Winter’s last gasp reinforces the joy of springtime in Kentucky

April 15, 2014

Mahan-KeenelandA horse is exercised at Keeneland after Tuesday’s snow. Photo by Mark Mahan. Below, snow melts off a tulip at Mathews Garden at the University of Kentucky. Photo by Pablo Alcala.


We should have known this winter would not give up easily. But I just smiled when I woke up Tuesday to that little last gasp of a snow storm.

I smiled because I had already seen, felt and smelled the warm promise of spring. I had a sunburn from the weekend. And I knew that there is no better place to enjoy springtime than in Kentucky.

Two Saturdays ago, I saw the new season arrive on the tiny blooms of Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot and rare snow trillium. The rugged creeks that feed into the Kentucky River Palisades harbor a unique array of spring wildflowers, both common and endangered.

Wildflower hikes are offered by such places as the Floracliff Nature Sanctuary, the Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve and the Salato Wildlife Education Center. But opportunities are limited, and the flowers are fleeting.

More common wildflowers can be enjoyed on lawns whose owners eschew toxic chemicals. My yard is awash in purple violets. The grassy median that divides my street has patches of white spring beauties. The grounds at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, have been so covered with spring beauties that it looked as if the snow had arrived there early.

TulipThe lilac bushes beside my front porch have made it a fragrant place to relax on warm evenings and watch my neighbors dust off their bicycles and take a spin.

Last weekend was a perfect opportunity to get reacquainted with some of my cycling friends. Sunshine and perfect temperatures made it feel like late May, although our out-of-shape bodies kept reminding us that it was only early April.

We rode a 35-mile loop Saturday past manicured horse farms in Fayette, Scott and Bourbon counties, then enjoyed a late lunch at Windy Corner Market, where a steady line of customers stretched out the door for hours.

Sunday’s ride was more ambitious: 50-something hilly miles from our Lexington homes to Berea. A few steep climbs and a constant headwind showed who had and who had not kept in shape over the winter. I had not. As we crossed the Kentucky River on the Valley View Ferry, a crew member serenaded us with his guitar. Birds took over the musical duties as we pedaled along Tate’s Creek on the other side, admiring redbud trees in full bloom.

We stopped for lunch at Acres of Land winery, the road up to which required climbing acres of steep asphalt. We needed the rest before continuing on to Boone Tavern for a round of iced tea on the veranda.

Madison County showed a visiting friend from Atlanta a more rugged view of Bluegrass beauty than he had seen the day before. Sadly, though, many back roads were littered with plastic bottles and fast-food cups tossed from passing vehicles. As Forrest Gump would say, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

While we were biking, many others were enjoying one of my favorite spring venues, Keeneland Race Course. Saturday’s weather made it no surprise that nearly 40,000 people attended the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, the second-largest crowd in history.

I haven’t been to the races yet this season, but I have been to Keeneland. When I can manage to pull myself out of bed an hour before daylight, I like to go out there, walk around the backside and watch exercise riders warm up that day’s competitors on the track. It is one of the best free shows in Lexington.

As the rising sun fully illuminates forsythia and dogwood, and as Keeneland’s equine athletes are being cooled off and groomed, I walk to the Track Kitchen for the sort of delicious breakfast cardiologists disapprove of.

As I finish writing this, the last remnants of the snow have melted off my front yard. The budding leaves on my tulip poplar and the giant sycamore across the street look twice as big as they were yesterday. It will be at least six months before they turn color and fall, big as dinner plates.

So long, winter. Don’t be in any hurry to come back.


After this awful winter, spring cannot come soon enough.

March 8, 2014

Spring cannot come soon enough to deliver us from this winter of our discontent.

As I watched mounds of snow and ice all over town melt late last week, I hoped they would be the last I would see for many months. No more single-digit temperatures, please. I have three favorite seasons in Kentucky and winter is not one of them.

We have gotten more than 24 inches of snow since November, nearly twice the normal amount. It has been the second-snowiest winter in 20 years.

Single-digit and below-zero temperatures have been far too frequent and ill-timed, thanks in part to the evil Polar Vortex. Lexington set only one new daily low — a 6 below zero in January — but it was the first one to be set since February 1996, according to WKYT Chief Meteorologist Chris Bailey.

“We didn’t get close to any top-10 winters on record,” Bailey said. “But the cold shots came at just the right time to keep snow on the ground for long periods of time and make it seem especially harsh.”

Bailey said you would have to go back to the late 1970s to find a similar winter. I remember it well. I was in college in Bowling Green, and when the roads got clear enough we drove to Louisville to see the Ohio River frozen over.

“This winter has seemed brutal, because it started early and has gone late,” Bailey said. “The only thing we were missing was a good snowstorm, and we got that last week.”

Plumbers and utility linemen are weary, road crews are running out of salt and we’re all running out of patience.

“They were talking about it at the station the other day,” Bailey said, “and somebody said, ‘Either the snow melts down soon or the parents are going to melt down.”

Fayette County Public Schools have missed 13 days because of snow, ice and cold temperatures — the most in more than two decades. Officials don’t plan to cancel spring break, but who knows when classes will finally let out for the summer.

School systems in Kentucky’s more rural and mountainous counties are in much worse shape.

State legislators, who have been busy all winter avoiding tax reform, are considering legislation that would allow school districts to waive up to 10 of the 177 instructional days required by state law. The bill’s outcome may depend on how many lawmakers’ constituents have Disney World reservations for early June.

Still, you hate to see kids miss valuable instruction days, especially since so much of the school year is now taken up with preparing for and taking standardized tests.

Our misery has plenty of company. Virtually every part of America east of the Mississippi River has had an unusually bad winter, even the Deep South states where snowplows are more scarce than liberals.

My younger daughter keeps reminding me that the weather has been far worse in New York City, where she lives. I tell her that’s why I never wanted to live north of the Ohio River.

During the Winter Olympics, my former Atlanta Journal-Constitution colleagues kept remarking on Facebook that it was warmer in Sochi than it was in Atlanta — and suggesting that their city should become the first to host both the Summer and Winter Games.

My physical and mental health requires a lot of time outdoors, and this winter has made that difficult. I’m sure that being cooped up inside is a big reason I got a two-week sinus infection. That was followed by a terrible cold, which led to coughing fits. I coughed so hard I cracked a rib, which has made me sore and cranky.

I know things will get better when the snow melts, temperatures warm, my rib heals and I can spend some quality time on my bicycle.

There’s nothing like spring to lift your spirits and make you glad you live in Kentucky. Horses racing and forsythia at Keeneland.Redbuds and dogwood in the Eastern Kentucky mountains. Wildflowers along the Kentucky River Palisades.

But don’t get your hopes up yet.

“I hate to say it, but I think we’ve got another snowfall or two before it’s all over,” Bailey said. “I like my snow, but I’m ready for baseball.”

Voters should push back against pro-pollution politicians

February 17, 2014

Politicians say a lot of dumb things. What’s puzzling, though, is how much we listen to them.

Some of the dumbest things politicians say these days involve criticism of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other state and federal environmental watchdogs. These politicians are indignant that “regulators” are enforcing the laws they and their predecessors passed to keep air fit to breathe and water safe to drink.

The Democrats and Republicans who passed those environmental laws and created the watchdog agencies during the last half of the 20th century were smart enough to realize that pollution spoils our nation, makes us sick and, in the long run, is bad for business.

So why are many politicians today fighting for more pollution? It’s really very simple: Companies pay them to.

If you look at these politicians’ campaign funds, you will see big contributions from polluters: coal companies, chemical companies, electric utilities and other corporations that make more money when they can push the environmental costs of their businesses off on the public.

The politicians who complain loudest about environmental regulation tend to get the most money from polluters. Funny how it works that way.

When these politicians can’t repeal or ignore environmental laws and regulations, they argue that they should be enforced by state rather than federal agencies. That’s easy to understand, too: the smaller the watchdog, the easier it is to muzzle.

Federal prosecutors last week launched a criminal investigation into the relationship between North Carolina regulators and Duke Energy after 82,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water spilled into the Dan River on Feb. 2. It was the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

The Associated Press reported last week that North Carolina regulators repeatedly thwarted attempts by environmental groups to use the federal Clean Water Act to force Duke to clean up leaky coal ash dumps near its power plants.

Two recent incidents in West Virginia, another state where politicians are frequently hostile to environmental regulation, also has raised questions about cozy political relationships with polluters.

The water supply for more than 300,000 people in nine counties around Charleston hasn’t been right since Jan. 9. That’s when storage tanks owned by Freedom Industries leaked as much as 7,500 gallons of coal-processing chemicals into the Elk River.

Freedom Industries has filed for bankruptcy protection to avoid lawsuits. The spill will cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Then, last Tuesday, a pipe ruptured at a Patriot Coal processing plant about 18 miles from where the chemical spill occurred. It sent more than 100,000 gallons of coal and chemical slurry into Fields Creek, a Kanawha River tributary. State officials said the spill “wiped out” six miles of stream, causing “severe, adverse environmental impact.”

