House-flipping venture turns Victorian disaster into showplace

October 19, 2014

141009Rehab0027

Left to right, Josh Despain, Bennett Clark, Ryan Clark and Michael Hogan spent 16 months renovating a circa 1889 mansion at 515 North Broadway that was filled with trash and animal waste when a lender foreclosed on the previous owner last year. They sat on the front porch  with a photo of the house taken when they bought it.  After a complete renovation, the house is now for sale for $1.2 million. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

The business venture began innocently enough. Four young men with backgrounds in architecture and real estate decided to pool their money, buy an old house, renovate it and try to resell it at a profit.

They looked for a manageable project; perhaps a 1920s bungalow in need of a little updating.

What they ended up with was a three-story, 5,282-square-foot Queen Anne mansion built in 1889 that was such a disaster it made headlines. Over the next 16 months, this house-flipping project almost flipped them.

But the disaster at 515 North Broadway is now a beautiful, completely renovated showplace, listed for sale for $1.2 million. And the four young men have learned some valuable lessons about construction, historic preservation and business.

“This project literally was the epitome of everything: it took longer, was harder and cost more than what we expected it to,” said Josh Despain, a landscape architect.

140118BroadwayHouse0004Despain, architect Michael Hogan and soon-to-be architect Ryan Clark work together at Ross Tarrant Architects. They spend most of their days behind desks.

“We were interested in the idea of getting our hands dirty and doing some construction ourselves,” Hogan said.

And, as young married men hoping to start families, they were looking for some extra money, too. So they teamed up with Clark’s cousin, Bennett Clark, a single real estate agent and builder who had been thinking along the same lines.

They had looked at several old houses when 515 North Broadway made headlines in February 2013. The Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. foreclosed on the previous owner. Authorities put her belongings on the sidewalk, almost stopping traffic as passersby picked through it.

Everything was filthy and covered in animal waste, prompting city health and code enforcement officers to step in. The inside of the house was even worse. The smell sickened almost everyone who stepped inside.

141009Rehab0007But the mansion was well-located, structurally sound and retained a lot of its original character. The lender got a dozen offers, and the four guys bought it for $195,752.

“Until we started taking out the plaster and some of the damaged areas, we didn’t really know what kind of condition it was in,” Hogan said. “But, structurally, we felt really good about it.”

Also salvageable were most of the original windows, including some stained-glass ones, and most of the woodwork and flooring. There was a magnificent staircase that rose three stories through the middle of the house.

But the partners quickly realized that all of the plaster needed to be removed to make way for new insulation, plumbing, electricity and interior walls.

“We saw it as a unique opportunity to build a new house within the shell of an original Victorian,” Hogan said.

Added Bennett Clark: “Our mindset was to make the house modern in the places that you need for a house to be modern, but bring back the formal areas to their original glory.”

141009Rehab0002To save money, the partners did about 60 percent of the labor themselves — mostly demolition, basic carpentry, landscaping, paint scraping and other grunt work. They hired contractors for skilled work such as electricity, plumbing, HVAC, roofing and window restoration.

Bennett Clark, who was the general contractor, made the reconstruction project his full-time job. The other three worked nights, weekends and vacations there.

“Our wives hate this house,” Ryan Clark said, as the other three chimed in about how their own homes were neglected during the project.

Because the house is in a city historic district, the partners had to follow strict guidelines on the exterior renovation. They weren’t expecting any special treatment, either: the city’s rule book pictures their house on the cover.

But they said it turned out to be a pleasant experience.

“If you’re just up front with them from the get-go and you’re not trying to hide anything, they’re super easy to work with,” Despain said.

The partners’ challenge now is selling the house for enough to recoup their investment and make a profit. Although expensive, the price is within the range of similar downtown mansions, many of which have had less extensive renovations.

So, do they plan to do this again? They think so, but not anytime soon. Since beginning the work in mid-2013, the three married guys have all had their first children. They expect to have less free time in the near future for construction.

The partners said they learned that to be successful in the renovation business, it must be your business, not a hobby you do in your spare time. A property must be chosen wisely, and the cost of purchase and renovation carefully calculated.

“It was the first project we had done together, so we wanted to make sure we did it right,” Hogan said. “Not only were we trying to make money, but we were really trying to learn a lot about historic preservation. It turned out really well.”

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Here’s the local hero a forward-looking Lexington should celebrate

October 18, 2014

What holds Lexington back? Well, for one thing, we celebrate the wrong member of the Hunt-Morgan family.

That may sound trivial, but it’s not.

In my work, I talk with some of Lexington’s most innovative people. They are behind many of the exciting things now happening in this city. Privately, though, many say they feel as if they are swimming against the tide. Lexington resists change, is too comfortable with the status quo.

Lexington loves to celebrate its history, and rightfully so. But the value of studying history is not to dwell on the past; it is to better understand the present and find inspiration for the future.

As a boy growing up here in the 1960s, I considered Gen. John Hunt Morgan a local hero. The Confederate cavalry raider was the star of the Hunt-Morgan House museum, his mother’s home on Gratz Park. His statue was on the courthouse lawn.

