands around Lexington.

Nothing went better with a good, high-mileage jam cake than ice cream and boiled custard, a homemade tradition Mom brought from Western Kentucky that is like eggnog, only better.

Christmas lost some of its magic in the 1970s as my three younger brothers and I grew up. But it returned in the 1980s when my wife and I had two daughters. They preferred dolls and books to trains and trucks, but I adjusted.

My wife is a master cookie baker, so our Christmases together have always been steeped in sugar. Her traditional family treat is the springerle, a flat, anise-flavored cookie. Each springerle has an elaborate design made by a hand-carved wooden rolling pin her ancestors brought with them from Germany in the mid-1800s.

As the girls became adults, I missed having kids around. Then, three years ago, our older daughter and her husband surprised us with a small, wrapped box on Christmas morning. Inside was a pacifier and a tag with a due date.

My grandson’s first two Christmases were fun, but this year should be even better. I’m just sorry Dad won’t be with us, because he was never happier in his last two years than when he was with his great-grandson and my youngest brother’s little boy. It reminded me of how he was with our daughters, and with my brothers and me before them.

The only thing better than being a small child at Christmas is having one around to enjoy. I hope you are as fortunate as we are. Merry Christmas.


Want to improve the economy? Narrow the growing wealth gap

December 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ben Sollee art project uses music to educate about groundwater

December 9, 2014

solleeLexington musician Ben Sollee and artist Kiersten Nash are leading an art project called Livestream to educate people about groundwater. Photo by Tom Eblen

Groundwater is one of Kentucky’s most abundant, precious and endangered natural resources. People rarely think about it because they can’t see it.

But what if they could hear it?

That’s the idea behind Livestream, a public art and education project being put together by Lexington musician Ben Sollee and a group of artists and scientists working with the Kentucky Geological Survey.

The National Endowment for the Arts last week announced a $40,000 grant to help pay for the project, which will be built next year in a city park, possibly Jacobson Park. Livestream also is receiving about $20,000 from LexArts and the city’s Department of Environmental Quality and Public Works.

The project began in 2010 when Sollee met Kiersten Nash, a New York artist who previously lived in Louisville. They wanted to collaborate on a project that would educate people about environmental issues.

“After lots of phone calls and ideas and brainstorming, we came up with this idea that we wanted to connect people with groundwater,” Sollee said. “But the question was how are we going to do that?”

How they plan to do that is fascinating.

The Kentucky Groundwater Data Repository, a project of the Kentucky Geological Survey, archives data from groundwater monitoring stations across the state. It has information on more than 92,000 water wells and 5,100 springs.

So the artists wondered: what if monitoring data from a few of those wells and springs could be transmitted live and turned into music that would reflect the groundwater’s changing conditions? To figure out how to do that, they worked with artist Bland Hoke, engineer Sean Montgomery and educator Dan Marwitt.

Sollee, who has gained a national audience for his jazzy, soulful cello music and vocals, recorded a catalog of phrases on his cello. Those phrases will be activated by monitoring data transmitted every 15 minutes from four groundwater sources around the state, said Charles Taylor, the head of the survey’s water resources section.

Two stations will be at McConnell Springs in Lexington and Mammoth Cave National Park in southern Kentucky. Two other sites under consideration are a spring at Carter Caves State Park in Eastern Kentucky and one at Land Between the Lakes in Western Kentucky.

That data measures five values for groundwater: acidity, flow, temperature, conductivity (its capacity to pass electrical current) and turbidity, or clarity. Values of each measure will be assigned to Sollee’s recorded cello phrases, which will be played through 20 large pipes.

“When the data hits a certain point, it will play the note, so it’s a dynamic soundscape based on Kentucky groundwater,” Nash said in July, during a demonstration of a prototype at the Downtown Arts Center. The demonstration used recorded groundwater data.

“As a composer, I wanted to be able to give the sound of the water something that felt very at home here in Kentucky, that had that kind of landscape, a little bit of roll to it,” Sollee said of his phrases.

The installation will be interactive with viewers as well as data. Sensors installed around the pipes will cause the volume to rise and fall, depending on viewers’ proximity.

“So as you walk up to the pipe the volume increases, and as you walk away the volume decreases,” Nash said. “It’s really a project where art, science and technology meet.”

LexArts and the city have collaborated on several smaller art projects to promote environmental education, but this is the biggest yet.

Livestream’s creators see potential for school teachers to develop environmental education programs around the installation. More information: Livestreamky.com.

“Kentucky’s in a really fortunate position — we have groundwater, an abundance of it, but we take it for granted and don’t always treat it right,” Sollee said, noting the effects of surface mining, suburban development and farming. “We hope this will increase affection for that resource.”