We’ve heard these stories many times before. Remember the 2008 coal ash pond collapse in East Tennessee that released 5 million cubic yards of ash and cost $1.2 billion to clean up? Or the spill in Martin County, Ky., in 2000 that sent 306,000 gallons of coal sludge into two tributaries of the Tug Fork River? And there are many more smaller incidents that never make headlines.

Does this sound like environmental regulation that is too strict, or too lax?

Many Kentucky politicians like to complain about the “war on coal” — a phrase coined for a well-financed industry propaganda campaign. But the real war is being waged against Kentucky’s land, water, air and public health by companies that want more freedom to blast mountains, bury streams and release toxins into the environment.

Many people support polluters because they buy into the argument that you can’t have both a strong economy and a clean environment.

Sure, sometimes environmental regulation does cost jobs and raise costs in the short run. But history has shown that it has always been good for the economy in the long run because it creates a healthier environment and sparks job-creating innovation. Perhaps the best example is government fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, which over several decades have given us better cars and cleaner air.

How long will some politicians keep fighting for more pollution? As long as polluters keep paying them to. And as long as we keep listening to and re-electing them.

As first black senator, Powers gave voice to the powerless

February 9, 2014

powers2Georgia Powers posed last month in the study of her Louisville apartment, whose walls are covered with honors amd mementoes. Photo by Tom Eblen. Below, an undated photo of Powers in the state Senate. Photo by Keith Williams/The Courier-Journal.


LOUISVILLE — She had worked on two statewide political campaigns and helped organize a civil rights march that brought 10,000 people to Frankfort.

But Georgia Montgomery Davis Powers said she never thought of running for public office herself until she was working a part-time clerk’s job in 1966, processing paperwork in the state House of Representatives.

As she passed around copies of a proposed law that would ban discrimination against blacks in employment and public accommodations, she recalled recently, a newly elected representative from Western Kentucky voiced his views.

“I see no reason to change things from the way they are,” he announced. “If I voted for that, I would never get re-elected.”

Powers was furious. A few minutes later, she said she found the courage to tell him: “You know, Representative, what I need is my own seat here.”

Less than two years later, she would have one. Powers became the first black elected to the state Senate, and the first woman elected without succeeding a husband who had been a senator.

Powers is 90 years old now, still healthy, active and engaged. Her high-rise apartment has a commanding view of the downtown Louisville district she represented for 21 years as a tireless advocate for Kentucky’s underdogs: minorities, women, children and poor, elderly and disabled people.

“When you are placed in a powerful position, whatever it is, you should do everything you can do for people who have no voice and need an advocate,” she said when I visited her recently.

Powers also helped lead civil rights marches across the South, becoming a close confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1989, the year after she retired from the Senate, a book by King’s top lieutenant, Ralph David Abernathy, disclosed that Powers and King had also been lovers. Her secret exposed, Powers told her version of the story in a 1995 autobiography, I Shared The Dream.

“Things happen like that,” she said when I asked her about her relationship with King. “You’re working together and you admire them and they like you and things happen. That’s life.”

powers1Powers’ life has been both accomplished and unlikely. She was born to a poor couple in a two-room shack near Springfield. When a tornado destroyed the shack, her family moved to Louisville, where her half-white father got a factory job, enameling bathtubs.

As an only girl with eight brothers, she quickly learned to be tough. “Just because I was their sister did not mean that they tried to spoil me in any way,” she said. “Just the opposite.”

Powers left home at 18 to follow the first of many men in her life, which would include three husbands. She lived in New York and California, and her many jobs included building C-46 cargo planes during World War II as a “Rosie the riveter”.

She didn’t get involved in politics until 1962, when a church friend pestered her to work for former Louisville Mayor Wilson Wyatt’s unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate. She ended up organizing his volunteers statewide, and was hired for similar duties in Edward T. Breathitt’s successful campaign for governor the next year.

Powers realized she was the “token black” in Wyatt’s campaign, and at times she had to demand equal pay and treatment with other staffers. After Breathitt’s victory, other staff members were given jobs in Frankfort, but not Powers. The next year, Breathitt probably wished he had offered her one.

Powers was one of the main organizers of the March on Frankfort, which brought King, baseball great Jackie Robinson and folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary to the Capitol steps with 10,000 others to demand passage of a bill banning discrimination against blacks in hotels, restaurants and other public accommodations.

Breathitt was a no-show, so after the march Powers brought King and Robinson to his office and asked for a meeting. The governor was non-committal, and the bill failed. But it passed in the next session two years later with his support.

By the 1968 session, Powers was in the Senate, and she wasted no time introducing civil rights legislation. She said it was an uphill battle, but she was eventually successful because her Democratic Party was then in the majority, she was able to get along with other lawmakers and she became good at legislative horse-trading.

“I never got angry with anybody if they didn’t vote for something I had up,” she said. “I figured I would need them for something else someday.”

Powers also knew how to stand her ground. “I never had any fear,” she said. “I figured all they could do was shoot me. I had been marching down in Alabama and everywhere else and never got shot.”

At the end of her first, tough legislative session, King asked her to come to Memphis, where he was trying to win better pay and working conditions for striking black sanitation workers. When he was assassinated, she heard the fatal shot and was among the first to find his body.

She said King had initiated their relationship with the help of his brother, A.D. King, who was then a minister in Louisville. Although both were married to others, she said they met several times and she always feared their secret would get out.

Once it did, so many years later, the revelation angered some people in the black community, especially after she elaborated in her own book. A couple of Louisville ministers gave her a hard time, but she says it didn’t bother her.

“They thought somebody was going to tell on them!” she said with a laugh. “And the women just said, ‘I wish it had been me!’” More laughter.

Despite that bit of scandal, Powers thinks she will be remembered more for her legislative contributions, making life better for Kentucky’s most vulnerable citizens. That work earned her walls full of awards, including honorary degrees from four Kentucky universities.

“Kentucky has been good to me,” she said. “I did what I was supposed to do in life.”

Longtime cook, maid finds fans when historic home opened for tour

November 4, 2013


Cozene Hawkins came to Airy Castle, then called Wyndhurst, in 1961 to work for Corrilla English. She stayed more than 35 years. Photos by Tom Eblen


PARIS — I recently wrote about Airy Castle, whose new owners restored the 1870s Victorian mansion and opened it for a tour to benefit the preservation group Historic Paris-Bourbon County.

That tour two Sundays ago drew a large crowd, but the elegantly restored mansion wasn’t the only treat. A friend who attended said an interesting thing happened when an elderly black lady in a dark pants suit walked through the door.

As Cozene Hawkins slowly made her way down the hall, she was stopped several times by older white women wanting to shake her hand. They asked if she remembered them and raved about her cooking, especially her beaten biscuits. They treated her like a star.

“That’s the way I felt!” said Hawkins, 79, who worked 35 years as cook and housekeeper for the mansion’s previous owner.

“It made me feel good after all those years that people remembered,” Hawkins said when I visited her in her own small home. “To be back in that house and see what the new owners have done; it’s remarkable! They restored so much. It brought back so many memories.”

HawkinsHistoric preservation is more than saving unique architecture and bygone craftsmanship. It is about preserving our collective memory. Old buildings are powerful links to the past, helping us realize how much society has changed. They also help us remember the valuable contributions of people like Cozene Hawkins.

Hawkins first saw Airy Castle in 1961. The oldest of 10 children, she was a young wife and mother working part-time as a domestic for a prominent Bourbon County family. She needed more work.

Hawkins was recommended to Corrilla English, whose grandparents bought Airy Castle in 1888 and renamed it Wyndhurst. English lived there with her grown son, Woodson. Hawkins was soon working full time for the Englishes.

“I never learned to drive,” she said. “Every morning Mrs. English picked me up at 8:30 and she brought me home at 2:30. And after she began to age, the men who worked on the farm would come in and get me.”

Hawkins spent much of her time cleaning the huge house and polishing an extensive collection of sterling silver. She also prepared a big noon meal each day. English was an excellent cook, and she taught Hawkins.

“As the years went, I learned so much,” she said. “Mrs. English loved to entertain with lunches for just women. That’s when she taught me to cook the finer dishes. We had to get out the fine china and the sterling silver and the crystal.

“She taught me to make a fabulous corn pudding; we made a lot of cheese souffles and her chicken salad,” she said. “And the famous dessert was egg kisses — meringues — and we always served those with sliced, fresh strawberries and homemade whipped cream, because they had their own cows.”

English also taught Hawkins to make beaten biscuits, a Southern delicacy that required dough to be beaten on a marble slab and run through rollers over and over for a half-hour until it popped. The hard, bite-size biscuits were served as country ham sandwiches.

“It never bothered me that whenever Mrs. English entertained I had to wear a white uniform,” Hawkins said. “And I could never wear pants out there. No woman in pants. No!”

Hawkins said the mansion was a pleasant place to work.

“Not a cross word was ever said to me from Mrs. English,” she said. “I was able to cook and please her, keep house and please her. She never had to tell me to do anything; I just knew.”