But the more I learn about Morgan, the less I respect him. He stole horses and burned towns, all to further a cause that wanted to break up the nation and keep black people in slavery. To my adult mind, that’s not hero material.

Morgan was a colorful, controversial character, and if Civil War buffs want to celebrate him, that’s fine. I would never want to see his statue removed from what is now the old courthouse lawn, because he is a significant figure in our history.

THMBut it is a shame he is more famous and celebrated here than his nephew, Thomas Hunt Morgan, a pioneering scientist and the first Kentuckian to win a Nobel Prize.

Thomas Hunt Morgan came along two years after his uncle’s death in a Civil War ambush. He was born in the Hunt-Morgan House on Sept. 25, 1866 and grew up behind it, in another family home facing Broadway.

That house was in the news last week. The Woman’s Club of Central Kentucky has deeded it to the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, which plans to restore it for programming and events.

I was vaguely aware of Morgan’s accomplishments, but I didn’t fully understand his significance until I read an essay Tom Kimmerer, a Lexington forest scientist, wrote recently for the website Planetexperts.com.

“Thomas Hunt Morgan was to become the most important biologist of his time, and laid the foundations for all of modern biology,” he wrote.

After a childhood of collecting birds’ eggs and fossils, Morgan earned degrees from the University of Kentucky and Johns Hopkins University. He spent 24 years doing pioneering embryology research at Bryn Mawr College. He joined the faculty of Columbia University in 1904 and the California Institute of Technology in 1928.

Morgan exhibited the best traits of scientific skepticism. He didn’t just theorize, he experimented. His work challenged, and eventually affirmed, two major concepts of biological science: Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Mendel’s ideas about genetics.

At Columbia, Morgan used fruit flies in sophisticated experiments to explain how genetics and evolution work. He showed that chromosomes carry genes and are the mechanical basis of heredity.

“He did not believe any biological theory unless he could test it,” Kimmerer wrote. “Almost every biological scientist working today is the beneficiary of Thomas Hunt Morgan’s approach to research.”

Morgan won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1933 and wrote seven books, all now classics of science. He died in 1945.

Kimmerer and I were talking recently about how Morgan may be one of the most accomplished Kentuckians in history. UK’s biological sciences building is named for him, and there is a state historical marker outside his boyhood home.

But I’ll bet if you asked most people in Lexington who Thomas Hunt Morgan was, they wouldn’t know.

Kimmerer has a great idea: Lexington should start planning now to celebrate 2016 as the year of Thomas Hunt Morgan, because it will be the 150th anniversary of his birth. This celebration could showcase Lexington as a city of modern scientific education, research and commercialization.

There could be Thomas Hunt Morgan banners on Main Street, exhibits and school science fairs. There could be a lecture series about his work, as well as the scientific research now being done in Lexington or by Kentuckians elsewhere.

Perhaps the Kentucky Theatre could show The Fly Room, a new scientifically accurate movie set in Morgan’s Columbia University lab, and invite filmmaker Alexis Gambis to come and speak. The film’s set, a recreation of that lab, was on display in New York this summer. Could it be brought here?

Could this attention help the Blue Grass Trust raise money to restore Morgan’s house? Could the Fayette County Public Schools’ STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics) Academy be named for him?

A statue of Thomas Hunt Morgan on the new Courthouse Plaza would certainly be appropriate. He should be a local hero, an example to future generations that a kid born in Lexington can grow up to change the world.


If you wrote your own obituary, what would you say?

October 14, 2014

Obituaries can be either the best or worst part of a newspaper.

We all recognize the bad ones; they contain dry lists of awards and accomplishments, saccharin sentimentality and euphemisms for death.

But good obituaries — whether news stories written by reporters or classified notices placed by families — offer vivid descriptions of what a person was like and how he or she lived. In a few paragraphs, they offer a glimpse into a rich life, and maybe even some advice for living our own.

I love well-written obituaries. My favorite annual issue of The New York Times Magazine, usually published the first Sunday of each year, is called The Lives They Lived. It has short essays about a couple dozen people who died the previous year. Some were famous, others obscure, but each of their lives had a big influence on society.

So I was intrigued when Neil Chethik, director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, told me about a class he was teaching last Saturday called Writing Your Own Obituary. I decided to sit in.

“I think the more we talk about death and accept it as a part of our lives, the better off we will be,” Chethik told his 10 class participants. His own interest in death and its impact led him to write his first book, Fatherloss: How Sons of All Ages Come to Terms with the Deaths of their Dads.

People came to the obituary class for many reasons. Some didn’t trust their relatives to get it right, or they wanted to have the last word, so to speak. Others weren’t so much interested in producing an obituary for publication as writing a meaningful letter to leave for relatives and close friends.

Contemplating your own obituary forces you to put your life in perspective: your faith, values, relationships, accomplishments and regrets. It’s an opportunity to reflect, evaluate and sum up. It can even give you a feeling of some control over that time when you will lose all control.

Chethik shared obituaries he found in newspapers around the country that were effective and even inspiring. Some were written in the first person and included life lessons and short tributes to people who were special to the deceased.

“What we’re trying to do is get to a deeper level of what you care about,” Chethik told the class. “It’s easy to go further in writing than you might do personally, at least in some families.”

