With Lexington’s downtown on the rise, time to plan for more

January 27, 2015

jeffstHuge crowds came to the Jefferson Street Soiree last fall, underscoring the popularity of a downtown restaurant district that barely existed in 2007. Photo by Matt Goins

 

What a difference a decade makes, and it has barely been eight years.

The Downtown Development Authority has started seeking public comment for a 10-year update of Lexington’s 2007 Downtown Master Plan, which seeks to influence a wider urban area than just the central business district.

Jeff Fugate, who took over the DDA three years ago after Harold Tate retired, started the process Monday by bringing together more than a dozen members of the last report’s steering committee, or their successors.

Fugate’s presentation offered a striking reminder of how much has changed since 2007 — specifically, what a more vibrant, interesting and desirable place downtown Lexington has become. Not that it doesn’t have a long way to go.

Perhaps the biggest difference is public attitudes. Why? For one thing, Fugate said, nightly concerts and events during the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games made people start thinking of downtown as a place to gather and have fun.

That was reinforced by a city ordinance allowing sidewalk dining, which made downtown restaurants more popular and profitable. There are now 112 restaurants and bars downtown. That includes the Jefferson Street and Short Street restaurant districts, which barely existed in 2007.

Cheapside has blossomed as a gathering space since the plaza was rebuilt to include Fifth Third Pavilion. That also created a better home for the Lexington Farmers Market, which has grown significantly.

The University of Kentucky, Bluegrass Community and Technical College and Transylvania University have all launched major expansions in and around downtown.

And much of Lexington’s growing high-tech business sector is located downtown, one of many indications of demographic shifts that favor urban over suburban areas.

Several of the 2007 plan’s recommendations have started happening, such as denser land use (Euclid Avenue Kroger), more attractive entrance corridors (Isaac Murphy Art Garden, South Limestone streetscape), and having the Lexington Parking Authority take over and improve city-owned garages.

A total of 93 acres has been rezoned for mixed-use development, opening the way for projects such as the Bread Box, National Avenue and the Distillery District.

Another master plan recommendation called for more housing downtown. That has been slow because of the 2008 economic crisis, but the recovery has sparked several proposals, including Thistle Station on Newtown Pike and residential units in mixed-use buildings planned along Midland Avenue. Plus, UK and Transylvania are building a lot of new student housing.

Sidewalk and intersection improvements have made things better for pedestrians, and many bicycle lanes have been added. The Legacy Trail and the expansion of Town Branch Trail should be completed this year.

The Town Branch Commons proposal would create more green space and address recommendations for improving Vine Street and the Rupp Arena area, which has benefitted from the redesign of Triangle Park and renovations to the Hilton and The (Victorian) Square.

In December, the $41 million 21C Museum Hotel is to open in the old First National Building, a great adaptive reuse of an historic building.

“But there needs to be more about historic preservation,” steering committee member Bill Johnston said. “We didn’t have enough in the last (plan) and we lost some important buildings.”

He was referring to the CentrePointe project, which wiped out a block of buildings dating as far back as 1826. They have been replaced by a hole where a parking garage is supposed to be and two huge cranes, which were erected six weeks ago but have yet to do any work.

CentrePointe showed how little legal protection there was — or still is — for downtown’s iconic old buildings.

The 2007 plan recommended form-based building guidelines. A lengthy task force process has developed downtown design guidelines, but the Urban County Council has yet to debate and adopt them. Like the 2007 plan’s recommendation for returning one-way streets to two-way traffic, design guidelines are politically sensitive.

Steering committee members highlighted several things a master plan update should cover. In addition to historic preservation, they included affordable housing, better garbage solutions than rows of “herbies,” better parking policies, more bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure and more street trees.

If you have ideas, send them to the Downtown Development Authority at info@lexingtondda.com or 101 East Vine St., Suite 100, Lexington, KY 40507.


Development holds promise for downtown Lexington’s eastern edge

January 26, 2015

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holoubek

Developer Phil Holoubek

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Smith of Community Ventures Corp.