The only thing that bothered Hawkins was her low wages. It wasn’t as if English couldn’t see twice a day that she and her eight children — seven sons and a daughter — lived in a public housing project, which has since been demolished.

Corrilla English died in 1996 at age 96. Woodson English moved to an assisted-living facility and died in 2004.

“They were good days; I regret none of it,” Hawkins said. “It has a lot to do with the way you’re treated. I was always treated with respect. I learned so much, too.”

Hawkins now lives with a son, Darrell. Most of her other children are in Central Kentucky, too. She has lost count of all her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“She did a good job raising us; taught us all to cook,” son Steve said. “We all turned out well.”

Hawkins still likes to cook at church. “They’re trying to make me sit down,” she said, “but I refuse!”

Physicians Jack and Sonja Brock bought Airy Castle in 2003 and began an extensive restoration that is almost finished. They plan to retire there and open a bed-and-breakfast inn.

“It was awesome to go into each room and see what the Brocks have done,” Hawkins said. “The only thing that threw me off was my kitchen. Oh mercy! That new kitchen is so nice. I wouldn’t have had to roll beaten biscuits; they probably would have had an electrical roller.” 

Chef’s tour highlights growth in Kentucky’s local food culture

October 29, 2013


Chef Ouita Michel, left, talks with Jean and Leo Keene, who since 1988 have operated Blue Moon Farm in Madison County, which specializes in garlics. Michel said she has bought garlic from them for her restaurants for years. Michel led a tour of the Lexington Farmers Market on Saturday that included Claire Carpenter, second from left. Photos by Tom Eblen 


Ouita Michel doesn’t get to the Lexington Farmers Market much anymore.

Since the acclaimed chef and restaurant entrepreneur became one of the largest buyers of Kentucky vegetables, fruits and meats, her employees do most of the shopping, and many of the 50 local producers she buys from deliver.

The five restaurants she and husband Chris Michel have created since 2001 — Holly Hill Inn, Wallace Station Deli and Midway School Bakery in Woodford County, and Windy Corner Market and Smithtown Seafood in Lexington — have bought more than $1 million in Kentucky agricultural products.

Michel credits the flavor and quality of Kentucky food for her restaurants’ success. And that success has helped fuel a local-food renaissance that began in the 1970s with farmers markets and pioneer restaurants such as Alfalfa and Dudley’s.

The Fayette Alliance, a land-use advocacy group, recently asked Michel to give a tour of the Lexington Farmers Market. Michel said it was a good opportunity for her to meet new producers she might want to buy from — and she did meet some.

Many people are now willing to pay a little more for healthier, better-tasting food grown with fewer chemicals. They also like the idea of their money going to local farmers rather than giant corporations.

Kentucky’s local food economy began taking off in 2004, when the tobacco quota buyout program helped finance crop diversification. The state’s Kentucky Proud program then helped market those products.

Whenever possible, Michel said, her restaurants buy local food. For example, the lettuce and tomatoes for Windy Corner’s salads are grown 100 yards up the road at Berries on Bryan Station, a small, family-owned organic farm that also grows okra for Ramsey’s restaurants.

131026OuitaMichel0072About a dozen people showed up Saturday to take Michel’s tour. She walked them from stall to stall, looking for lesser-known vegetables, such as Hubbard squash and Jerusalem artichoke, and explaining how she likes to prepare them.

Michel introduced the group to several of her suppliers, including Eileen O’Donohue of Kentucky Lamb in Washington County, and Ann and Mac Stone of Elmwood Stock Farm in Scott County, the state’s largest certified organic farm.

“There is a seasonality to local food,” Michel said, and new techniques such as hoop houses have extended vegetable growing seasons in Kentucky.

Michel develops menus around seasonally available produce. Her restaurants also try to use almost all of the local cattle, chickens and lambs they buy, not just choice cuts.

“We need to eat all of the animal to make it work economically,” she said. “It’s also better for the farmers, and it’s just a more responsible thing to do.”

Michel’s newest restaurant is Smithtown Seafood, next to West Sixth Brewing in the Bread Box building at West Sixth and Jefferson streets. It serves fish and greens grown in an adjoining room by the urban-agriculture non-profit organization FoodChain, which uses a process called aquaponics. Brewery waste is fed to the fish, whose waste fertilizes greens grown under lamps.

“I know the Magic Beans people are here today, and I want to talk with them about buying their coffee for Smithtown,” Michel said at the beginning of her tour. Magic Beans roasts its coffee in a back room of the Bread Box building.

The University of Kentucky has played an important role in developing the local-food economy through its sustainable agriculture and food science programs, Michel said. So have processing plants such as Marksbury Farm Market in Lancaster.

Kentucky needs more commercial kitchen space and contract packaging plants, so farmers can process more of what they grow into high-profit, value-added products such as jellies and sauces, Michel said.

“We could produce a lot of artisanal pork products that could be shipped around the world, like Spanish ham is,” she said. “It’s just a matter of taking these well-known cultural foods that we’ve had in Kentucky for 200 years and developing and promoting them to a wider market.”

State and local officials who make economic development investment decisions too often overlook agriculture while focusing on trendy areas such as high technology, Michel said.

“If we could make some strategic investments in our food economy, we could have tremendous returns,” she said. “Economic development does not just mean guys in a room staring at computers.”

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Governor’s Scholars alumni hope to create powerful network

September 10, 2013

Randall Stevens was a shy kid from Pikeville when he was chosen for the second class of the Kentucky Governor’s Scholars Program in the summer of 1984. It literally changed his life.

“I think I became me in those five weeks of that program,” Stevens said. “It’s a huge confidence builder. It’s a social awakening with an academic background that really develops leadership.”

The experience inspired Stevens to study computers and architecture at the University of Kentucky, he said. Since then, Stevens has created several software programs and the companies to produce and market them. He also started Base 163, an incubator work space for Lexington technology entrepreneurs.


Randall Stevens

Stevens has met many other Governor’s Scholars over the years whose experiences were similar to his. That got him thinking about the potential of an alumni network, both for the former scholars and for Kentucky’s future.

He recently helped start the Governor’s Scholars Program Alumni Association, which will have its first gathering Sept. 27 and 28 at the Kentucky Center in downtown Louisville. The event is affiliated with the annual Idea Festival there that week.

Speakers at the event include several former scholars: U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, a Republican who represents Northern Kentucky; Drew Curtis, founder of the online humor site; Jeff Fugate, president of Lexington’s Downtown Development Authority; and Rebecca Self, founder of FoodChain, an urban-agriculture nonprofit in Lexington.

Former scholars interested in attending the event or becoming affiliated with the alumni group can get more information at or, or by email at

The Governor’s Scholars Program began in 1983, with 230 rising high school seniors from across Kentucky who were brought together on Centre College’s campus in Danville for a summer enrichment program. The program is the oldest of its kind in the nation. This summer, about 1,100 students participated on three college campuses.

Scholars are chosen through a competitive process. The program is free to them and is financed by state government and private donors. Governor’s Scholars are eligible for big-dollar scholarships at virtually all of Kentucky’s public and private colleges and universities.

Stevens figures that there are now 25,349 Governor’s Scholars Alumni with three decades of accomplishments, life experiences and personal networks that could have enormous value. Simply publicizing what other former scholars are doing could spark ideas and create job opportunities.

The idea of the Governor’s Scholars Program was to keep Kentucky’s “best and brightest” from leaving the state. Surveys show that about half of all scholars now live here. But Stevens and others think that original goal was too narrow.

gsplogo“It’s not good to try to keep them in Kentucky,” he said. “Just keep them connected to Kentucky.”

For one thing, Stevens said, when scholars leave Kentucky to achieve their dreams, they can end up in good positions to help future scholars achieve theirs.

Former scholar Darlene Hunt of Lebanon Junction went to Britain, Chicago and Los Angeles on her way to becoming a successful actress, producer and television writer. Matt Cutts of Morehead went on from UK to earn a doctorate in computer science from North Carolina and is now a top executive at Google.

“Having a Matt Cutts at Google is better for the network than if he had stayed here,” Stevens said.

Also, he said, Kentuckians often have a habit of achieving success elsewhere and moving back to home, bringing back knowledge and sometimes jobs and investment capital.

Some high-profile examples include Alan Hawse, a top executive with Cypress Semiconductor, whose move back from California led to creation of a technology development center in downtown Lexington. Self, the FoodChain founder, and her husband, Ben, moved back to Lexington from Boston after a company he helped start ran President Barack Obama’s 2008 online campaign. He and three partners then started West Sixth Brewing Co.

“The network is more valuable than just having people here,” Stevens said. The oldest scholars are now reaching mid-career and rising to positions of wealth and influence, he said. “The real power could be what happens when they do want to come back.”

Kentucky should embrace the creativity, if not the slogan

January 6, 2013

Kentucky kicks ass. Often, unfortunately, its own.

To stay with anatomical metaphors, Kentuckians are good at shooting ourselves in the foot. We consider creative people to be a thorn in our side, because new ideas can be a pain in the neck.

