Shop struggles with constant downtown construction projects

November 30, 2014

141124Failte0013At her first location, Liza Hendley Betz’s Fáilte Irish Imports faced the long Limestone reconstruction project. Now in the red building with McCarthy’s Irish Bar, it is surrounded by CentrePointe excavation and renovation of the 21C Museum Hotel. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

As she prepares to celebrate the 13th anniversary of opening Fáilte Irish Imports, Dublin native Liza Hendley Betz feels as if the luck of the Irish has been replaced by the curse of downtown redevelopment.

For the first eight years after she opened her shop in 2001, Hendley’s business prospered on South Limestone, just off the corner of High Street.

Betz’s bread and butter was selling Irish bread and butter — plus sausages, Bewley’s tea, Batchelor’s canned beans, Cadbury’s sweets and other comfort food from home to the Emerald Isle’s large expatriate community in Central Kentucky. She also did a good business in Irish tweeds, Celtic jewelry and souvenirs.

Then, with two weeks’ warning, South Limestone was shut down for 11 months for a major street reconstruction project.

141124Failte0043Her business struggled, but she was able to move in early 2010 to her dream location: beside McCarthy’s Irish Bar on South Upper Street. But the old red-and-green building also was across the street from the stalled CentrePointe project, which was then a grassy field.

“This is where I always wanted to be,” Betz said of the close proximity to McCarthy’s, a social center for the Irish community where she used to serve drinks.

As for CentrePointe, she figured, “I’ll deal with it when it happens. It can’t be any worse than what happened before.”

Or could it? Last December, all of the street parking across from her shop was closed after CentrePointe’s developer got city permission to begin blasting and excavation.

The street was a noisy, dusty mess for most of this year as the CentrePointe block was converted into a 40-foot limestone pit. Then everything stopped. Developer Dudley Webb is now trying to raise money to build an underground garage.

To make matters worse, the block of North Upper Street above Fáilte has been closed for months so the old First National Bank Building can be renovated into 21C Museum Hotel.

“This used to be a busy intersection,” she said. “You can go out here now and do a dance in the middle of the street. It’s hard these days to keep a business going with all this around you.”

Betz has rented a single parking space beside her shop, which has made it more convenient for customers to stop in for quick purchases.

Like many retailers, Fáilte’s prime season is between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, not just for gift items but because Irish Americans want food from home for their holiday celebrations.

On Dec. 12, the shop will celebrate its 13th anniversary with a 10 percent off sale, plus a party with Guinness beer, souvenir glasses and Irish music next door at McCarthy’s between 7 and 9 p.m.

Betz said she needs a big December, although her holiday season will extend to St. Patrick’s Day on March 17. She recently became a United States citizen, so she also is thinking about something special for next July 4 — if she can keep the doors open that long.

“It’s the worst time we’ve ever had,” said Betz, whose husband is a horse veterinarian. She minds the shop while caring for their two small children.

Like any good entrepreneur, Betz has been looking for ways to broaden her business beyond food and gifts. She has organized annual tours of Ireland, and she’s looking to use her Irish expertise to grow the travel business. She also is thinking about clearing some space in the tiny shop for a couple of tables to serve tea.

“I know I need to change things up a bit,” she said. “But I’m afraid to put money into anything right now.”

Betz also knows that, in the long run, she will have a great location when 21C opens and whatever ends up being built at CentrePointe is finished. But, as the famous saying goes, people don’t eat in the long run.

“I’m in the middle of downtown,” she said. “Who would think this is a bad location?”


Revenue Cabinet employee a finalist for Ireland’s Rose of Tralee

July 29, 2014

roseClaire Curran, left, of Frankfort, is as one of 23 finalists in the Rose of Tralee pageant, a 55-year-old competition next month for young women of Irish ancestry. Lexington’s Irish community threw a sendoff party for her Saturday night at McCarthy’s Irish Bar. Among the well-wishers was Penny O’Brien, right. Photo by Tom Eblen

What Miss America is to this country, the Rose of Tralee is to Ireland. And for the first time in the competition’s 55-year-history, a Kentuckian is a finalist for the crown.