Kevin Smith of Community Ventures Corp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lexington starting to see the benefits of urban redevelopment

January 25, 2015

krogerThe new Euclid Avenue Kroger. Photo by Mark Cornelison

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

January 20, 2015

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Breakout Games offers ‘escapism’ for fun, teambuilding

January 18, 2015

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Three Lexington projects finalists for $5 million in Knight grants

January 12, 2015

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

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

The Lexington finalists are:

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

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

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

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

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


Lexington artist, poet has made big career with tiny paintings

January 6, 2015

141218Woolfolk0007Miriam Woolfolk holds a painting she did of Loudoun House. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

When the street artist MTO came to Lexington’s PRHBTN festival last fall to paint a mural on a Manchester Street warehouse, he showed how huge, bold and controversial art can be.

141218Woolfolk0034At the other end of the spectrum, Miriam Lamy Woolfolk, an award-winning Lexington painter and poet, has been showing for decades how tiny, delicate and beautiful art can be.

Woolfolk, who turns 89 on Valentine’s Day, paints intricate watercolor landscapes that take up no more than a few square inches. About 30 of them will be on display at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning beginning Jan. 16 for Gallery Hop.

She has been a regular, prize-winning exhibitor at miniature art shows around the world for decades, but this is her largest Lexington show in years. It was organized after her work was included in a Carnegie Center exhibit last year featuring images of surrounding Gratz Park.

“After that, we were fascinated by her art,” said Luisa Trujillo, the center’s art director.

Woolfolk is from Louisville, where she remembers always dabbling in art and poetry. She worked in a World War II ration office, for an oil company and for the magazine of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad before raising four children.

She moved to Lexington with her first husband in 1951. Her second husband, the late Patch Woolfolk, was a professor of animal science at the University of Kentucky.

Woolfolk’s only formal art training was in high school. But she took night classes after her interest was rekindled while working as a bookkeeper for a physician, whose office housed the Lexington Art League in its early years. (Later, she would serve as the league’s president.)

141218Woolfolk0015Woolfolk discovered a love for miniatures at her first out-of-state art show.

“I flew up to New Jersey and was absolutely stunned by all the little pieces,” she said. “I’ve always liked little stuff.”

In 1980, she won “best of show” at a prestigious art exhibit in Washington, D.C. Her pair of small watercolors were the only miniatures in that show, and the prize led to an invitation to join the Miniature Painters, Sculptors and Gravers Society of Washington.

That involvement led to many prizes at miniature art shows around the country and as far away as Russia and Tasmania. She also has illustrated several books for Lexington authors and organizations.

Trujillo said the Carnegie Center also was interested in Woolfolk’s art because she has always excelled in both images and words.

A poet since childhood, she is a past president of the Kentucky State Poetry Society and edited its journal, Pegasus, for 21 years. Two of her poems were included in The Kentucky Anthology: 200 years of writing in the Bluegrass State, published in 2005 by the University Press of Kentucky.

That book was edited by Wade Hall, a longtime English professor at Bellarmine Univeristy and a collector of regional quilts, more than 100 of which he donated to the University of Kentucky for display in the W.T. Young Library.

Woolfolk has always done needlework, too, and she wanted to contribute to Hall’s collection. But, because of her love of miniatures, and a good sense of humor, she gave him a potholder instead of a quilt.

141218Woolfolk0020Woolfolk said she never used a magnifying glass to paint her miniatures, just very tiny brushes, some with just a few hairs. Her scenes were drawn from photographs she made, many at spots around Central Kentucky she found while driving back roads with her husband.

Age finally dimmed Woolfolk’s eyesight, and she has given up painting. She recently entered what she said will be her last art show, in Maryland. She also completed a big, small project for the Carnegie Center.

As part of a November event celebrating J.D. Salinger’s classic, The Catcher in the Rye, Woolfolk made 100 tiny paper boxes that were given to attendees. Each contained a piece of paper with a quote from the book.

Woolfolk has been making similar tiny boxes for years and giving them away to friends. Usually, though, they come with a line of her own poetry: “A secret place to hold your dreams, for dreams take little space.”


Photo fun with buildings, fading light, the moon and a flock of birds

January 5, 2015

While trying to come up with a good photograph to go with today’s column, I spent some time walking around Cheapside on a cold New Year’s Eve. I thought there might be a good shot with fading light, the old Fayette County Courthouse and the 21C Museum Hotel construction site, which is now lit up inside every night. While there, I discovered a few bonus elements: a flock of birds that kept circling the area, a rising moon just over the old Courthouse dome, the statue of John C. Breckinridge and the CentrePointe tower cranes. I only needed one photo for the paper (which, unfortunately, cropped out the moon) but I thought I would share some others, too. Happy New Year.