Alt32 architects find niche making furniture for their buildings

December 8, 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


New program allows restaurant patrons to feed hungry neighbors

November 26, 2014

Megan Moore was having lunch with friends from work last year at a new north Lexington restaurant when she noticed neighborhood residents walking by. She realized that many of them probably couldn’t afford her meal.

“I just couldn’t shake the fact that I love that these local restaurants have come into our neighborhoods,” Moore said. “And wouldn’t it be cool if people in this neighborhood could actually eat here?”

On her way out, Moore bought a gift certificate and asked restaurant employees to use it to feed anyone who walked in looking hungry but couldn’t pay. She did the same thing a few days later at North Lime Coffee & Donuts, near her home in the Castlewood neighborhood.

Moore, training and development director at KVC Behavioral HealthCare Kentucky, started wondering how she could make it easier for others to do the same thing.

So a few months later, when she was accepted into Leadership Lexington, an annual development program run by Commerce Lexington, she suggested a service project built around a concept she called Nourish Your Neighborhood. Others liked the idea, and it became one of four service projects undertaken by this year’s class.

141124Nourish0001Moore and her 12 project team members launched Nourish Your Neighborhood on Nov. 21 at Thai & Mighty Noodle Bowls, a restaurant owned by team member Toa Green. Thai & Mighty donated 20 percent of that day’s sales, raising more than $400 to get the project started.

Team members hope to recruit other restaurants to join in time for the next Nourish Your Neighborhood day on Dec. 16. More information, go to Nourishyourneighborhood.com.

“Our hope is to have different avenues for restaurants to participate, depending on what they want to do,” she said.

Here is how Moore hopes the program will work: Participating restaurants will come up with a way for them or their customers to donate money, most of which will be used to buy gift cards to that restaurant. The gift cards will be distributed to families in need as identified by the family resource centers in local public schools.

North Lime Coffee & Donuts also signed on. It has created a special doughnut and is donating half the proceeds from its sale to Nourishing Your Neighborhood.

Anyone can make tax-deductible donations to the program through the non-profit Blue Grass Community Foundation: Bluegrass.kimbia.com/leadershiplex.

“It’s basically restaurants creating the opportunity for patrons to donate and then connecting with people in the neighborhood who are in need,” Moore said. “And for me, it’s also about supporting our local restaurants.”

The group has made arrangements with Lexington Traditional Magnet School to be a partner and plans to enlist other Fayette County public schools.

Moore thinks the program could be especially valuable when schools are out for snow days, because many poor children rely on schools for two good meals a day. If they had a gift card to a restaurant within walking distance of their house, it could make a big difference.

The team also plans to partner with and give some of the money to other local organizations working to feed hungry people.

“There are so many incredible organizations in Lexington that are making a huge difference: God’s Pantry, Seedleaf, local churches,” she said. “We aren’t trying to take that over. Nourish Your Neighborhood is just a way to join in that effort and help them.”

The team members will graduate from Leadership Lexington in June, but they already are planning to form a permanent organization with nonprofit status to continue the work.

“We hope to make this a lasting, sustainable effort that could be translated to any community anywhere,” Moore said.

“I believe that in Lexington we have a very kind, generous, benevolent community.” There are people in our community who do really awesome things for other people. This is about connecting those people with people in need.”


Chevy Chase entrepreneurs plan Small Business Saturday event

November 23, 2014

141120ChevyChase-TE0044High Street Fly, a clothing boutique, is one of several new shops in Chevy Chase. Below, Danielle Montague, owner of MonTea specialty tea shop, helped organize the area’s Small Business Saturday event on Nov. 29. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

The holiday shopping frenzy begins this week, and local business owners want you to remember Small Business Saturday between Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

This day is about supporting locally owned businesses so more of your money stays in your community. It is about finding goods and services you never find in big-box stores. And it is about helping to keep your town unique and interesting, rather than letting it become just another generic link in the national retail chains.

One of Central Kentucky’s biggest Small Business Saturday events Nov. 29 is being planned by the Chevy Chase Business Owners Association. While some of its activities will last all day, most will be between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Participating shops will have refreshments and a “candy-cane pull” for discount coupons at other neighborhood stores. The association also is working with American Express, which offers a special discount through its Small Business Saturday program. (More information: Americanexpress.com.)

141119ChevyChase-TE0021Chevy Chase merchants are organizing a coat drive for Lexington Rescue Mission and a store window-decorating contest in which customers can vote. Free carriage rides will be offered in front of John’s New Classic Shoes on South Ashland Avenue.

“Santa will be making visits, and we’re working on carolers,” said Danielle Montague, an association leader and owner of MonTea, a specialty tea shop.

Chevy Chase was built between the 1920s and 1960s on land that had been part of statesman Henry Clay’s Ashland estate. Developer Henry Clay Simpson named the area for the Maryland golf club, where he was a member. One of Lexington’s first “suburban” shopping districts was built to serve the neighborhood.