Chethik suggested several prompts: List 10 words you think describe you. What activities do you love most? What have been your most important relationships? What have been your “mottos” throughout life?

Some people might also want to consider including confessions, regrets or reminiscences from their “glory days.” Accuracy in the details is essential; no family wants to be haunted by errors.

There is always debate about photos — should you publish a recent portrait or a favorite from years ago, or both? — and whether to give the cause of death or leave readers to speculate.

Beyond those basics, good self-written obituaries reflect the writer’s authentic voice. They are clear and concise and avoid minutiae. Distilling accomplishments, feelings and emotions into a few well-chosen paragraphs is a good discipline.

Writing your own obituary also might spark a desire to compose a longer memoir for family, friends or even publication. People like to read tales well told about interesting experiences. It is why powerful memoirs have always been best-sellers.

Online resources for writing your own obituary, or that of a loved one, include Obituaryguide.com and Obitkit.com, which was created by a former colleague of mine at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

One more thing: Don’t avoid humor. The right touches of appropriate humor can lessen the pain of death, just as they make life more enjoyable, Chethik said.

When comedian Joan Rivers died at age 81 last month, many obituaries recalled the funeral instructions she left in her 2012 autobiography. “I want it to be Hollywood all the way,” she wrote. “I don’t want some rabbi rambling on; I want Meryl Streep crying, in five different accents.”

Like many of those in Chethik’s class, I found the process of contemplating my own obituary more enlightening than morbid. That’s because it made me think as much about how I want to live the rest of my life as how I want to be remembered.


Lexington should stand firm on protections for cable customers

October 11, 2014

timewarnerAssociated Press Photo by Mark Lennahan

 

Bravo to Mayor Jim Gray and a unanimous Urban County Council for taking on Time Warner Cable. It’s about time somebody stood up to the giant cable television and Internet companies and their frustrating game of monopoly.

For far too long, the cable industry has abused the local franchise system across America to provide mediocre service at ever-increasing prices.

Meanwhile, cities have become pawns in the industry’s merger-and-acquisition game, which has left fewer companies owning more of the nation’s critical broadband infrastructure.

The Urban County Council last Thursday gave first reading to resolutions that would deny transfer of ownership of the local cable system as part of the industry’s latest deal, which would split Time Warner’s assets between Comcast and Charter Communications in a $45 billion stock swap. The systems in Lexington, Louisville and Cincinnati would go to Charter.

Gray’s re-election campaign also is tapping into public anger at Time Warner. The campaign is urging voters to sign a petition demanding that the company “improve customer service, deliver better speeds and give us what we pay for.”

Few cities have taken as aggressive a stand as Lexington has. Not that others aren’t concerned.

The Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Justice Department are both reviewing the deal proposed by Comcast, Time Warner and Charter, which are, respectively, the nation’s first, second and fourth-largest cable operators. Dozens of consumer advocacy groups have spoken out against it.

It’s hard to say how all of this will end. But here is how we got to this point:

Time Warner bought Insight Communications in 2012, but never negotiated a new franchise agreement with the city. It also has ignored some consumer-protection provisions of Insight’s franchise agreement, which the city has never enforced.

Since the acquisition, Time Warner has invested little in Lexington’s infrastructure while steadily raising prices. The company’s cost-cutting measures have hurt customer service, and public frustration has been rising. City officials say they have been flooded with citizens’ complaints about cable service and pricing.

Time Warner officials claim they have improved service, and their own surveys show high rankings for customer satisfaction. Yea, right. A J.D. Power & Associates’ survey last month of residential television service providers in the South ranked Time Warner dead last. (Comcast was second-to-last.)

Lexington officials say they are not seeking any new consumer protections in the franchise agreement negotiations — they just want to preserve the things Insight agreed to. Those include staffing the company’s customer service center beyond normal business hours, so customers with day jobs can actually get there.

The city also wants to preserve some way of holding the cable company financially accountable for service problems short of canceling the franchise agreement. Currently, the city can fine Time Warner $100 a day — although officials say that has never actually happened.

Time Warner has not been willing to agree to those modest terms, nor does it want to continue paying for the public-access television studio. It’s all pretty small potatoes, considering that Time Warner’s Lexington revenues probably exceed $100 million a year and the company has made little investment in its system.

If Time Warner and Lexington officials are unable to reach agreement by Oct. 23, when the council could take a final vote on the ownership transfer resolutions, it is unclear what will happen. Mostly likely, the issue would end up in federal court.

Time Warner, Comcast and Charter have deep pockets, but Lexington officials should not back down. Citizens these days need more protection from corporate abuse, not less.

More importantly, city officials need to make sure whatever agreements they reach leave the door open for more competition. With only two major Internet providers — Time Warner and Windstream — Lexington needs more broadband competition.

Cities such as Chattanooga, which are lucky enough to have municipally owned utilities, have invested public dollars in creating high-speed fiber-optic networks. Those networks are attracting entrepreneurs who are creating the high-tech jobs of the future. Unfortunately, that’s not a practical option in Lexington, whose existing utility infrastructure is privately owned.