So I wasn’t surprised at the Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism’s tone-deaf response to three 30-something advertising men from Lexington who suggested that “Kentucky Kicks Ass” would be a more effective state marketing slogan than “Unbridled Spirit.”

The suggestion came from Kentucky for Kentucky, a little company formed two years ago by Griffin VanMeter of Bullhorn Creative, Whit Hiler of Cornett-IMS and fellow Lexington native Kent Carmichael, who works for Energy BBDO in Chicago.

Kentucky for Kentucky began as a hobby — an online platform for celebrating the young men’s pride in their state, its people, places, history and “general awesomeness.”

They started with a Facebook page and website. Then, in the fall of 2011, they drew national attention with an unsuccessful online campaign to raise $3.5 million for a commercial promoting Kentucky on the Super Bowl telecast.

Their kick-ass branding idea was unveiled last month in a cheeky YouTube video that also attracted national attention. In the video, Hiler and VanMeter argued that the “Unbridled Spirit” slogan state government has used since 2004 is, well, lame.

(Maybe so, but it is a big improvement over “It’s that Friendly,” which appeared on Kentucky license plates from 2002-2005 along with a smiley-faced sun that looked like it belonged in a Walmart ad.)

The Kentucky for Kentucky guys hired Lexington artists Brian and Sara Turner of Cricket Press to design a cool Kentucky Kicks Ass logo, which they have printed on T-shirts and other merchandise for sale on their website,

They also created some sample tourism ads that cleverly promote Kentucky’s places and culture while minimizing the word they acknowledge may offend some people.

State tourism officials were not amused.

“We certainly would not sanction or endorse that phraseology,” spokesman Pat Stipes told a USA Today reporter. “These guys are Kentucky natives and they love the state. But they have a different constituency. Which is no one.”

For these ambitious marketers, that fuddy-duddy response was a gift.

“We couldn’t have asked for anything better,” VanMeter said. “It really gave this a lot more legs than it had.”

The controversy generated even more press coverage — and a lot of orders for Kentucky Kicks Ass T-shirts. VanMeter also has received emails from organizations within Kentucky, and as far away as Arizona, seeking creative help for their own rebranding efforts.

State Tourism Commissioner Mike Mangeot sent the guys a letter offering congratulations for a slogan that has “generated a lot of buzz about Kentucky and all our beautiful Commonwealth has to offer.” But he insisted they clarify that state government neither sought nor sanctioned their work.

The Kentucky for Kentucky guys replied to Mangeot with a letter from their lawyer, Scott White, saying they never meant to imply such a thing.

The letter also included an open-records request for all “emails, notes, written correspondence, memoranda” and any other communication with state government discussing his clients and their slogan. White said state officials had not responded as of Friday.

When I called tourism officials for comment, spokesman Gil Lawson offered only this statement: “We applaud the creativity and efforts of these three gentlemen. It’s great that they support their home state of Kentucky.”

I hope that when the Kentucky for Kentucky guys receive a response to their open-records request, it will include internal communication among high-ranking state officials that goes something like this:

“Our strategy worked perfectly! By playing the role of clueless bureaucrats we generated a lot of free publicity for Kentucky. Of course, we can’t actually endorse their slogan. We would rather be boring than take the chance of offending anyone. But what can we do to quietly support this kind of home-grown creativity?”

Lessons to learn from Lexington’s ‘Athens of the West’ period.

September 2, 2012

Mayor Jim Gray often talks about Lexington aspiring to be a “great American city.” But two centuries ago, that is exactly what it was. Many visitors hailed Lexington as the most vibrant and cultured city in what was then Western America.

The reality and myths surrounding Lexington’s so-called Athens of the West era are explored in a new book of essays published by the University Press of KentuckyBluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792-1852.

The book is already in stores, but it will be formally launched at a signing party Sunday, Sept. 16, at 4 p.m. at the Hunt Morgan House, 253 Market Street. The event is free and open to the public.

Bluegrass Renaissance grew out of a series of lectures in 2007 organized by the University of Kentucky’s Gaines Center for the Humanities and others. Book editors James Klotter, Kentucky’s state historian, and Daniel Rowland, a UK history professor and former Gaines Center director, compiled essays by 15 historians and writers, including my older daughter, Mollie, and me.

The book begins with essays by Klotter and Stephen Aron that place Lexington in the national context of the time and discuss the city’s quick transition from frontier outpost to cultured metropolis.

Gerald Smith and the late Shearer Davis Bowman write about slavery, the “peculiar institution” that built the region’s wealth and would eventually play a big role in both economic and moral bankruptcy.

Randolph Hollingsworth writes about the role women played in early Kentucky, while Maryjean Wall looks at the origins of the signature horse industry. Mark Wetherington and Matthew Clarke profile several influential characters, while John Thelin explores the role higher education played in development and civic pride.

Nikos Pappas writes about musical culture, and Estill Curtis Pennington explains how outstanding portrait painters helped bring artistic culture to Central Kentucky and left what little visual evidence we have of that era’s key players.

Patrick Snadon writes about how Lexington’s leading citizens embraced early America’s most accomplished architect, Benjamin Latrobe. He was commissioned to design six Lexington buildings. Only one survives: Pope Villa, one of the most avant-garde pieces of architecture built during America’s Federalist period.

Mollie and I wrote about Horace Holley, a minister lured to Lexington from Boston, and his role in transforming Transylvania University into one of early America’s most highly regarded universities. Transylvania played a central role in Kentucky’s early education accomplishments and Lexington’s “Athens of the West” reputation.

The book’s dates are somewhat arbitrary: 1792 is the year Kentucky became a state, while 1852 is when Henry Clay, Lexington’s most famous citizen, died. In reality, Lexington’s heyday didn’t begin until after 1800, and its economic, if not cultural, fortunes started waning around 1815. By the end of the 1830s, Lexington had begun a long slide into mediocrity and provincialism.

Lexington’s early prosperity was the result of rich soil, slave labor and the city’s prime location as a hub for early Westward migration and trade. But the city began to struggle after the invention of steamboats allowed two-way commerce on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, which favored river cities such as Cincinnati and Louisville.

Slavery became a huge economic and social liability for Lexington beginning in the 1840s, limiting economic innovation and sparking increased social and racial strife. By clinging so long to slavery, a huge amount of Lexington’s economic capital was wiped out by the Civil War; racism and violence that followed stifled growth and new ideas.

Lexington had lost its economic edge and pioneer spirit. With a few notable exceptions, such as the creation and growth of the University of Kentucky, the city remained intellectually and economically stagnant for nearly a century.

In a short essay that ends the book, Gray makes the point that the past informs the present, and history provides valuable lessons for those who seek to shape the future.

Mollie and I certainly discovered that while researching and writing our chapter. The spectacular rise and fall of Holley at Transylvania in the 1820s reflected issues and attitudes that have shaped two centuries of Kentucky history.

Holley saw huge potential in Kentucky and its people, but was bedeviled by religious disputes, power struggles and petty politics. He finally gave up and left Kentucky, frustrated by an anti-intellectual governor who saw more political advantage in building roads than investing in education.

This book’s title is something of a misnomer: “renaissance” means “revival.” The Athens of the West era was actually Lexington’s “naissant” period. Achieving renaissance is our challenge, and we would be wise to learn lessons from the past.

Lessons from two of Kentucky’s top entrepreneurs

May 28, 2012

More than 400 local business leaders packed a Lexington Center ballroom last Tuesday to hear lectures encouraging entrepreneurship in Kentucky from two of the state’s most successful entrepreneurs.

Jim Host, the founder of Host Communications and now chief executive of, and Pearse Lyons, founder and president of Alltech, told their personal stories, talked about why Kentucky needs more entrepreneurs and offered their personal tips for success.

I know how much business people love lists of success tips, so I will share those later. First, though, I want to discuss why, beyond their obvious success, Host and Lyons are worth your attention.

Both are classic, hard-charging entrepreneurs. They are keen observers of business and society. Not only do they embrace change, they try to anticipate and drive it. They know that people always want better ways to satisfy their needs and desires, and in that space are great business opportunities. They know how to make things happen.

Jim Host

Host is a home-grown success story. He moved to Ashland as a boy and has spent most of his life in Kentucky, including serving in state government and running unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor early in his career.

Host created world-class companies in travel, sports marketing and communications. Now he is trying to create the future of television. Host never felt he needed to move elsewhere to succeed. More importantly, he never allowed his vision to be limited by Kentucky’s cultural aversion to change.

Most recently, Host led the effort to build Louisville’s KFC Yum Center arena, despite being a blue-bleeding University of Kentucky alumnus and fan. Working in Louisville underscored for him the foolishness of allowing intrastate rivalries to obstruct progress.

Host, 74, has become an evangelist for Louisville-Lexington cooperation. He was founding chairman of the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement, a new effort led by both cities’ mayors to bring more advanced-manufacturing jobs to Kentucky.

Lyons’ story is different. Born, reared and educated in Ireland, he came to Kentucky in 1974 because he thought it was a great place to start a business.

