Be an informed voter; watch Lexington candidate forum videos

April 17, 2014

LWVThe League of Women Voters sponsored candidate forums earlier this month at the Lexington Public Library for local primary election races.

Videos of those forums are now available for viewing on YouTube and will be shown on the Lexington Public Library Cable Channel 20. Below is the league’s press release today with all of the details:

 

 

CANDIDATE FORUMS AVAILABLE on YOUTUBE and LIBRARY CHANNEL

LEXINGTON, KY-Candidate forums for 2014 primary races are now available for viewing on YouTube and on the Lexington Public Library Cable Channel 20. The schedule for Channel 20 between April 17 and May 19 follows.

AIRTIMES

Monday, Wednesday and Friday

Council District 2 – 11am and 5:30pm
Council District 3 – 12pm and 6:30pm
Council District 4 – 1pm and 7:30pm
Council District 6 – 2pm and 8:30pm
Council District 8 – 3pm and 9:30pm

Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday

6th Congressional U.S Rep – 11am and 5:30pm
Judge/Executive                    - 11:30am and 6pm
House 76/Republican          - 12:30pm and 7pm
House 77/Democrat             – 1pm and 7:30pm
Council At-Large (Group 1)  - 1:30pm and 8pm
Council At-Large (Group 2)  - 3pm and 9:30pm

The forums are also available on YouTube. Links are available at the Library’s web site

www.youtube.com/lexlibrary

All of the following candidates were invited to participate.

Kentucky House of Representatives

House District 76: Republican Primary: Richard Marrs, Lavinia Theodoli Spirito

House District 77:  Democratic Primary: George Brown, Jr., Michael Haskins

6th Congressional U.S. Representative

Democratic Primary: Elisabeth Jensen,* Geoff Young

Fayette County Judge/Executive

Democratic Primary: William Housh, Alayne White

Lexington/Urban County Council At-Large (Groups were selected randomly)

Group 1: Shannon Buzard, Bill Cegelka, Pete Dyer, Jon Larson, Jerry Moody, Don Pratt, Jacob Slaughter

Group 2: Ray DeBolt, Steve Kay, Connie Kell, Chris Logan, Richard Moloney, Kevin Stinnett

Lexington/Urban County Council

Council District 2   Shevawn Akers, Byron Costner, Michael Stuart

Council District 3   Rock Daniels, Chuck Ellinger, II, Jake Gibbs

Council District 4   Julian Beard*, Susan Lamb, Barry Saturday

Council District 6   Angela Evans, Darren Hawkins, Thomas Hern

Council District 8   Amy Beasley, Fred Brown, LeTonia Jones, Dave Vinson

Republican candidates for House District 79, George Myers and Ken Kearns were not available. *Indicates candidates did not participate.

Citizens may visit the Fayette County Clerk’s web page Lexington/Fayette Urban County Clerk, Voter Registration to learn their federal, state, and local district numbers.

The forums, held in early April, were co-sponsored by the Lexington Public Library and the League of Women Voters of Lexington as a service to the citizens of Fayette County.

The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan political organization that encourages informed and active participation in government. It works to increase understanding of major public policy issues and to influence public policy through education and advocacy. The League does not endorse, or oppose, political candidates or parties.


State Street lessons could help city, UK save other neighborhoods

April 12, 2014

StateStreetCrowds celebrate March 28 in the State Street area. Photo by Jonathan Palmer

 

How much longer must national acclaim on the basketball court be accompanied by national embarrassment in neighborhoods around the University of Kentucky campus?

Thanks to good preparation and policing, the mayhem on State Street after UK’s NCAA tournament games this year wasn’t as bad as in 2012. But it was still unacceptably violent and destructive.

This year’s toll is an embarrassment to both UK and Lexington: more than 60 injuries requiring treatment; more than 50 arrests; more than 125 fires, including a couple dozen couches.

“It’s a miracle that more people and property didn’t get hurt,” said Diane Lawless, who has represented that area on the Urban County Council since 2009. “This isn’t a spontaneous celebration. Goodwill says they come in and buy every piece of upholstered furniture they have. This is a planned riot, period.”

UK sports celebrations started getting out of hand in 1996, when some of the 10,000 fans gathered at Woodland and Euclid avenues to celebrate the national basketball championship smashed car windows and overturned a TV news van, which caught fire. There were fewer problems after the 1998 championship.

Things got ugly in 2007, when crowds in the student rental neighborhood around State Street celebrated UK’s football victories over Louisville and LSU by adopting West Virginia University’s noxious tradition of couch burning.

Five years later, when Kentucky beat Kansas for the NCAA championship, State Street went wild. There were dozens of injuries from fires and flying beer bottles, damaged vehicles and nearly 100 arrests.

It is worth noting that the vast majority of students and others who celebrate after UK games don’t hurt people or damage property. The crowd that partied this year along South Limestone didn’t become destructive.