Lexington officials must embrace creative approaches for seeking private investment in new fiber-optic networks, such as Gray’s proposed Gigabit City initiative. And they must stand firm in trying to hold accountable the revolving door of local cable and telephone monopolies.


Second Sunday event previews design for Legacy Trail completion

October 7, 2014

2ndSunday 2014 Handout-R1This rendering shows the proposed design for completing the Legacy Trail along Fourth Street between Jefferson and Shropshire streets. One-street parking would be eliminated to create a 10-foot, two-way bicycle land and 10-12 foot lanes for cars and trucks. People can test the concept 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday during the annual Second Sunday event. Photo Provided

 

This year’s Second Sunday event will offer a preview of what planners propose as the design for finishing Lexington’s popular Legacy Trail: a two-way path along Fourth Street separated from automobile traffic.

The free public event is 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, beginning at the corner of West Sixth and Jefferson Streets, at the Bread Box building and Coolivan Park. Festivities will include kids’ activities, but the main event will be bike riding, running, walking and skating on a coned-off lane of the south side of Fourth Street for 1.6 miles between there and the Isaac Murphy Art Garden under construction at East Third Street and Midland Avenue.

Eight miles of the Legacy Trail between the Northside YMCA and the Kentucky Horse Park were finished in 2010. But bringing the trail into town has been more complicated. The city secured $2.4 million in federal transportation funds to finish the trail, but it has taken time to work out all the details of bringing it into town.

Keith Lovan, a city engineer who oversees trail projects, said the cheapest and safest way to extend the trail across the Northside is what is known as a two-way cycle track on the street, separated from car and truck traffic by flexible posts.

To make room for the 10-foot-wide cycle track, on-street parking would be eliminated. Each car lane would still be 12 to 14 feet wide.

Sunday’s ride will extend to Shropshire Street, but Lovan said Elm Tree Lane and Race Streets also are being considered as ways to connect the Legacy Trail along Fourth Street to the art garden trailhead.

A citizens advisory committee of about 30 people has been mulling this design and other Legacy Trail issues. Detailed work will be done this winter and construction is to begin in the spring.

Lovan expects some controversy, because some on-street parking will be lost and because adding the trail will make street entry and exit from some driveways a little more complicated for drivers.

“I expect we’ll start hearing some of that Sunday,” Loven said of the Second Sunday event, when the trail will be marked off with orange cones. “We intend for this to reflect what the cycle track will look like.”

The hardest part of finishing the Legacy Trail, he said, “Will be getting the support to do this. We’ve had a lot of stakeholder meetings already.” Public meetings will be scheduled later this fall, and planners are going door-to-door talking with residents and businesses on affected streets, Lovan said.

The only other Lexington trail that uses this design is the short section of the Legacy Trail on the bridge over New Circle Road. In addition to cost-savings and improved safety, Lovan said, the two-way cycle track design has been shown in other cities to increase bicycle usage.

“These have been introduced across the country with great success,” said Loven, who oversaw design and construction of the rest of the Legacy Trail. “It provides the user a little more security. You don’t feel like you’re riding in traffic. But it’s more of a visual barrier than a protective barrier.”

I have ridden on cycle track in several American and European cities, and it feels safer for both cyclists and automobile drivers, because they are separated from each other.

When this is finished, there will be only one section of the original Legacy Trail left to do: a short connection between Jefferson Street and the YMCA. Lovan said the city has acquired an old rail line for part of that and is negotiating with the Hope Center to complete the connection. He expects that to be done next year.

The Legacy Trail demonstration marks the seventh year Lexington has participated in Second Sunday, a statewide effort to use existing built infrastructure to promote exercise and physical activity. In most communities, that has meant closing a street for a few hours so people can bike, walk, run or skate there.

The University of Kentucky’s Cooperative Extension Service started Second Sunday and has coordinated activities. The service plans to do several Second Sunday events next year, depending on grant funding, said spokeswoman Diana Doggett.

“We have a community that is willing and interested,” she said. “We just have to nudge that along.”


New book tells sad, fascinating story of madam Belle Brezing

October 7, 2014

140929BelleBrezing0002Belle Brezing’s last and most famous house of ill repute, at 59 Megowan Street (now Eastern Avenue at Wilson Street).  The third story was added after an 1895 fire. She died there in 1940. Below, two undated portraits of Brezing. Photos courtesy UK Special Collections.

 

Belle Brezing closed her house of prostitution nearly a century ago. She died in 1940. So why is she still famous, the subject of endless fascination?

That question helped prompt Maryjean Wall to finish a biography of the notorious Lexington madam that she started as a University of Kentucky history student in the early 1970s.

“The more I heard about her, the more I wanted to do a book,” said Wall, who returned to UK and finished her doctorate in history after a long career as the Herald-Leader’s award-winning horse racing writer.

140929BelleBrezing0003“Here’s a person who lived in the shadows, but was so integral to this community that there is a big collection about her life in UK special collections,” Wall said in an interview. “The first thing you have to ask is why? Well, it’s because she was at the center of power in this community.”

Wall’s new book is Madam Belle: Sex, Money and Influence in a Southern Brothel (University Press of Kentucky, $24.95).