McCarthy’s Irish Bar was packed Saturday night as the Lexington Celtic Association threw a sendoff “hooley” for Claire Curran, complete with traditional Irish musicians and the McTeggart step dancers.

Curran, 23, spent four days in Ireland in May competing against more than 60 young women of Irish descent from Ireland and as far away as New Zealand and Dubai. She will soon head back. The 23 finalists will make appearances around Ireland and take part in festival activities for two weeks before this year’s Rose is chosen during two televised broadcasts from Tralee’s Festival Dome, Aug. 18-19.

“For us, this is huge,” said Liza Hendley Betz, a Dublin native who owns Failte, The Irish Shop. “As a kid in Ireland, watching the Rose of Tralee on television was a family tradition. Now to think that our Kentucky Rose could win it all.”

The Rose of Tralee began in 1959 as a local pageant in County Kerry, taking its name from a 19th century love ballad. It soon went national, and in 1967 opened to young women of Irish descent everywhere.

Ireland has fewer than 4.6 million people — only about 255,000 more than Kentucky. But for two centuries, Ireland’s biggest export has been people.

More than 10 percent of Kentucky residents are of Irish descent. Early Irish stone masons built many of Central Kentucky’s iconic limestone fences. The horse industry has lured hundreds of recent immigrants, who say Central Kentucky reminds them of home because of its lush green meadows and stone fences.

Betz estimates the area has at least 300 “off the boat” Irish, as she calls them. Irish comfort food for expatriates is a big draw for her imports shop. It shares an old red-and-green building on South Upper Street with McCarthy’s, where the bartenders know how to properly pour a pint of Guinness.

Betz and other Irish immigrants started a Kentucky Rose organizing committee, called a centre, in 2012. It joined a dozen other U.S. centres, as well as eight in Britain, four in Canada, two in continental Europe, seven in Australia and New Zealand and four in the Middle East. All 32 Irish counties have them.

“The first year, we had our event on St. Patrick’s Day out in the mud at CentrePointe,” Betz said. “It was almost comical, so we said we need to get serious about this.”

Curran was chosen from among eight contestants March 22 at the second annual Rose Ball at Saints Peter and Paul School. Betz said she is thrilled that a Kentucky girl made the finals this quickly.

The Rose of Tralee International Festival says it is not a beauty pageant. There is no swimsuit competition, and while contestants perform, their talent is not judged. The winner is selected based on her personality and ability to be a “confident, hardworking, intelligent role model” and goodwill ambassador.

Carole Whalen, who went to the preliminaries in Port Laoise, Ireland, thinks Curran impressed the judges with her wit and humor. During her talent performance, she dramatically unrolled a long scroll to read a funny poem she had written.

Curran said she was born in California, grew up in Frankfort and graduated from Murray State University. She works for the Kentucky Revenue Cabinet where, she said, “I’m one of those people in the division of sales and use tax who writes letters that make people’s day all over the Commonwealth.” Her hobby is acting.

“Being Irish has always been an important part of our family,” she said. “If my grandparents were still alive they would be beside themselves about this.”

Lexington’s Irish community raised several thousand dollars to help pay for Curran’s festival expenses.

“There’s so many Irish here, we try to help each other out,” said one of her sponsors, Pat Costello, an owner of the Thoroughbred firm Paramount Sales. “We grew up at home with the Rose of Tralee as a huge contest.”


Sister Cities’ artists help with Horse Mania

August 4, 2010

Lexington’s Sister Cities Commission has put together student and cultural exchanges for 53 years, but this year’s big project was a horse of a different color.

Four horses, to be exact.

As part of the Horse Mania 2010 public art project, LexArts asked the commission to help recruit an artist from each of Lexington’s four sister cities: Deauville, France; County Kildare, Ireland; Shinhidaka, Japan; and Newmarket, England. Like Lexington, each place has a strong equine heritage.