“We were the original Hamburg,” Montague said with a smile. “We have just about everything here, and it’s walkable.”

The Chevy Chase business district has had a tough year, with months of reconstruction on Euclid Avenue and controversy over a rowdy bar the city shut down in September. But there has been a lot of good news, too.

The business district has been gaining popularity, as a variety of stores, including The Morris Book Shop, Worlds Apart and Donut Days, came in from the suburbs to join longtime businesses such as Farmer’s Jewelers and Chevy Chase Hardware. Several new stores have opened this year, including two in the past few weeks.

Ann-Michael Rawlings, who has operated Calypso Boutique in the Woodland Triangle for seven years, was at Morris buying a book this summer when she noticed the space beside Chevy Chase Hardware was for rent.

She quickly negotiated a lease, renovated it and opened her second boutique, High Street Fly, which specializes in local-themed T-shirts and vintage cowboy boots.

“I love the convenience of the neighborhood,” Rawlings said. “With the hardware store next door, even a lot of guys come in.”

Online retailer C.C. Prep Clothing & Accessories is owned by Atlantans, but when they chose Lexington as the location for their second store (after Charlottesville, Va.), they wanted to be in Chevy Chase.

“We didn’t really look anywhere else,” said manager Amanda Caldwell, who opened the store Nov. 14. “It’s great to be in an area where they support small businesses.”

Melissa Mautz has certainly found that to be true since opening the Pet Wants store in February. It sells fresh, regionally made dog and cat food, GMO-free chicken feed and American-made pet accessories.

“I knew I wanted to be in Chevy Chase, and business has been awesome,” she said. “We like being a part of this community.”

But like most retailers, Chevy Chase’s business owners know that the holiday season can make or break their year. “We rely heavily on it,” Montague said. “You can make your entire year’s rent in a month.”

Gary Doernberg, who opened Corner Wines five years ago in a tiny space that originally was a 1930s gas station, agrees. His shop specializes in low-priced wine lots from top vineyards, and this is high season for entertaining and gift-giving. But he has found Chevy Chase to be a great place to do business year-around.

“I’ve always loved this location,” Doernberg said. “I’ve been in the wine business, wholesale or retail, for 40 years. This is not the most money I’ve ever made, but it’s the most fun I’ve ever had.”

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

 


New novel explores race, class in 1940s Central Kentucky

November 18, 2014

In his novel Pickering’s Mountain, Joseph Anthony wrote about the complexities of strip mining and economic survival in Eastern Kentucky, where he lived in the 1980s as an English professor at Hazard Community College.

The New Jersey native has lived in Lexington ever since, and he has looked for a way to use fiction to explore two of Central Kentucky’s overarching issues: race and class.

While reading microfilm copies of the Lexington Leader in the public library, Anthony found his hook. It was a small ad placed near, but not with, a “Colored Notes” column from 1948, when even the news was segregated.

bookThe ad began: “Wanted: Good family with plenty of help … ” It was placed by a farmer needing share-croppers to live in a vacant house beside him and help with his tobacco crop.

It made Anthony wonder: what might have happened if the “good family” that answered that ad was black? And that is how he begins his new novel, Wanted: Good Family (Bottom Dog Press, $18.00).

The book is masterfully written and well-grounded in Kentucky history and mannerisms. It explores issues of race, class, relationship and the potential for change that are as relevant today as they were when this story takes place more than six decades ago.

“I wanted to write about our big drama story in Lexington, race, and how things have and haven’t changed,” he said. “And I had an idea of how to write about somebody who could do terrible things and not actually be a bad person.”

The newspaper ad said interested parties should not call or write, just show up. So that is what Rudy and Nannie Johnson do. He is a World War II veteran looking for work. She cleans houses, but was a nurse’s aide at Good Samaritan Hospital until she applied to train for a better job and was branded as a “troublemaker.”

The Johnsons and their four children — Herbert, Franklin, Eleanor and Harry, all named for people occupying the White House when they were born — live with her mother and sister in cramped quarters off Georgetown Street.

Lexington had a housing shortage in the late 1940s because of veterans returning from war. Things were worse for blacks, who were only allowed to live in certain parts of town and could rarely get credit to buy a house anywhere.

joeDesperate enough to take a chance, the Johnsons pile their children into a borrowed pickup truck and drive to the next county to answer the ad. The farmer and his wife, an older couple who lost their only son in the war, are surprised to see them. But they, too, are desperate. Like all good Kentuckians, everyone tries to be polite.

“We didn’t think to say ‘whites only’,” Wilma Lawson, the farmer’s wife, explains to readers. “We figured anyone who knew our place would know that.”

Indeed, they would. James Lawson has a dark past that everyone in their county seems to know. The Johnsons, being from Lexington, are unaware. But they have their own family secrets and shame.