Pearse Lyons

Alltech began with the idea of developing and making all-natural animal nutrition supplements. Now, the company’s goal is no less than figuring out how to feed the world using natural ingredients and breakthrough technology, not to mention making good beer and whiskey on the side. Privately held Alltech now has 3,000 employees in 128 countries, including more than 500 in Kentucky.

Part of what makes Lyons worth watching is that he has figured out how to embrace and build upon Kentucky’s strengths without feeling limited by its traditional shortcomings. He is bullish about Kentucky’s potential. He took a “Kentucky Proud” road show to England’s Windsor Castle. Alltech is selling Bourbon Barrel Ale in China and, soon, in Ireland. Alltech just launched the Lyons Farm brand of premium meats, which have a distinct Kentucky marketing flavor.

“If you can’t sell Kentucky as a place to do business, then you’re not in any shape or form a salesman, because it’s an easy sale,” Lyons said. “I’ve been around the world I don’t know how many times, and I’ve never found a place as conducive to doing business or rearing a family as Kentucky — y’all.”

Now, about those success tips. Both entrepreneurs stressed the importance of having a positive attitude, passion for your work, a willingness to take risks, a confidence in self and a good sense of humor.

Among Host’s success tips:

■ Be prepared. Eighty percent of any sale is preparation; 20 percent is presentation.

■ Under-promise and over-deliver.

■ Do not lie or misrepresent to a client about anything. “You build great companies on integrity and character,” he said.

■ Write down the five most important things you need to do each day, and do the hardest one first. That will clear your head for creative thinking.

■ If you focus on creating excellence, profits will follow.

Among Lyons’ success tips:

■ Take a chance, any chance, to start a business. And, if possible, go it alone. You can never truly align partners’ dreams with your own.

■ Be curious and add to your expertise, both through your own education and by hiring great people.

■ Avoid negative people, whom he called “energy vampires.”

■ Be prepared to change your business, but not your core values.

■ You have two ears, one mouth; listen more than you talk, and take notes.


Not enough for a Super Bowl ad, but a start

November 7, 2011

Proud Kentuckians, left to right: Col. Harland Sanders, Kent Carmichael, Griffin VanMeter, Whit Hiler. Photo by Tom Eblen

Three 30-something marketers who launched an Internet fundraising campaign to sponsor a Super Bowl commercial about the greatness of Kentucky fell considerably short of their $3.5 million goal.

The trio aren’t giving up, though. They plan to drop back and punt.

When the 60-day deadline on their fundraising drive expired Monday morning, Whit Hiler, Griffin VanMeter and Kent Carmichael had received 576 pledges totaling $112,287.

Not bad, but not nearly enough to place a commercial on the nation’s most expensive television buy. Because the project didn’t meet its goal, none of the pledges can be collected through

VanMeter said the three plan to produce a commercial anyway and launch a new, smaller Kickstarter campaign to buy time on Kentucky stations to show it in or around the Super Bowl telecast on Feb. 5. They also will put the spot on their project’s Web site:

“All the marketing and branding people jumped on the idea and thought it was great,” VanMeter said. Many volunteered video production resources that will come in handy for making the commercial.

One thing that came out of the campaign, VanMeter said, was how many people are proud to be Kentuckians, and what a good brand Kentucky for Kentucky could be for T-shirts and other merchandise. So far, their website has been a compilation of little-known facts about great Kentuckians, contributed by the site’s users.

“It was a breath of fresh air that energized people,” VanMeter said of the fundraising campaign. “We know Kentucky is a great brand.”

Click here to read my Sept. 14 column about the effort. Here is the project’s website and Facebook page.

Promote Kentucky on the Super Bowl? Why not?

September 14, 2011

It is an idea so crazy, it just might work.

Griffin VanMeter, Kent Carmichael and Whit Hiler are 30-something marketing guys. They also are native Kentuckians who are proud of their state and think everyone else should be proud of it, too.

A year ago, they had this idea: Let’s produce a television commercial promoting the “brand” of Kentucky and get it on the Super Bowl telecast.

“We want to show how much character and influence has come out of Kentucky and is still coming out of Kentucky,” VanMeter said. “It’s a big story we’re trying to tell, and we want to put it on the biggest stage possible. It would be the most talked-about Super Bowl commercial ever.”

The trio began in April by creating a Facebook page called Kentucky for Kentucky. Since then, more than 1,950 fans have contributed to lists and photo galleries of great Kentucky people, places and products.

Kent Carmichael, left, Griffin Van Meter, center, and Whit Hiler. Photo by Tom Eblen

Then, on Thursday, they went public with their Super Bowl idea using the hot crowd-funding Web site An Internet video promoting the effort has gone viral, and media attention has come from, among others, the big tech news site and Advertising Age magazine’s Web site.

Their goal is to raise $3.5 million in 60 days. After five days, more than 200 backers have made online pledges of more than $41,000, in increments as small as $1. They have received two $10,000 pledges — “We can see who they are, so we know they’re legit,” said VanMeter, a partner in the Lexington marketing agency Bullhorn.

An effort like this would have been a lot harder before, which lets people pitch creative projects to a huge online audience. Backers pledge as little as $1 or as much as they want, but their credit card isn’t charged unless the idea reaches its fund-raising goal by the specified deadline.

Backers will get prizes: bumper stickers, T-shirts, maybe even a cameo appearance in the commercial. But unless the $3.5 million goal is met by Nov. 7, nobody is on the hook.

“Once we get this groundswell of support, some of the big people will get behind it,” VanMeter said. “Besides, this whole idea is so much bigger than a Super Bowl commercial.”

So what is the idea, really?

“The short answer is that it’s about Kentucky pride,” he said.

“As brands go, Kentucky is an awesome brand,” said Hiler, who works for Cornett Integrated Marketing Solutions in Lexington. “It’s a lot cooler than Doritos. We’ve got years on them.”

He has a point: Kentucky was America’s first Western frontier and has produced the likes of Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln, Muhammad Ali and George Clooney. It is the namesake of two of the world’s best-known brands — Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Kentucky Derby. Kentuckians have created everything from bourbon whiskey and bluegrass music to the traffic signal and the high five.

But, Carmichael noted, any Kentuckian who has lived elsewhere has heard the jokes about going shoeless and marrying your cousin.

Kentucky has more than its share of problems, including too much obesity and too little education.

“People need to believe in Kentucky, and that can help solve a lot of problems,” VanMeter said.

“There’s no agenda, no reason for anyone not to like this idea,” said Carmichael, a Lexington native and a copywriter for Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Boulder, Colo. He said the three of them don’t plan to make any money on this project and are not fronting for any company, political group or “official” anything.

If they raise the money in time to reserve a commercial spot on the Super Bowl telecast Feb. 5, what will they do?

“The least of our worries will be getting the commercial made,” Hiler said.

With $3.5 million worth of public momentum, the three marketers said, they think Kentucky producers, directors, writers and actors would rush to help them make one awesome Kentucky commercial. Are you listening, George Clooney, Jerry Bruckheimer and Ashley Judd?

And if they don’t make it to the Super Bowl? Well, they already have drawn a lot of positive attention to an outrageously creative idea coming out of Kentucky. And that’s sort of the point.

Chamber can have big influence on improving Kentucky

July 18, 2011

I am increasingly impressed with the leadership of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. Rather than just taking care of business, it seems to realize that improving life in Kentucky will help create economic prosperity.

That was apparent at last week’s annual meeting in Louisville. The agenda focused on substantive discussions of two of Kentucky’s biggest issues, coal and education.

For example, the keynote speaker on coal was journalist James Fallows, whose Atlantic magazine cover story last December was one of the best things I have read on the subject. “Coal is inevitably going to be a major part of the world’s energy solution for the foreseeable future,” he said. “But that role will be and has to be different.”

While Fallows characterized his remarks as a “good news speech,” it was nothing like the hot air we usually hear from the coal industry and its cheerleaders.

No matter how successful the world is at developing alternative energy, coal will remain a vital fuel for decades, Fallows said. But he stressed that global economic, scientific and political trends will require that coal be mined and burned in more environmentally friendly ways. It is smarter to lead change than be trampled by it.

Solutions built around market incentives — such as the ill-fated “cap and trade” proposal — would be better than regulation because they would encourage business creativity and flexibility, Fallows said. But if business wants market-driven change rather than regulatory change, he said, “high-level industrial leadership is important.”

Fallows was followed by Michael G. Morris, chairman of American Electric Power, whose remarks were titled “Coal Under Attack.” While saying that coal must get “cleaner,” his rambling presentation was filled with the usual clichés about new environmental rules being unfair and unreasonable.

Morris bragged about how much less pollution coal-fired power plants emit now than they used to — as if that were the result of industry leadership rather than government regulations that most utilities fought every step of the way.

Morris repeated an earlier claim that new regulations will have a “devastating effect” on AEP, shutting down 6,000 megawatts of generating capacity. But as another speaker pointed out later, two-thirds of that capacity was going to be retired anyway because of a 2007 pollution settlement with the Bush administration.