Brezing has long been a popular subject. The late E.I. “Buddy” Thompson, an auctioneer and local historian, wrote a biography of her in 1983 that went well beyond an earlier sketch by another local historian, lawyer William Townsend.

Brezing was clearly the model for Belle Watling, the generous madam in Margaret Mitchell’s classic Civil War novel, Gone With The Wind. Mitchell never confirmed her inspiration, but her husband, John Marsh, ate breakfast many mornings in Brezing’s kitchen while he was police reporter for the Lexington Leader.

Wall’s book adds new details about Brezing’s sad but financially successful life, most notably that she attempted suicide at least twice. Even as a 19-year-old prostitute, she was well-known enough in Lexington that her botched effort to swallow too much morphine in a suicide pact with another woman made the newspapers.

But the main contribution of Wall’s book, aside from a well-told tale, is that it adds context and perspective about the red-haired madam’s place in the power structures of both Lexington and the horse industry.

When Brezing died at age 80, copies of the Lexington Herald with the news quickly sold out. Time magazine even published an obituary.

She is buried beside her mother at Calvary Cemetery on West Main Street. Even now, her grave looks especially well-tended and is often decorated with flowers. The Catholic Diocese refused to let Wall see records related to Brezing’s grave, she said.

Looking back on Brezing’s early life, it is a wonder she succeeded at anything.

She was born Mary Belle Cocks in 1860 to a single, heavy-drinking prostitute in a rented house on Rose Street. When Belle was 18 months old, Sarah Cocks married George Brezing. He ran a saloon and grocery when he wasn’t beating his wife.

Belle was shunned at school, lost her virginity at 12 and had a child at 14. Sarah Cocks died when Belle was 15, leaving her alone with a mentally handicapped infant daughter, who would spend most of her life in institutions under an assumed name. After a brief marriage and divorce in her teens, Belle started working the streets.

Brezing then went to work for Jenny Hill, who operated Lexington’s most high-class house of ill-repute. It is now the Mary Todd Lincoln House museum, because Abraham Lincoln’s wife spent her childhood there a few decades before Hill arrived.

140929BelleBrezing0001“I’m very intrigued why she went from being a street prostitute on North Upper, which was then a bad neighborhood, trying to commit suicide with another woman — what was that about? — and then the same year she gets into Jenny Hill’s house,” Wall said. “She must have had to clean herself up.”

Brezing left Hill’s house in 1881 and opened her own on North Upper Street — a building now part of a Transylvania University athletic complex.

“I think in Jenny Hill’s she probably learned good language, good style, became sort of educated,” Wall said. “And she had a client list when she left, because she went back to North Upper under very different circumstances.”

Brezing moved to another North Upper house, then in 1890 to 59 Megowan St. — now Eastern Avenue — at the corner of Wilson Street. It was a mansion outfitted in elegant style that became the talk of the town and racing circuit.

Trotters were the popular sport then, and Brezing’s clients included many influential horsemen who passed through town. She had several wealthy patrons, most notably one — or perhaps both — of the Singerly brothers.

William and George Singerly of Philadelphia had inherited an industrial fortune. They fancied race horses and Belle Brezing. Singerly money not only bought and outfitted the Megowan Street house, but it allowed her to buy rental property around town. Brezing didn’t get rich on prostitution, Wall said, but with real estate investments.

Lexington had a large red-light district during this era of Victorian morality. Wall cites one grand jury report that said the city had 158 brothels. Brezing’s was fanciest, from its antique furnishings to the lavish parties she gave for wealthy customers.

When anti-vice crusaders periodically tried to close the red-light district, Brezing’s house would be shuttered briefly. But when Lexington filled with soldiers training for World War I, the Army did what city politicians would never do — put her out of business.

She lived her last two decades as a drug-addicted recluse in a crumbling mansion.

Brezing’s previous biographers were men of an earlier generation, who Wall says tended to portray her as a victim and social outcast.

“She was shunned by the women in this town for sure, but I don’t see her as ‘poor little Belle’ at all,” Wall said. “I see her as a person who could take circumstances and work them to her advantage. She did that all her life.”

The book tells how Brezing clawed her way to the top by using men, investing wisely and playing politics. It also explains how so many others made money from her illicit business: the liquor merchants, grocers, clothing retailers, furniture dealers and horse traders.

Wall said she tried to avoid glamorizing either prostitution or Brezing’s life choices.

“Never would I do that,” she said. “Belle fit a lot of the stereotypes we have of prostitutes. She was a drug addict. She had worked the streets. Because she was smart, she managed to succeed in spite of the gender prejudices of her time.”

Book signings

Oct. 11 — Cincinnati Books by the Banks Festival

Oct. 14 — Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington

Oct. 15 — Kentucky Historical Society, Frankfort

Oct. 16 — Filson Historical Society, Louisville (Oxmoor Farm)

Oct. 23 — Paul Sawyer Public Library, Frankfort

Nov. 15 — Kentucky Book Fair, Frankfort


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.


Ashland estate marks War of 1812 with artifacts, re-enactors

September 23, 2014

If you hear cannon and musket fire near downtown Saturday, don’t be alarmed. The colorfully costumed soldiers and Native Americans aren’t invading Lexington; they’re just performing for Living History Day at Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate.