Everyone’s secrets come out as the book’s major characters alternate chapters of first-person narrative. Readers wonder if any of these people, black or white, can escape the ghosts and prejudices of their past.

The characters are still working through events that occurred two decades earlier, when Kentucky race relations included lynchings and black residents being run out of small towns en masse.

What makes Anthony’s book so interesting is that it doesn’t try to preach or over-simplify. It shows that racism comes in black as well as white, and that injustice can afflict the oppressors as well as the oppressed.

“I’m a much nicer person as a writer than I am as a human being, and the reason is I have to see everybody’s point of view,” Anthony said. “I have to really try to understand their dilemma.”

While racism and prejudice are no longer legal, that doesn’t mean they have disappeared. Human relations are complex and always evolving.

“The book is about change, about the possibility of change,” Anthony said. “As Rudy says, if we can’t change we’re lost, we’re done. And that’s really what I wanted to write about.”

If you go

Joseph Anthony will sign copies of his novel,Wanted: Good Family.

■ 5:30 p.m. Thursday, The Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.

■ 3 p.m. Dec. 13, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington Green.


Artists must learn business skills to make a living from their art

November 17, 2014

lackyJohn Lackey at his studio at North Limestone and Sixth streets. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Lexington is starting to become a city where an artist can earn a living, but it requires almost as much focus on business as art.

Successful artists tell me they have had to learn strategy, salesmanship, client management and finance to earn money from their passion. Most of all, they have had to be flexible entrepreneurs, willing to try new things and see where they lead.

I talked about these issues last week with John Lackey, an independent artist in Lexington for a dozen years. Since 2010, he has operated Homegrown Press Studio & Gallery at the corner of Limestone and Sixth streets.

Lackey is best known for his intricate block prints and colorful acrylic paintings of Kentucky landscapes. They are fanciful scenes from nature, filled with swirling clouds and curly trees that almost seem to dance.

But Lackey does a lot more, both out of passion and necessity. He has done logos and other commercial art for businesses, including Alfalfa restaurant, where he once worked, and North Lime Coffee and Donuts, which shares his studio building. He also has produced more than a dozen concert posters for his favorite band, Wilco.

Lackey, this month, was commissioned by Kroger to paint an outside mural for its new Euclid Avenue store. The five interconnected, 12-by-7-foot panels along Marquis Avenue will depict “the trees with the most personality in Woodland Park, with human activity in the background,” he said.

He also is getting into filmmaking, after years of playing with time-lapse and animation photography. Lackey has an Indiegogo.com campaign that runs through Tuesday to raise money for a full-length movie. It will be set in Lexington’s northside and focus on themes of community and sustainability.

Lackey learned figurative art and print-making at the University of Kentucky, but some of his most useful professional skills were acquired during several years of hiatus between his studies, when he worked at lumber yards and car dealerships.

“I learned a lot that I still use today when I sold cars,” he said, including negotiating skills and how to read customers.

Lackey spent 14 years as a graphic artist for two Lexington TV stations, where he learned more about art and deadlines. He was then able to begin building an independent art career, thanks to an understanding wife with a steady paycheck.

Early on, he realized the work is a lot like being a home-improvement contractor. Customers who commission work have ideas, but often don’t know exactly what they want. That’s where listening skills and artistry come in.

Lackey said that being willing to try new things has helped him both get jobs and stretch artistically.

“At first, I didn’t do a lot of saying no, because I needed the money, and it pushed me out of my comfort zone,” he said. “It’s good if you have different things you like to do in art.”

The Kentucky Arts Council helped Lackey expose his work to potential clients. After being included in a show at the Governor’s Mansion, he was chosen to create the 2011 prizes for the Governor’s Award in the Arts. The council also helped him get a commission for four seasonal landscape paintings that now hang in the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s board room in Frankfort.

Many artists advise against doing free work to get exposure. While Lackey generally agrees, he follows his instinct on some projects where the payoff isn’t obvious.

For example, as a Wilco fan, he engaged others on the band’s website and volunteered to do artwork for a charity event. The band liked it and hired him to create concert posters.

The head of the Clyde’s restaurant chain around Washington, D.C., also is a Wilco fan. He saw Lackey’s posters and hired him to do artwork for the restaurants. The Clyde’s work was seen by Virginia-based Potter’s Craft Cider, which hired him to design its logo and labels. Such jobs can be vital income bridges between fine art projects.

Other free artwork has enriched his life, if not his bank account. Lackey has done more than 60 posters for the Holler Poet’s series at Al’s Bar, across East Sixth Street from his studio, where he occasionally reads his own poetry. Each poster became an opportunity to experiment with new techniques that have improved his work.

“For me, one of the benefits of being an artist is not having to do the same thing twice,” he said. “It keeps your brain regenerating.”