The problem is that State Street is a very different kind of neighborhood. Some students and outside trouble-makers see it as a place where they can become violent and destructive without consequences.

Both UK and the city helped create this problem. Demand for student housing in recent decades led investors to buy former single-family houses in older neighborhoods around campus. Those houses were demolished and replaced by cheaply built apartment complexes, or they were fitted with barn-like additions and crammed with students. Yards were graveled for parking lots.

Some neighborhoods fought back, using tools including historic overlays to limit the damage. But State, Crescent, Elizabeth and other streets north of Waller Avenue and west of Limestone were overwhelmed. Homeowners and families that were stabilizing influences in those neighborhood fled. City officials took more than a decade to limit further damage to the neighborhoods by student-rental landlords.

UK officials made the problems worse in 1997 by banning alcohol from fraternity and sorority houses. With students essentially prohibited from drinking on campus, they rented “party houses” in adjacent neighborhoods. Social media made it easier for students to find those parties and evade police efforts to shut them down.

Police have refined their tactics, both to try to prevent destructive behavior and violence and to document lawbreaking for prosecution. From all accounts, they handled this year’s State Street mayhem as well as could be expected.

City code enforcement officers have tried to crack down on violations in student-rental neighborhoods, but sanctions remain minimal. The city also is working on better data collection and sharing methods to make it easier to spot troubling trends in neighborhoods before they become problems.

Because existing student-rental properties were grandfathered in when city restrictions were tightened, it’s hard to reverse much of the damage, said Derek Paulsen, the city’s planning commissioner.

“I hate to say State Street is lost, but when it gets to that level, about the only thing you can do is call the police in,” Paulsen said. “From a planning perspective, the question may be, how do we transition that neighborhood out of what it is now to something more productive?”

UK officials have taken some positive steps, including construction of new on-campus residence halls. Last May, President Eli Capilouto appointed a work group of UK and city officials to look at student alcohol habits and policies and their effect on the campus and surrounding neighborhoods. The group completed its report in December, but UK has not yet released its findings and recommendations.

Because sports-related mayhem is largely fueled by alcohol, UK’s next steps will be crucial. But there is more the city could do as well. These safety and town-gown issues are hardly unique to Lexington; other places have dealt with them for years. Here are some things UK and the city should consider:

■ Accept the fact that college students drink. Make campus alcohol policies more lenient in ways that teach students who choose to drink and are of legal age to do it responsibly.

■ Extend the student code of conduct to off-campus behavior, as is done with UK athletes. That would require more information-sharing and coordination between UK and the city, but students might be less likely to engage in destructive behavior off-campus if they knew the consequences would be more serious. When expectations are high, most people will rise to meet them.

■ UK, city and neighborhood residents should put more emphasis on integrating students into the neighborhoods, from social events to beautification projects. If students feel as if they belong in a neighborhood, they will be less likely to destroy it.

■ City officials and police should more aggressively channel celebrations away from State Street to South Limestone or other commercial districts, which can be more effectively policed. Maybe State Street should be closed on big game nights to people who can’t prove they live there.

■ The city must get tough with problem landlords. That could include stricter rules on zoning, building permits and code requirements, with bigger penalties for violations. There also might be ways to hold landlords accountable for tenants’ destructive behavior.

“There are some good landlords out there,” Lawless said. “But there also are a lot of student landlords who couldn’t care less except for stuffing their pockets.”

■ UK and the city should buy some houses in campus neighborhoods that are near the tipping point of too many student rentals. Those houses could be rented or sold with restrictions to faculty, staff and city employees. That would help stabilize those neighborhoods, and it would provide affordable housing for lower-paid employees near their workplaces.

“We still have some very good, viable neighborhoods around the university,” Paulsen said. “We need to learn the lessons of State Street to keep them that way.”  


Lexington, Louisville business people to seek ideas in Charlotte

April 7, 2014

College basketball rivalry aside, Lexington and Louisville are working more cooperatively than ever before. The latest example is the upcoming “leadership visit” to Charlotte by members of Commerce Lexington and Greater Louisville Inc.

More than 200 business and civic leaders from Lexington and Louisville will travel to Charlotte June 1-3 to meet with their counterparts there. It is the second time leaders from Kentucky’s two largest cities have made a joint trip; the first was to Pittsburgh in 2010.

This trip’s emphasis will be regional economic development, said Bob Quick, president of Commerce Lexington.

“Charlotte is a place where a lot of regional initiatives occur,” he said, explaining the choice of destination. “We think there could be some good lessons in how they operate as a region. It’s built into their culture.”

Other potential lessons in Charlotte include workforce development initiatives at Central Piedmont Community College, which has forged partnerships with area industries for technical training, much as Bluegrass Community and Technical College has done with Toyota Motor Manufacturing Co. and others, Quick said.

“They fully grasp what a complete educational system you have to have” to create a growing, dynamic regional economy, Quick said.