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Urban-rural divide will challenge Kentucky economy in 2015

January 5, 2015

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

January 3, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lexington curator bringing Kentucky artists to New York gallery

December 29, 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Looking at Christmas again through a child’s eyes

December 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Proposal a test of whether Lexington is ready to grow up, not out.

December 20, 2014

thistleAn architectural rendering of Thistle Station, a proposed 16-story apartment building with retail on the first floor. It would be between West Third and Fourth Streets off Newtown Pike.

 

Thistle Station, the 16-story apartment and retail building proposed last week along Newtown Pike, will be a big test of whether Lexingtonians can practice what they preach about growing their city up rather than out.

At first blush, the $30 million project appears to be a great example of urban infill development, the kind Lexington needs if it wants to avoid paving over more of its precious farmland.

Proposed by a group of local investors led by John Cirigliano, Thistle Station seems to have a lot going for it. For one thing, the site and location are just about perfect.

The development would sit along busy Newtown Pike, across West Fourth Street from the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus. It would be near two popular brew pubs and the Jefferson Street restaurant district and within easy walking distance of downtown.

Yet, there is enough space between this site and surrounding residential neighborhoods that nobody should feel crowded or overwhelmed, even by such a tall building with more than 210 apartments.

The site is now a former lumber yard bordered by railroad tracks. Nobody will be displaced by this project, and no significant old buildings will be lost.

thistle2The developers plan plenty of parking, most of it screened from public view, with easy access to Newtown Pike, which will minimize traffic impact on other nearby streets. The building is on a Lextran bus line and will be near both the Legacy and Town Branch trails. The developers plan to build a connecting trail section on their property along Newtown Pike.

Renderings show an attractive piece of contemporary architecture, designed in part by the Lexington firm Pohl Rosa Pohl. Skillful use of classical elements — a base, a middle course and a cap — give the design visual unity.

Although the building would be bigger and taller than anything near it, the first story is wrapped by pedestrian-friendly retail space. A stepped-down face along West Third Street provides a more human scale appropriate to the adjacent historic neighborhoods.

An abundance of glass is framed by textured concrete to resemble brick, with several nice touches, such as open glass corners and subtle balconies. Thistle Station could set a positive tone for future architecture along this important Lexington gateway corridor.

While the downtown condo market has been soft since the real estate bubble burst in 2008, property professionals tell me there is demand for upscale rental apartments downtown. Many young and transient professionals, as well as empty-nest baby boomers, want to live in an urban setting.

Two more positives: Thistle Station is not seeking any public subsidies, such as tax-increment financing. And before going public, the developers briefed leaders of the three surrounding neighborhood associations and scheduled meetings to seek public comment and suggestions. So far, most of the response has been positive.

The developers plan to file papers next month to rezone the property from I-1 light industrial to B-1 business under the city’s new form-based guidelines. If approved by the Planning Commission and the Urban County Council in the spring, the developers say the project could be finished and open by fall 2016.

The riskiest aspect of Thistle Station’s plan would seem to be the small, ground-floor retail and restaurant spaces. A lot of similar space at other Lexington mixed-use projects is vacant after struggling to find and keep tenants.

Still, making this space available is the right thing to do. Retail is essential to creating vibrant neighborhoods. A few tall housing developments like this could help provide the population density and diversity Lexington needs to help urban shops and restaurants succeed.

I expect Thistle Station will get some opposition — I have never seen a development proposal in Lexington that didn’t. People here have always been averse to more density and height. But both will be essential if Lexington is to get serious about promoting urban infill rather than bulldozing more bluegrass.

If properly designed, development with greater density and height can be both attractive and compatible with existing neighborhoods. Thistle Station looks like a good place for Lexington to start proving that point.


Alt32 architects find niche making furniture for their buildings

December 8, 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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After 7 years of excuses, get tough with CentrePointe developer

December 6, 2014

141124CentrePointe-TE0001The CentrePointe block on Nov. 24, 2014. Below, developer Dudley Webb at the site in May and, below, the block before demolition began in 2008. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

Fourteen months ago, when city officials were scrutinizing developer Dudley Webb’s financing to decide whether to let him begin excavation and construction of his problem-plagued CentrePointe project, I wrote that there are far worse things to have in the center of your city than a grassy field.