I was impressed that so many chamber members seemed wise to Morris, even ignoring most of his attempts at applause and laugh lines.

Morris was followed by Rodney Andrews, director of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research. He gave an excellent but rushed presentation that echoed many of Fallows’ points and made a persuasive economic and environmental argument for making coal-fired power plants more efficient. I would like to have heard more from him.

The chamber announced some initiatives that could have a big impact. The New Agenda for Kentucky Campaign focuses on action plans in five areas: improving schools, modernizing government, remaining competitive in energy resources, doubling international exports within five years and improving Kentuckians’ health and wellness.

Perhaps the most impressive effort is the Kentucky Leadership Institute for School Principals. AT&T and other companies are giving money to send many Kentucky school principals to the respected (and expensive) Center for Creative Leadership in North Carolina to get the kind of high-level leadership training that business executives receive.

The chamber also unveiled a follow-up to its 2009 “Leaky Bucket” study, which underscored how huge increases in state spending for public employee health care, Medicaid and prisons were contributing to a short-change of education.

That report provided encouragement — and political cover — for landmark legislation earlier this year to rewrite Kentucky’s criminal code. It will reduce the number of non-violent offenders in jails and prisons, send more drug offenders to treatment and save a lot of taxpayer money in the process.

The chamber’s new report, called “Building a Stronger Bucket,” offers more suggested policy changes, including moving new state employees to a 401(k)-style pension plan.

Too often in the past, Kentucky has fallen behind the rest of the nation when narrow economic or political interests wielded too much power. Building a better future will require that many perspectives be considered and many voices be heard.

Still, no single group can do more to make this state a better place to live than a progressive organization that represents a broad spectrum of the business community. The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce seems to be stepping up to the challenge.

Andrés Cruz toasted as his La Voz newspaper turns 10

June 7, 2011

Journalists are often not popular. People love to fuss about their local newspaper.

But you would not have known that Saturday night. A dozen Latino groups and businesses threw a fancy dinner party that packed the Bell House to pay tribute to Andrés Cruz, editor and publisher of La Voz de Kentucky.

The bilingual newspaper, which publishes more than 8,000 copies every other Thursday and online at, has covered Central Kentucky’s growing Latino community for a decade.

Tertulia Latina de Lexington, a social club whose members gather each month to share food and culture from the many Latin American countries of their origins, organized this impressive outpouring of affection.

“He does a lot of wonderful things for the community,” Tertulia member Rosa Martin said, “so we decided to do this for him.”

There were performances by amazing musicians who had immigrated from Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico and Ecuador. There were award presentations and remarks by Latino community leaders and Mayor Jim Gray.

La Voz means “the voice” in Spanish. “He really is the voice of our community,” Freddy Peralta told the crowd.

Cruz is a physically small man, lawyer Joshua Santana noted in a formal toast, “but his intellect, passion and courage have allowed him to cast a huge shadow within the city of Lexington and beyond.”

“I don’t know what to say except thank you,” an emotional Cruz said after the tributes were over. “Thank you for helping me to feel useful.”

“Useful” has been Cruz’s watchword for La Voz since he bought the newspaper in 2003 from Alejandro Gomez, a Mexican immigrant who started it two years earlier.

Cruz, 42, came here from Costa Rica in 1993 to study history at the University of Kentucky. “I got to UK and fell in love with Kentucky,” he said. After school, he did translation and literacy work for several years, then La Voz captured his imagination.

Cruz said the newspaper has allowed him to use his training as a historian to chronicle the dramatic growth of Central Kentucky’s Hispanic population. “Being able to witness all of this has been an incredible privilege,” he said.

Hispanics accounted for more than half of the nation’s population growth from 2000 to 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau reported recently. Kentucky’s Hispanic population more than doubled, to 132,836. Hispanics represent 3.1 percent of the state’s 4.3 million people, well below the national level of 16 percent. The Census counted 20,474 Hispanics in Fayette County — 6.9 percent of the population — with more than 15,000 of them of Mexican heritage.

La Voz’s coverage focuses on Hispanic businesses, community resources, education, the arts and sports — especially the local baseball and soccer leagues that are meeting places for Latinos of all nationalities.

By publishing all articles in Spanish and English, La Voz aims for wide appeal — recent immigrants trying to make their way, and Anglos looking for a better understanding of their new neighbors.

Because Cruz sees La Voz as a community voice, he has not shied away from advocacy on immigration issues. He has urged passage of the DREAM Act, which would give undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children a path to higher education and citizenship. After La Voz helped to organize a huge immigrants-rights rally downtown in April 2006, Cruz said, he received several death threats.

Illegal immigration remains a controversial problem with no easy solutions, but La Voz tries to reflect the contributions documented and undocumented immigrants are making to Kentucky.

“I have come across incredible stories, incredible people,” Cruz said. “There is an incredible desire in this community to work, to get an education, to better ourselves.”

The weak economy has been hard on La Voz, as it has been on all newspapers. Cruz now runs La Voz out of his home in the Kenwick neighborhood with help from friends. His wife, Jennifer, who is from Elliot County, works as a nurse.

“At La Voz, we have a responsibility to help make Lexington a better place,” Cruz said. “I don’t make a lot of money, but it’s a great way to live my life.”

Thinking solar for your home? Lots of options

May 16, 2011

I heard from readers when I wrote about the pioneering solar home that Lexington architect Richard Levine built for himself in the 1970s and recently upgraded with new technology.

I heard from more readers when I wrote about Warren County’s new “net-zero” school, designed to generate as much power as it uses.

Many readers wanted to know this: How could they use solar power and innovative design to help the planet and lower their utility bills?

As solar technology gets better and cheaper, it is becoming a viable alternative for more Kentucky homeowners, said Andy McDonald, director of the Kentucky Solar Partnership, an advocacy organization in Frankfort. Options range from solar-powered water heaters to super-insulated “passive” homes.

Because Kentucky isn’t sunny year-around, McDonald said, “Many people believe that solar is not viable here, but that isn’t true. Germany leads the world in solar energy, and Kentucky has better solar resources than Germany does.”

The difference, McDonald said, is government policy and incentives. The United States lags many countries in policies promoting renewable energy, and Kentucky lags many states in incentives. But help is out there.

Since 2004, Kentucky homeowners have been able to hook solar generators into their local utility, getting credit for power they feed into the grid to offset power they draw at night and on cloudy days. It is possible for homeowners to break even – and even earn a profit if their utility’s power comes from the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The federal government since 2005 has offered tax incentives for installing solar and other renewable energy systems. The state also offers some incentives, and the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development has flexible loans for some systems installed in Eastern Kentucky.

The most popular systems are solar water heaters, like the one Dave Kollar had installed in his Madison County home two years ago. The water heater is powered by two small solar panels on his roof that charge batteries. When the sun isn’t shining, the water heater can run on regular current. Solar water heaters in Kentucky typically produce about 70 percent of a home’s hot water over the course of a year.

Kollar said the system cost him about $5,000, after incentives. With what he is saving so far, he estimates it will pay for itself within 12 years. “For me, though, that’s just part of the equation,” said Kollar, chief engineer for Fox 56 television.

“I don’t know that we’re saving the planet, but fossil fuel is a finite resource and it seems silly to waste it,” said Kollar, who also supplements his home’s furnace with a wood stove. “Besides, I didn’t want to go through another ice storm without hot water and heat.”

For homeowners wanting to do more than heat water, there is one key thing to understand: Success is not so much about how much power your solar system can produce; it is about how energy-efficient you can make your home so it uses as little power of any kind as possible.

The first step toward lower utility bills is weatherizing an existing home or designing a new home to minimize energy loss and take advantage of natural sunlight.

Basic design principles include having a home’s long axis facing south, with windows that let in winter sunshine but are shaded against summer heat. Likewise, minimize windows on a home’s west side, which gets a lot summer sun, and the north side, which catches winter winds, McDonald said.

While Kentucky may be behind other states in solar incentives, it is ahead of most when it comes to green building design. Levine, who last year received a “pioneer” award from the American Solar Energy Society, runs an architecture practice that is bringing European “passive” home design to Kentucky.

So-called passive homes are so heavily insulated that little energy is lost. They use only about 10 percent of the energy needed to heat and cool a well-built conventional home. Because these houses are so air tight, they are equipped with special ventilators that bring fresh air in from the outside with minimal heat and cooling loss.

Levine’s firm, CSC Design Studio, is designing five passive “net-zero” homes for Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. intended for sale to middle-income people. The first is under construction near Williamsburg.

CSC also recently designed a net-zero home for a client who will begin construction in July along the Kentucky River, said Michael Hughes, an architect who works with Levine. Power needed for these passive homes will come from solar panels on the roof.

Passive homes can cost as much as 25 percent more to build than conventional homes, but Hughes thinks prices will fall as more builders learn how to build them and domestic companies step in to compete with European manufacturers of super-insulated doors and windows. “I think it’s the future of homebuilding,” Hughes said.

