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.