The sister cities put out a call for designs, and the winning artists were flown to Lexington and given a horse statue, art supplies and studio space. Travel costs were covered by donations and by the sponsor of all four horses, Balatro Gallery in Dudley Square.

How did it all work out?

“I think it was fantastic,” said Kay Sargent, who manages Lexington’s Sister Cities Commission. You can judge for yourself at Dudley Square, at South Mill and Maxwell streets, where all four horses are on display.

I caught up with French artist Karl Lagasse in late April as he was applying gold leaf to his horse, Normandy, in a small basement studio at ArtsPlace on Mill Street.

Lagasse, 29, said he sells his work through galleries in France, London, Hong Kong and New York. He had been to New York, Los Angeles and Miami before, but this was his first visit to Kentucky.

Through an interpreter — Betty Mills, a longtime French teacher and chairwoman of the commission’s Deauville committee — Lagasse said he covered his horse in gold leaf to represent the prosperity that the horse industry has brought to Deauville. The horse’s other element is the Normandy flag.

Although he spent much of his two weeks in Lexington working, Lagasse said he and his girlfriend went to several good restaurants, attended a ballet and saw their first American baseball game. The Lexington Legends “made a home run, but they lost,” he said with a frown.

Yoshihiro Hosokawa was in Lexington for only a week in May, so he had less time for leisure. A musician as well as an artist, he also is president of the tourist association in Shinhidaka. The design of his horse, Nihon no Haru (Spring in Japan), included Mount Fuji, swans, cherry blossoms and other images from his picturesque region.

Liza Kavanagh of County Kildare called her horse Folúil (pronounced fawl-oohl), which means Thoroughbred in the Irish language. She decorated it with a collage of photographs, race cards, tote tickets and other scraps of memorabilia collected from Irish racecourses.

“It was my first trip to Kentucky, and I have to say it was a fantastic experience,” Kavanagh said, adding that the bluegrass landscape “felt very much like home, but on a much grander scale.”

“I know that we Irish are known for our hospitality, but the people I met went well beyond the call,” she said. “I had more offers for dinner than I could squeeze into the fortnight, and people could not have been nicer.”

Paula Wilson of Newmarket and her daughter, Amy, an art student, arrived in Lexington after midnight April 6 and were taken in darkness to stay in the guest house at nearby Calumet Farm.

“The following morning, we could hardly believe our eyes when we saw the beautiful surroundings,” she said. “Outside were horses galloping around the workout track, bathed in sunshine. As the week progressed, the pink and white dogwoods blossomed.”

Wilson was the first of the sister cities artists to visit Lexington, and she was given studio space in Artists Attic in Victorian Square. (But because of the steady stream of visitors she received, the others were given studio space in ArtsPlace.)

After 180 hours of work, Wilson finished her horse, Me and My Gal, which is based on designs of racing silks used by Thoroughbred owners around Newmarket.

By then, an ash cloud from a volcano in Iceland had shut down air travel across Europe. So Calumet owner Arianne de Kwiatkowski let the Wilsons spend another week in her guest house.

Wilson found Lexington to be “one of the most hospitable, friendly places I have ever visited,” and she hopes to return to see the finished Horse Mania exhibit before the horses come off Lexington’s streets this fall.

“I’d better start saving!” she said.

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Kentucky vision: Education, innovation, branding

November 11, 2008

Kentucky’s potential for success in a global economy might not be obvious to people who have lived here all of their lives.

Pearse Lyons, an Irishman who heads the animal nutrition company Alltech, says he sees it. And he is convinced it can be achieved if Kentucky invests in education, focuses on scientific innovation and markets its brand.

Lyons is barnstorming the state this week to deliver that message in a series of public lectures. He began Monday in Glasgow, then drove to Murray and Owensboro. He plans to make six more speeches around the state Tuesday and Wednesday.