Solar Resources

  • The first step to lower utility bills isn’t solar technology – it is making your home more energy efficient. A good place to get more information about that the Kentucky Housing Corp.’s Web site:
  • The Kentucky Solar Partnership’s Web site is a good place to find information about solar home technology, from a list of contractors to available incentives. The organization is planning a training session in August for contractors interested in learning how to install solar systems.
  • Additional information about incentives for energy efficiency and solar technology can be found at: and
  • The Rural Energy for America program offers grants to some farms and rural businesses for installing renewable energy systems:
  • Information about solar and other renewable energy options:
  • Several magazines offer resources, including Home Power at, and Solar Today at
  • CSC Design Studio in Lexington designs custom passive and solar homes:

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

Departing hospital CEO shares thoughts on Lexington

May 14, 2011

When a search firm approached Gene Woods six years ago about applying to become chief executive of St. Joseph Health System, he hesitated. It was in Kentucky.

Woods and his family were living in Washington, D.C.. They had never been to Kentucky, and the 40-year-old son of an African-American father and a Spanish mother wondered if they would fit in and find community.

While interviewing for the job, Woods and his wife, Ramona, explored downtown Lexington and stopped in Natasha’s Bistro & Bar for dinner. “It was really a welcoming environment,” he recalled. “We thought we might like it here.”

The Woods were back at Natasha’s a week ago Saturday, and the place was packed. Everyone was there to hear the farewell performance of The City’s lead singer and guitarist: Gene Woods.

Woods is leaving Lexington next month to take over a much larger Catholic hospital network in Dallas. Christus Health has facilities in 60 cities in eight states and Mexico and employs 30,000 people, including 8,000 doctors.

“I’m going to be focusing on my day job for a while,” Woods joked last week when we met for coffee. I wanted to get Woods’ perspective on Lexington, based on his relatively short but eventful time here.

Woods is proud of St. Joseph, which on his watch has built four new facilities, invested $80 million in technology, saved millions by streamlining processes and won awards for patient care. St. Joseph also has begun partnership talks with University Medical Center and Jewish Hospital & St. Mary’s HealthCare in Louisville.

Living in Lexington has been personally fulfilling for the Woods and their sons, ages 10 and 16. “We’ve made some phenomenal friends here,” he said. “My kids absolutely thrived.  I had heard that Lexington was a great place to raise a family, and, boy, is that right.”

Woods served on several boards, including Berea College and the Blue Grass Community Foundation. The family was active in the arts, including Romana’s work with Actors Guild and Gene’s performing with The City, a band whose other members have day jobs that include architecture, business and journalism.

Woods said the civic work he is most proud of was helping with restoration of the Lyric Theatre, an icon in Lexington’s African-American community. “I really believe strongly that the vibrancy of any community is its support for its arts,” he said.

Community spirit has grown during his time here, Woods said, along with support for the arts and cooperation within the business community. “It has been a period of significant change,” he said. “And the World Equestrian Games in some respects put a cherry on top.”

Woods said Lexington has so many assets to build on, from excellent public and private schools and universities to a magnificent rural landscape. Early on a recent morning, Woods was running near his home and noticed horses grazing in a misty field.  “I just stopped and took it all in,” he said.

“I have lived in places, such as the Virgin Islands, that were physically beautiful, but Lexington has as awe-inspiring a beauty as any place I’ve ever lived,” he said.

Woods said this city has most of the building blocks for future success. “This is a very easy place to live,” he said. There is little crime, it is easy to get around and people are friendly. But he said that while Lexington has done a lot in recent years to encourage and promote diversity, more could be done.

“I have always felt extraordinarily welcomed and comfortable in this community,” Woods said. “But I think it’s something you have to keep focused on. In order for Lexington to be perceived on the national stage the way it wants to be, I think there needs to be a continued commitment to diversity.”

When recruiting minorities for St. Joseph, Woods said, “What I heard most was, ‘What social networks am I going to get connected to when I come to Lexington?’ There have got to be forums where people can feel a part of the community. And things to do.”

Woods said a good start would be having more events downtown like last fall’s Spotlight Lexington concert series.

“What was interesting to me when I walked around downtown was you had folks seemingly from all walks of life,” he said. “People were enjoying each other, and I don’t recall one negative incident. That speaks to the culture of this place. It’s something you can build on - and other communities wish they had.”

A beautiful afternoon for a record Kentucky Derby crowd

May 7, 2011

LOUISVILLE —The weather forecasters were wrong, thank goodness.

The sun was shining bright on a perfect spring afternoon as a record crowd of 164,858 stumbled over the words to My Old Kentucky Home before seeing Animal Kingdom win his first race on dirt to take the 137th Kentucky Derby.

Brief periods of rain earlier in the day didn’t faze the biggest Derby crowd in history. The field was wide open, and, as always, horses were just part of the attraction. The Derby is a big party, a peerless networking opportunity and a colorful pageant of women in tight dresses and bodacious hats.

For hours leading up to the so-called greatest two minutes in sports, Kentucky’s captains of horseflesh and industry wined and dined those lucky enough to receive invitations from them.

“It’s such a selling opportunity for the state,” said Alltech founder and President Pearse Lyons. He and his wife, Deirdra, sat on Millionaire’s Row with John Petterson, senior vice president of Tiffany & Co., who said construction of his company’s new plant in Lexington is on schedule for completion in July.

“The whole state of Kentucky has been good to us,” said Petterson, attending his first Derby. “This is a wonderful place to do business.”

Executives from Mexico and India were among those being entertained by state officials hungry for investment.

Proeza of Monterey, Mexico, owns three automobile parts factories in Kentucky that employ 1,200 people. “We hope to increase employment,” said CEO Enrique Zambrano, who was loving his first Derby. “We come from a family that loves horses, and this is an experience.”

Across the table from Zambrano was Rewant Ruia, director of Essar of Mumbai, India. “I think it’s a fabulous event,” said Ruia, who said his conglomerate employs 10,000 people in North America, including coal miners in Kentucky. “To be honest, I did not expect the Derby to be so big.”

Across the track and far below the luxury suites, the infield crowd had arrived early to set up tents against the predicted rain. They partied the day away, progressing from $7 breakfast Budweisers to $10 mint juleps.

“The atmosphere, the people, the party,” said Ken Keske of Charlotte, N.C., when I asked why he keeps coming back every year. His Derby outfit included a furry viking helmet.

Nearby, Karolyn Cook of New Jersey and two girlfriends from New York and North Carolina were sporting lovely dresses and elegant hats. They sat on a blanket in the infield, snacking on potato chips. “My mother is stationed at Fort Knox, so this was the thing to do,” Cook said.

Tim Rask came from Iowa City, Iowa, for his seventh Derby, his fifth wearing a bowler hat topped with a tall arrangement of red roses that required almost perfect posture. “All that finishing school paid off,” he joked.

Rask keeps coming “because it’s the greatest time to be had in the country,” he said. “It’s great fun to make a fool of yourself once a year.”

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who took office in January, was enjoying his first year as Derby host. “People love coming here and they all leave with a smile on their face,” he said. “It’s fun to be part of that.”

When I saw Fischer, he was shaking hands on Millionaire’s Row and introducing people to Lt. Gen. Ben Freakley, who is overseeing a big expansion and mission change at Ft. Knox that in the past year has expanded the base’s payroll by $45 million.

“You see these beautiful ladies in these fabulous hats and then a dude in a T-shirt,” said Freakley, who was attending his first Derby. “This is America. We’re all celebrating what we are as a country. It’s pretty neat.”

It’s also a pretty neat day to be a Kentuckian, said Central Bank President Luther Deaton.

“It showcases Kentucky and what a great place we live,” he said. “We’re the luckiest people going.”

New tailgating is a big hit at Rolex 3-Day Event

April 30, 2011

Martha Lambert of Louisville comes to the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event every year. So when she heard tailgating spaces would be available for the first time, she quickly reserved one and started inviting friends.

“This is the best idea they’ve had since they started the Rolex,” said Lambert, who competed at the Rolex three times in the 1990s. “I wonder why they haven’t done it before?”

Lambert was one of more than 100 people, companies and organizations that paid either $275 or $325 for a space along the crest of the meadow where much of the cross-country course was built. Each spot included eight admission tickets. Only a handful of spots went unused.

“There was an excellent response,” said Vanessa Coleman, ticketing director for Equestrian Events, the Rolex’s organizer. “We’ve already had people say ‘you need to make this a tradition.’”

It certainly helped to have a picture-perfect day — lots of sunshine and temperatures in the 70s, following a stormy month that dumped more than a foot of rain on Lexington.

“Yes, we’re responsible for the weather today, too,” Coleman joked with tailgaters as she walked from spot to spot to check on things.

Lundy’s Catering took advance orders, but also sold a lot of last-minute food as tailgaters saw what their neighbors were having. “I think it’s going to be a hit,” said Alissa Lundergan, one of the company’s owners.