Ashland this year is marking the bicentennial of the War of 1812. And, no, it’s not two years late. Among the many little-known facts of this often-overlooked war is that, while it began in June 1812, the fighting didn’t stop until February 1815.

Ashland is commemorating the Treaty of Ghent, which Clay, John Quincy Adams and other American representatives negotiated with the British and signed on Christmas Eve 1814.

ghentjacketAs the congressman from Central Kentucky and speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Clay was a politician for all seasons. He not only helped end the War of 1812, he helped start it, too. That dual role helped launch one of the most illustrious American political careers of the 19th century.

But Clay was hardly the only Kentucky connection to the War of 1812.

“Kentucky doesn’t have any battlefields for this war; the war itself didn’t happen here,” said Eric Brooks, Ashland’s curator. “But more than any other conflict this nation has fought, the War of 1812 was a Kentucky war.”

Kentucky contributed 25,000 soldiers to the War of 1812 — more than all of the other 17 states combined. About 60 percent of the war’s casualties were Kentuckians. At the battle of Wild Cat Creek in northern Indiana, almost every U.S. soldier was from Hopkinsville.

Much of the gunpowder used by American forces was made from saltpeter mined in Kentucky, including at Mammoth Cave. Newport was the U.S. Army’s major supply depot. Twenty-two of Kentucky’s 120 counties are named for War of 1812 veterans.

In 1812, Clay and other “war hawks” pushed for declaring war on Great Britain, which despite its Revolutionary War loss continued to mess with the new nation. Of greatest concern was Britain’s arming of Native American tribes, who were attacking white settlers who had taken their land.

While the War of 1812 settled most of those issues, it ended up being a military stalemate that came at high cost: British troops invaded Washington, D.C., and burned the White House and the Capitol.

“We as a state need to understand the role we played in solidifying this nation as a legitimate and survivable nation in the world,” Brooks said. “Prior to the War of 1812, there were a lot of countries that thought the United States was a flash in the pan, that democracy would never work.”

Saturday’s festivities at Ashland will include re-enactors from Ohio and Michigan portraying the 2nd Kentucky Militia. There also will be Native American re-enactors, who will demonstrate tomahawk throwing at their encampment on the 17 acres that remain of Clay’s 600-acre estate, most of which is now the Ashland Park and Chevy Chase neighborhoods.

There also will be farm animals, crafts, special activities and an actress portraying Charlotte Dupuy, a slave who filed a highly publicized lawsuit against Clay trying to win her family’s freedom.

Ashland has several important relics related to the War of 1812 that will be on display. They include a copy of the Treaty of Ghent in Clay’s own handwriting, his place card at the negotiating table and an ivory cane he received as a gift.

The mansion also has one of two paintings Clay won while playing cards with his fellow negotiators. (In addition to being a masterful politician, Clay was a party animal who loved to drink and gamble.)

Ashland’s most important War of 1812 relic is the military-style coat Clay wore during treaty negotiations in Ghent, which is now in Belgium. Clay’s coat set the style for American diplomatic attire for decades. It was last worn by a Clay descendant when Ashland opened to the public as a museum in 1950.

“That’s the last time it will be worn, too,” Brooks said. “If for no other reason than there are not a lot of 6-foot-2, 145-pound men around anymore. And, obviously, it’s very, very fragile.”

If you go

What: War of 1812 Living History Day

When: 10 a.m. — 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27

Where: Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate, 120 Sycamore Road.

Cost: $14 adults; $7 younger than 18; $35 family.

More information: Henryclay.org, (859) 266-8581


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.


Author of new William Wells Brown biography speaks in Lexington

September 16, 2014

William Wells Brown is a name few people recognize today. He may be best known in Lexington as the namesake of an elementary school and community center in the East End.

But Brown (1814-1884) became a celebrity in the 19th century as the first black American to publish a novel, a travelogue, a song book and a play. He wrote three major volumes of black history, including the first about black military service in the Civil War.

The Central Kentucky native, who spent much of his adult life as a fugitive slave, spoke widely in this country and Europe against slavery. After emancipation, he was an important voice for black self-improvement. He also became a physician.

But that summary of accomplishments gives no clue about the fact that Brown’s own life story was as complex and fascinating as any work of literature.

wwbEzra Greenspan, an English professor at Southern Methodist University who has edited two collections of Brown’s writing, next month will publish a groundbreaking biography of America’s first black literary giant, William Wells Brown: An African American Life (W.W. Norton & Co., $35).

As part of a national tour celebrating the bicentennial of Brown’s birth, Greenspan is in Lexington this week to talk about his biography, which sheds new light on a man whose life and work were often surrounded by mystery and controversy. Greenspan plans to speak to students at four Lexington schools, and he has two free public events Thursday: a 4 p.m. talk at Third Street Stuff coffee shop and a more extensive presentation at 6:30 p.m. at the Lyric Theatre.

I had been eager to read Greenspan’s book since last year, when I interviewed him for a Black History Month column about Brown. I recently got a draft and found it to be an engaging, well-written story, filled with new information from years of painstaking research.