Now we know one of those things: a huge crater, nearly 40 feet deep and an entire city block square. A hole in the heart of Lexington.

Webb’s contractors spent three months last spring blasting, digging and hauling away more than 60,000 cubic yards of rock and dirt to build an underground garage. The three-level, 700-space garage is supposed to be the base of his proposed CentrePointe development of offices, apartments, shops, restaurants and hotels.

Webb said in May that the garage would be finished by late summer. But all he has done is dig a big hole, pour a few footers and make a lot of excuses.

CentrePointe has fallen months behind schedule, causing its major office tenant, the engineering firm Stantec, to cancel its lease agreement.

Instead of building the garage, as promised, Webb has sought more public subsidies. It is the latest episode in a tragedy that has been playing out since early 2008, when city officials let Webb demolish an entire block of historic buildings and popular businesses on nothing more than promises.

140531CentrePit-TE0140Webb has said over and over that he has financing to build. But when it comes down to it, he never really does. And, of course, it is always somebody else’s fault.

In August, Webb asked the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority to issue $30 million in bonds for the garage’s construction to lower his borrowing costs. The state refused, so he asked the city.

Mayor Jim Gray and the Urban County Council also wisely declined, even though Webb’s attorneys assured them that taxpayers would not be on the hook for repayment in case of default.

Even if that is true, city officials are keenly aware that a default on city-issued bonds would tarnish Lexington’s reputation even more than the CentrePointe fiasco already has.

Webb next turned to the Kentucky League of Cities, which agreed to create a non-profit corporation to issue the bonds. That was supposed to happen last week, but Temple Juett, the league’s general counsel, said the issue has been delayed. He did not have a new date.

If and when the bonds are sold, the big question will be whether anyone will buy them. The bonds are to be repaid by a portion of future tax revenues generated by the project. “The only people left holding the bag if there is a default are the bondholders,” Juett said.

Maybe the bond issue will be successful. Maybe Webb has the rest of his financing in place, as he claims. Maybe there will be no further delays, and CentrePointe will be built as promised.

Maybe pigs will fly.

If the bonds don’t sell, I predict Webb will come back to the city with his hand out. He will seek a bond guarantee or some other assistance in addition to the tax-increment financing package he last negotiated with the city and state in 2013.

There is only one appropriate response to any request for more public subsidies for CentrePointe: No. Period.

When Webb assured city officials a year ago that his financing was solid, they forced him to put up $4.4 million as a “conditional restoration agreement” that could be triggered if work at the site stops for 60 days.

That $4.4 million is supposed to be enough to pay for refilling the hole, compacting the soil and restoring the block to its pre-excavation appearance — a grassy field.

If the developer can’t pay, the city can go to court and seek foreclosure on the property, which is owned by corporations set up by Webb and jeweler Joe Rosenberg, whose family has owned much of the land for decades.

Of course, it would make no sense to fill the hole. The city needs the parking garage, just as it needs a vibrant, tax-generating, job-creating commercial development to be built on top of it. The question is whether Webb is capable of ever building either.

Here is what should happen: If Webb can’t finish the garage in a timely manner, city officials should use their leverage to force him and Rosenberg to turn the project over to another developer who can.

For nearly seven years, city officials have bent over backward to try to make CentrePointe a well-designed, successful project. Webb has squandered opportunities and made a lot of promises he hasn’t kept. Enough is enough.

080618CentrePointeBlockTE018

 


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?”


New program allows restaurant patrons to feed hungry neighbors

November 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chevy Chase entrepreneurs plan Small Business Saturday event

November 23, 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The story behind Gratz Park’s bronze kids, soon headed for repairs

November 21, 2014

141111GPFountain0032Author James Lane Allen’s will left the city $6,000 to build a fountain dedicated to Lexington’s youth. Installed in 1933, it will get a much-needed makeover this winter.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Like horses, stone fences and antebellum homes, the bronze boy and girl in Gratz Park have become frequently photographed symbols of Lexington.

But early this week or next, depending on the weather, a crane will carefully remove the life-size statues from their perch on the fountain across Third Street from Transylvania University.