But most tailgaters brought their own food and drink — impressive homemade spreads, served with plenty of champagne. Chad Ross of Frankfort loaded a big gas grill into his pickup truck to cook brisket and pork tenderloin for his family and friends from Missouri.

“We come to the Horse Park as often as we can,” said Wendy Long of Huntington, W.Va. She and her husband, Larry, are such horse sport fans that their license plate reads: Jump Over. “This is such a nice way to enjoy the Horse Park and the Rolex,” she said.

Becky Coleman of Tifton, Ga., comes to Rolex every year to photograph the competition. Her husband, Tony, isn’t a horseman, but he agreed to come this year and was happy to have the tailgating spot as a place to relax. “She’s big into it,” he said of the Rolex. “I figure if Mama’s happy, everybody’s happy.”

Practical Horseman magazine had a spot to entertain supporters, as did the Irish Draught Horse Society of North America. Society members were there to cheer on eight competing horses with Irish draught bloodlines.

Land Rover had the most elegant tailgating space — six spaces, actually, with six brand new Land Rover and Range Rover models. Their tailgates were lifted to display a spread of gourmet food for Land Rover owners and other customers to enjoy.

“This was perfect for us,” said Kim McCullough, the company’s brand vice president. “People naturally tailgate with a Land Rover.”

Land Rover, the event’s vehicle sponsor, also was operating an off-road demonstration course. While the company doesn’t actually sell vehicles here, dealers report the efforts have produced many good leads, McCullough said.

Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, had a tailgating spot to do some marketing for its equine studies programs, which have 110 majors, and equestrian team. About 30 students were attending Rolex.

“We hope to attract potential students,” said Lucy Cryan, who directs the university’s equine program. “And we decided to get the word out to alumni to stop by and say hello.”

Most tailgaters said they hope to get a spot next year — and for many years to come.

“It is awesome being able to do this,” said Randi McEntire, who comes each year with a group of fellow horse enthusiasts from Charleston, S.C. “We’re already talking about next year and how we’re going to improve on our setup.”

The group was tailgating under a University of South Carolina Gamecocks tent and digging into the smoked chicken, cold cuts, fresh vegetables and ample liquor selection that Kent Gramke had assembled.

“Good company, good weather, good food — that’s what makes the event,” Gramke said. “And horses,” his friend Sherry Lilley quickly added.

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Census offers tips for shaping Kentucky’s future

March 28, 2011

Demographics is destiny, which is why Kentucky’s business and political leaders should be taking a close look at data released this month from the 2010 census.

Here are a few of those demographic trends from the census and other recent reports that are worth keeping in mind:

Diversity and age: Kentucky’s population grew 7.4 percent between 2000 and 2010, bringing the total number of state residents to 4,339,367. Almost all of that growth was among minorities, especially Hispanics, whose numbers more than doubled.

“Immigration is a positive, not a negative,” said Ron Crouch, research director for the state Education and Workforce Development Cabinet and one of Kentucky’s most respected demographers. “Without immigration, we would be a state in decline.”

The population of Kentuckians younger than 18 grew at only one-third the rate of older residents. “We’re not going to have a growing work force unless older people work longer,” Crouch said.

What’s more, minorities accounted for all of the overall growth among the state’s younger people. To keep its economy strong, Kentucky must do a better job with education, especially considering the achievement gap that often exists in schools between minority and white students.

Health and well-being: Crouch said one alarming trend is the continued rise in births to unwed mothers. Almost 42 percent of children born in Kentucky in 2009 were to single mothers — up from 36 percent in 2005 and 8 percent in 1970.

“A growing portion of our families are at risk,” he said, because most of these unmarried mothers are already poor, and single motherhood is a big factor in keeping them and their children poor.

When looking at government transfer payments in Kentucky, Crouch said, the big money is in retirement, disability and rapidly rising health care costs. Those costs will increase as the overall population continues to age. By comparison, he said, “Welfare, food stamps and unemployment insurance are drops in the bucket.”

Another concern is that, in many Kentucky counties, large segments of the population are chronically jobless, a situation that doesn’t show up in traditional unemployment measures. Because these people haven’t paid into Social Security and Medicare, taxpayers will face even bigger costs as they age and require medical care.

“The Medicaid crisis today is going to get much worse,” Crouch said.

Location and economy: While much of the nation’s Northeast and Midwest are in decline, and the Southwest faces serious issues, Kentucky’s location in the growing Southeast offers economic growth potential. The state’s abundance of water will be an important asset in the future, Crouch added.

Kentucky’s population growth was primarily in the center of the state — especially inside the so-called Golden Triangle of Lexington, Louisville and Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati — and along interstate highways.

The Golden Triangle counties have the highest per-capita income, while the lowest is in parts of Eastern Kentucky. “But if you have a job in Eastern Kentucky, you are making wages at or above the rest of the state,” Crouch said. That is mostly because of health care and retail jobs, he added. The coal industry, where employment has fallen dramatically in recent years, plays a much less significant role.

Bowling Green outgrew Owensboro and became Kentucky’s third-largest city, thanks largely to its location along Interstate 65 between Louisville and Nashville.

The Elizabethtown region also experienced strong growth. It is likely to continue to become a more significant player in the state’s economy as growth follows the Army’s decision to move more support personnel to nearby Fort Knox.

While Kentuckians continued the trend of moving from rural counties to urban and suburban counties, most of the state’s rural counties saw less decline than those in most surrounding states, such as Illinois and West Virginia.

Since consolidating some of Kentucky’s 120 counties will likely never happen because of politics, the growth of urban regional economies will make cross-county planning and cooperation more important than ever. And booming suburban counties will have to do a better job of managing sprawl to protect quality of life.

Overall, Crouch thinks, the state’s trends show promise for good economic growth, but it will require more investment in education, infrastructure and health care to keep Kentucky competitive.

News events show energy status quo must change

March 20, 2011

If we can learn anything from recent headlines, it is that powering our economy and lifestyle will only get more difficult and expensive, at least in the near future.

Japan is struggling to avert catastrophe from an earthquake-damaged nuclear power plant. The crisis has the rest of the world taking a second look at the safety of its nuclear systems.

Kentucky outlawed nuclear power in 1984 until the federal government came up with a plan for storing spent fuel, which it has yet to do. The ban was prompted by a leaking radioactive dump in Fleming County that took years to contain. The state Senate voted last month to repeal the ban, but the bill died in the House.

Should Kentucky reconsider nuclear power, which now provides 20 percent of this nation’s electricity? Maybe so. We’re in no position to ignore any source of energy. But Japan’s disaster reminds us nuclear power is an imperfect, unforgiving technology that can be dangerous and costly.

I spent the early years of my career covering another example, much closer to home.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which provides electricity to parts of Kentucky and six other states, narrowly averted a nuclear accident in 1975 when one of its reactors in Alabama caught fire.

By the time I started covering TVA in 1981, the utility was raising electricity rates and writing off billions of dollars in investment because officials realized the agency was building too many nuclear reactors.

Then, in 1985, TVA shut down all its reactors after its own nuclear engineers secretly came to me and other reporters with evidence that raised questions about whether those plants had been built safely. That led to years of repairs and billions in additional cost.

Coal provides half the nation’s power and more than 90 percent of Kentucky’s power. Electricity has been cheap in this state, because many of the health and environmental costs of mining and burning coal have been ignored. That is changing, because it must.

The Environmental Protection Agency last week proposed tighter rules for how much mercury, other toxic substances and particle pollution coal-fired power plants can release into the air. The EPA claims the rules will save 17,000 lives a year, and the $10 billion cost of making plants cleaner would produce $100 billion worth of health and environmental benefits.

Utilities will fight the new rules, just as they fought many previous rules that made coal-fired plants much cleaner and safer. Expect opposition, too, from many politicians, especially those in the pockets of industries that fund their campaigns.

They will say we “can’t afford” to protect public health or the environment, and higher standards will “kill jobs.” Change is inevitable, though, because research shows that pollution and climate change are killing a lot more than jobs.

Many of those same politicians have fought against fuel-economy standards for vehicles, leaving us all the more vulnerable to political instability in the Middle East and rising demand for oil in developing nations such as China and India.

Increasing domestic oil production in ways that harm the environment isn’t the answer, because that would barely make a dent in the price or supply of what is now a globally traded commodity.

So what is the answer? There isn’t one, but many.

We must invest in research and technology to mine, drill and burn coal and oil more cleanly and efficiently. We must incorporate whatever lessons are learned from Japan’s crisis to make nuclear power safer.

We must develop renewable energy sources — solar, wind and biomass — that will be able to sustain civilization long after coal and oil are gone. Government must play a significant role in this research where private industry cannot or will not.

Perhaps more than anything, we must get serious about designing buildings, vehicles and gadgets to use less energy. Conservation isn’t as difficult as many people think. Take, for example, Kentucky’s many new energy-efficient school buildings, including one in Warren County that will generate as much power as it uses.

We have a choice: ignore the headlines and fight inevitable change, or learn from them and get serious about balancing our needs and desires with those of future generations. Anyone who thinks we can maintain our energy status quo is a dim bulb.