Greenspan’s work was difficult because Brown left no personal papers — perhaps because of scandals involving his first wife and a daughter — and the fact that he often mixed fact with fiction when writing about himself. Because Brown was born a slave, early records are sparse.

Greenspan first came to Lexington in 2009, when he and his wife were traveling around the United States and Britain to places where Brown spent time. They came here because Brown’s first published work — a narrative about his life in slavery — began: “I was born in Lexington, Kentucky.”

Brown may have thought that, because he was taken from Kentucky when he was only 3. But Greenspan discovered that Brown was actually born in Montgomery County, the child of a black slave and his owner’s white cousin, George W. Higgins. Called “Sandy” as a youth, Brown later adapted his chosen name from that of a subsequent owner.

Greenspan’s book traces Brown’s life from Kentucky to Missouri, where he lived on a farm next to Daniel Boone, to his work on Mississippi River steamboats for various masters, including a notorious slave-trader. All this time, Brown was observing much that would eventually find its way into print.

Brown’s third and successful escape from slavery came in 1834, when he was 19, after he saw both his mother and sister “sold down the river.”

His accomplishments were remarkable on many counts. He taught himself to read as an adult. With no formal education, he became a stylish, sophisticated and unusually prolific writer and a speaker of such skill that he attracted huge audiences.

Brown also was a resourceful entrepreneur. He profitably managed most of his own publishing, and he fiercely guarded his creative and financial independence despite persistent racism.

As Greenspan’s book recounts, Brown took considerable literary license with facts and indulged in bold examples of using others’ material in his own work. As both an activist and writer, he was fearless.

Brown’s most famous book was the novel Clotel, or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, first published in London in 1853. It boldly cast its title character as the daughter of Thomas Jefferson, whose relationship with his slave Sally Hemings had long been the subject of gossip.

Clotel was heavily influenced by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was then an international sensation. Brown was always savvy about writing and rewriting his work to sell. But Stowe’s novel, which also was deeply rooted in Kentucky, had a profound impact on Brown.

“It was basically a retelling of his own life story,” Greenspan said. “It hit home in a very powerful way.”

 


Funeral home’s beautician still going strong at almost 92

August 30, 2014

margarethunterMargaret Hunter, who turns 92 on Sept. 2, at Kerr Brothers Funeral Home, where she has been the beautician for 52 years. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

When she tripped on a power cord at work and fell and broke her hip, Margaret Hunter said she thought, “Well, this is going to be it for me!” She wasn’t alone.

“We thought Margaret’s career was done,” said Tom Morton, a funeral director at Kerr Brothers Funeral Home on East Main Street.

But after surgery and a month of recuperation, Hunter got bored just sitting around her house. So, with her doctor’s permission, she started driving herself back to work at Kerr Brothers. That was a year ago.

This week, Kerr Brothers will help Hunter celebrate two big anniversaries: her 92nd birthday and her 52nd year as the funeral home’s staff beautician.

“I like what I do, and I’m good,” Hunter said with a wry grin. “I’m not ready to throw the towel in. And I’m not ready to go to a nursing home. No way!”

No way, indeed.

“I think she’s got more energy now than before she broke her hip,” said Brandon Haddix, another Kerr Brothers funeral director.

As a child growing up in Lexington, Hunter says she cut friends’ and neighbors’ hair with scissors and a straight razor and did home permanents. “I love doing hair,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to be a beautician.”

After beauty school, Hunter had her own shop at several downtown locations for about 15 years. Then one day someone asked her to do the hair of a deceased relative for the visitation. That first time was uncomfortable, she said, but then she realized what an important service she was providing for the family.

“Then some of my customers or their mothers would pass away and they would want me to do their hair,” she said. “Kerr Brothers saw my work and they offered me a job.”

Eventually, Hunter closed her shop and worked only for Kerr Brothers. She usually handles about 25 clients a month, but has done as many as seven in a day.

“I’m on call 24/7,” Hunter said. “I’ve missed a lot of reunions, a lot of get-togethers. I’m here when they need me, because when they have to be out they have to be out.”

Hunter said she works from photos, or meets with family members to get their suggestions. Hunter has a small, third-floor workroom at the funeral home, just big enough for a long table, some cabinets and a couple of hair dryers.

She does about 90 percent of Kerr Brothers’ clients; the rest have their own beautician fix their hair one last time.

“When I do a lady’s hair here, I want her looking nice, because that’s the last time her loved ones are going to see her,” Hunter said, adding that she often gets cards or kind comments from family members.

Hunter said her accident last August hasn’t slowed her much. Her only concession to the new, artificial hip joint is a walking cane, which Kerr Brothers’ employees have named Charlie.

“I’d go crazy if I stayed home every day,” said Hunter, who also takes pride in doing her own house cleaning. She has lived in her home in the Deepwood subdivision since it was new in 1962. Her husband, John, who was a maintenance worker for the city, died in 1996. She has a son, Garrett, who lives in Cynthiana.

Hunter doesn’t cut her own hair — although she says she could — but she mixes the coloring for her beautician to use. “I wouldn’t want to be your beautician,” Morton tells her.