The kids will spend the winter at Lexington’s Prometheus Foundry for repairs and refinishing. If all goes well, they will return to the park in May after the fountain’s crumbling concrete and Depression-era plumbing are replaced and the stone and brick surrounds are restored.

The fountain “is just falling apart with age,” said Michelle Kosieniak, superintendent of planning and design for the city’s Division of Parks and Recreation. “We figured that since we were moving the statues anyway, we should take a look at restoring them, too, and hopefully get them ready to be enjoyed for another half-century.”

There is an interesting story behind these playful children and their fountain that says a lot about Lexington’s history of tension between progressive thought and conservative religion. But it has nothing to do with the statues’ lack of clothing.

141111GPFountain0024James Lane Allen was born near Lexington in 1849 and graduated with honors from Transylvania University in 1872. After a few years of teaching, he pursued a writing career and moved to New York City.

Allen became one of America’s most popular novelists and short-story writers in the 1890s. His tales, written in a flowery style popular in the late Victorian era, were often set in Kentucky and featured characters taken from early Bluegrass history.

One of his most famous tales, King Solomon of Kentucky, told the true story of how William “King” Solomon, an alcoholic vagrant, became a hero during Lexington’s 1833 cholera epidemic by staying to bury the dead while almost everyone else fled.

Novels such as A Kentucky Cardinal and The Choir Invisible became national best-sellers. But Allen’s 1900 novel The Reign of Law created controversy in Lexington because its protagonist accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution instead of a literal interpretation of the Bible’s creation story.

The Rev. John McGarvey, president of what is now Lexington Theological Seminary, castigated Allen in a widely publicized sermon. The Lexington Herald heaped on, opining that “dirt and dust” were “ruining the author’s mind.”

The criticism stung Allen, who wrote that Kentucky “never did appreciate its best people.” He never returned to Lexington — not even when the Lexington Public Library dedicated a portrait of him in 1916.

“My returning now would seem like vainly attempting to pass over into a vanished land,” Allen wrote his lifelong friend, M.A. Cassidy, the superintendent of Lexington’s public schools.

But Cassidy kept the author connected to his hometown. During the last decade of Allen’s life, Lexington schools celebrated his birthday each Dec. 21 and children would write notes and telegrams of good wishes.

Allen was touched, and he always sent thank-you letters. He ended a 1922 interview at his New York home with a journalism student from Lexington by saying, “Give my love to the Kentucky children.”

When Allen died in 1925, his will left his entire estate to Lexington to build a fountain dedicated to the city’s children. The estate was originally thought to be worth $12,000 — a lot of money in those days. Officials planned to build a swimming pool with a fountain in the middle.

But by the time the city actually got the money, Allen’s estate had shrunk by half because of the stock market crash and waning royalties as his books lost popularity. Lexington’s children had to settle for a fountain and statues.

The statues were sculpted by Joseph Pollia, an Italian-born artist in New York who had a distinguished career creating war memorials.

His sculpture depicts a boy showing his homemade boat to the girl, who expresses delight. The statues symbolize “the spirit of youth, with its tender dreams and delicate and beautiful aspirations, which found so much appreciation in the poetical soul of the author,” the Herald wrote when the fountain was dedicated Oct. 15, 1933.

But time and vandalism have aged those kids. The girl was pushed off her granite pedestal in 1969 and again in 1983, cracking her leg. Although the cracks were repaired, there is concern the statues may have corrosion inside.

“It has been likened to a muffler,” said John Hackworth, president of the Gratz Park Neighborhood Association. “It looks all right from the outside, but if you kick it, it might just disintegrate.”

Restoring the statues will cost $57,000 because their high lead content will require complicated safety procedures. The neighborhood association has given $30,000. Councilman Chris Ford recommended $150,000 in city funds for the rest of the work and restoration of the fountain with a new pump system.

The goal is to have everything finished by Gratz Park’s annual Mayfest celebration on Mother’s Day weekend.

“It’s a symbol of Lexington,” Hackworth said of the fountain, “It’s worth being preserved.”

141111GPFountain0008The fountain stands near Third Street across from Transylvania University’s Old Morrison Hall.


New novel explores race, class in 1940s Central Kentucky

November 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you go

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

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

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