Dr. Pearse Lyons

Dr. Pearse Lyons

Lyons, who started Alltech in Jessamine County 28 years ago, said Kentucky has some of the same advantages that helped launch Ireland’s economy in the 1980s. Both places have about 4 million residents, and their governments and universities are small enough to be accessible.

Lyons thinks Kentucky needs more public-private partnerships to invest in education and innovation. He hopes other companies will join Alltech in funding Margin of Excellence scholarships at the universities of Kentucky and Louisville to attract and retain the bright minds who will create tomorrow’s technology.

Earning a Ph.D. degree often requires a student to study for five years while living on a $20,000 annual university stipend. After graduation, first jobs don’t pay much.

“Who in their right mind would do that?” Lyons asked during a telephone interview on the road between Glasgow and Murray. “Why does Ph.D. have to stand for Poor, Hungry and Driven?”

The Margin of Excellence scholarship provides a $40,000 annual stipend on top of the university money for up to five years, plus an additional $10,000 for published research and another $10,000 if the student stays in Kentucky for three years after graduation.

“We’ve stepped up and done the first one,” which went to UK animal nutrition student Anne Koontz, Lyons said. “We’ve got a couple of people to step up and do the second and third. What we need is like-minded business people and businesses to step up and say, ‘Let’s create the single best Ph.D. program in the world.'”

Lyons, whose company operates in 113 countries, said such scholarships could be an inexpensive way for companies to do critical research. “You couldn’t hire a technician for $40,000 a year,” he said. “And here you’re going to get the brightest and the smartest focusing on your problem. It’s a no-brainer.”

Technology could allow Kentucky to keep building on traditional strengths, such as agriculture and energy. For example, the horse industry could fund a Ph.D. student interested in figuring out how to capture methane from manure. Coal companies could fund students to study ways to create clean-coal technology by capturing carbon dioxide.

Despite the economic slump, Lyons thinks this is a good time for companies to invest in the future. For example, he said, Alltech has secured government grants to help build a bio-refinery in Springfield that will create energy from renewable cellulose, such as corn cobs, switch grass and kudzu.

“Let’s focus on the problems of Kentucky,” he said. “Let’s focus on making those problems opportunities.”

Good marketing is vital, he said, for a state as well as a company. Lyons thinks Alltech’s sponsorship of the 2010 FEI World Equestrian Games will be good for marketing his company — and Kentucky. “It’s an incredible opportunity to show Kentucky to the world,” he said.

In some ways, Kentucky has a better image abroad than it does in the United States, thanks to such exports as Thoroughbred horses, bourbon whiskey, bluegrass music and what Lyons calls the “super brands” of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Muhammad Ali.

Good marketing sometimes just means taking advantage of small opportunities. Last Friday night, Lyons was back in Dublin for a black-tie dinner to receive the Foundation Day Medal from his alma mater, University College Dublin. But he didn’t go home alone.

That same evening, Alltech sponsored a recital at the Royal Irish Academy of Music by Everett McCorvey and Tedrin Blair Lindsay of UK Opera Theater, along with four UK students who have won the school’s Alltech-sponsored vocal competition.

After the recital, McCorvey said, he secretly arranged to hurry over to Lyons’ event so he could close the dinner by performing a special arrangement of My Old Kentucky Home with University College’s Choral Scholars.

After the performance, Lyons said, “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

And it exposed 600 influential people in Ireland to a brand: Kentucky.

IF YOU GO
Lyons’ lectures

Tuesday
Northern Kentucky University, 7:30 a.m.
Student Union, Room 104, Highland Heights
Frazier International History Museum, 11:30 a.m.
829 West Main St., Louisville
(By invitation. Call (502) 625-0080)
KCTCS System Offices, 5:30 pm
300 North Main St., Versailles
Wednesday
Ashland Plaza Hotel, Ashland, 7:30 a.m.
Centre College, Old Carnegie Building, Danville, Noon
(By invitation. Call (859) 238-5218)
Eastern Kentucky University, 5 p.m.
Posey Auditorium, Stratton Building, Richmond