In her free time, Hunter enjoys meeting friends for meals at Loudon Square Buffet, a longtime restaurant on North Broadway.

Kerr Brothers’ management has promised Hunter a job as long as she wants it, Morton said. She has no plans to retire.

“I love what I do,” she said. “I love working at Kerr’s. They’re just like family. To me, they are family. I call this my second home, because this will probably be the last door I go out of.”


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.”

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


‘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.”


Woodland Triangle street work recalls Lexington area’s history

August 19, 2014

140818Woodland-old1Pearson & Peters Architects now occupies the Woodland Triangle building that in 1911 housed R.L. Jones Grocery. Below, Jeff Pearson and Maureen Peters recreate the old scene, minus apron and horse and buggy. Modern photos by Tom Eblen.

 

140818Woodland-TE0014The just-completed redesign of that funky intersection at East High, Kentucky and East Maxwell streets has sparked recollections of the Woodland Triangle’s history.

Pearson & Peters Architects now occupies the wedge-shaped building in the intersection. But Maureen Peters recalled that in 2006 a woman walked in and showed her staff photos of the building nearly a century earlier, when it housed the R.L. Jones Grocery.

The building dates from 1909 or 1910. The 1911 city directory lists Jones’ grocery, although by the next year there was a different tenant. Except for the awnings, the building’s exterior looks about the same. Peters and her business partner, Jeff Pearson, have done a handsome, modern renovation of the interior.

The street project prompted Peter Bourne, a map-maker for city government, to make sure the work hadn’t removed a city “mile marker” from the 1870s. It had not. The limestone block still stands nearby in Woodland Park.

Bourne recounted on his Lexington Streetsweeper blog how officials decided in 1871 to mark the old city limits — a one-mile radius from the Court House — with a ring of stones, 500 feet apart. If all were installed, there should have been about 66 of them. Bourne can only find the one at Woodland Park and another along West Main Street between Lexington and Calvary cemeteries. Does anyone know of others still in place?

140818Woodland-TE0021On East High Street, just inside Woodland Park, is one of two known remaining “mile markers” erected by Lexington in the early 1870s to mark the city limits Ñ a circle one mile from the Court House.

140818Woodland-old2The interior of the Woodland Triangle building when it was R.L. Jones Grocery, about 1911 Below, architects Maureen Peters and Jeff Pearson in the same room. 

140818Woodland-TE0006


Facade, light show dress up Lexington’s ugliest parking garage

August 19, 2014

140818Helix-TE0025The Helix Garage downtown got a facade of lights to help mask the fact that it is one of Lexington’s ugliest buildings. Photo by Tom Eblen

Lexington tore down one of its most elegant public buildings in 1960 and replaced it with two of the ugliest — a parking garage and the office building now occupied by the Fayette County clerk.

So the new façade and colorful light display on Helix Garage on East Main Street at Martin Luther King Boulevard is a big improvement.

That corner was previously the site of Union Station, which opened in 1907. The imposing brick railroad terminal had a big center lobby and an arched stained-glass window over the front doors.

The last passenger train pulled out of Union Station on May 9, 1957. Three years later, the station was demolished and replaced by the garage — a powerful statement about changes in the way Americans travel.

The garage, originally built for the nearby Stewart’s department store, was never a thing of beauty. But it was literally falling apart when the Lexington and Fayette County Parking Authority (LexPark) put $3.1 million into a structural renovation last year.

LexPark realized the 389-space garage, with its low ceilings and dark interior, also needed a marketing makeover to attract customers and support downtown revitalization.

The name was changed from Annex Garage to Helix Garage, after the shape of the exit ramp that has terrorized generations of teenagers who had to drive down it with a state trooper in their passenger’s seat to earn their driver’s license. (I’ve always wondered how many people flunk their driving test before they even reach the street.)

LexPark spent $40,000 to improve interior lighting. But Gary Means, the authority’s executive director, said more was needed “to cover up what’s a really ugly parking garage in a prominent spot on Main Street.”

Vincent Lighting Systems of Erlanger installed $100,000 worth of colorful, energy-efficient LED lighting on the helix ramp. To improve the façade along Main Street, LexPark chose a design by Pohl Rosa Pohl architects, which worked with Vincent Lighting, Green Giant Lighting of Lexington, Randy Walker Electric of Lexington and ProClad metal of Noblesville, Ind.

That façade, finished last month, is stunning, especially during the nightly light show. (It cost $180,000. Like the other garage improvements, it was paid for with parking revenues, not taxpayer money.)

“The existing building was a concrete frame and little more,” said architect Graham Pohl, who worked on the project with colleague Adam Wiseman. They designed a skin using a steel frame and corrugated plates of various shapes, which house the LED lights.

Means said lighting designers are about finished with computer programming that will allow the garage façade to do a lot more than we have seen so far. He envisions elaborate light displays to the beat of music during the annual Thriller parade and other special effects for downtown festivals.

“At the end of the day, it’s marketing,” said Means, noting that many garage spaces go unused at night by downtown bar and restaurant patrons. “When people start talking about ‘that cool garage with the lights,’ they’ll start using it more.”


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.”