Another thing Charlotte has that Lexington and Louisville would like to have: authority to ask voters for a local-option sales tax for specific city improvement projects. Government and business leaders in Lexington and Louisville are generally supportive of such taxing authority, but Kentucky’s rural-dominated General Assembly has consistently balked at granting that authority.

While Lexington and Louisville leaders say they have learned a lot from annual study visits to other cities, they are always quick to point out that every city is different and no city is perfect.

Charlotte, for example, has had some recent leadership problems Lexington and Louisville have been fortunate to avoid. Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon was arrested by the FBI in late March on bribery and corruption charges. Undercover agents pretending to be investors say they made almost $50,000 in payoffs to the mayor, a 47-year-old Democrat, in return for his help with the city’s permit and zoning process. An indictment is expected later this month.

Quick said Commerce Lexington and Greater Louisville Inc. have worked closely together on economic initiatives for years. But cooperation between the cities has grown considerably since the 2010 trip to Pittsburgh.

Another big reason for the more cooperative atmosphere, Quick said, is the close personal and working relationship between the cities’ mayors, Jim Gray of Lexington and Greg Fischer of Louisville. Both are Democrats and former chief executives of family-owned businesses.

“It’s unprecedented to have the level of trust we now have between Kentucky’s two largest cities,” Quick said.

The most notable cooperative venture is BEAM, the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement. It seeks to foster growth in high-tech manufacturing in both cities and the counties along Interstate 64 between them, primarily through focused recruiting and workforce development efforts.

This marks the 75th year that Lexington chamber leaders have made this annual trip to other cities. And while some good local-improvement ideas and momentum have come from the trips, most people go because it is easily the best local networking opportunity of the year.

Where else can you spend almost three days uninterrupted with the mayor, council members and other top leaders in local government and educational institutions, as well as senior executives of local banks, businesses and nonprofit organizations?

There are still spaces available for those wanting to attend. The cost is $2,200 per person ($200 less if you share a hotel room, and another $300 less if you find your own transportation to and from Charlotte rather than taking one of the chartered jets from Lexington and Louisville.)

Four $1,000 scholarships will be given to “emerging leaders” who want to attend. The deadline for applications was to have been Monday, but it has been extended to April 18.

Scholarship candidates must be ages 21-39 and have demonstrated community involvement, including leadership positions in organizations, said Amy Carrington, Commerce Lexington’s leadership development director.

Registration and more information: Commercelexington.com.

 


Ex-UK athlete hopes to replicate anti-poverty program in Lexington

April 6, 2014

mbcStudent art is displayed in the lobby of Manchester Bidwell Center’s performing arts hall in Pittsburgh. Visitors from Commerce Lexington toured the center as part of their trip to Pittsburgh in May 2010. Photos by Tom Eblen

Josh Nadzam grew up as the only child of a single mother in a small Pennsylvania town. He hoped to escape poverty, if only he could run fast enough.

But university track coaches weren’t impressed. The only school that showed any interest in him was the University of Kentucky, which allowed Nadzam to join its team as a walk-on.

“I just wanted somebody to believe in me,” he said. “Not even open the door; just unlock it.”

Nadzam borrowed all the money he could and moved to Lexington in 2007. He ran fast enough to earn a full track scholarship after his freshman year.

NadzamHe became a talented cross-country competitor, but his biggest Southeastern Conference honors were for academics and community service. While earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work, he co-founded a drive that collected thousands of used shoes for charity.

“I grew up in the projects, a very bad situation, so my dream has always been to help people in similar situations,” said Nadzam, 25, recalling how eight childhood friends have died of heroin overdoses.

With his mother’s encouragement, Nadzam became an avid reader. “It opened my eyes to the fact that there was something different,” he said. “The way I ‘got out’ was sports, but that won’t work for most people.”

Then he read Bill Strickland’s book, Make the Impossible Possible. Strickland started the Manchester Bidwell Center in Pittsburgh, an award-winning program that fights poverty through arts education for young people and job-training for adults.

“I was just blown away,” Nadzam said. “It was like learning about a cure for overcoming a disease.”

Strickland, 66, grew up in Pittsburgh’s poor Manchester neighborhood and had his life changed by a high-school ceramics teacher. Art’s transformative power led him to start the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, an after-school youth arts program, while he was still a college student. Success there led him to be asked in 1971 to run the Bidwell Training Center for displaced workers.

Since then, Manchester Bidwell has blossomed into a major Pittsburgh institution. It has been successfully replicated with locally owned and run centers in eight other cities, which tailor their job-training programs to local markets and needs.

Nadzam drove to Pittsburgh to see the center and met Strickland. Then he drove to see the replications in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Grand Rapids, Mich. “I wondered if I could pull this off in Lexington,” he said.

He began early last year gathering supporters for a Manchester Bidwell Replication Project. Then he discovered that others had the same idea. Strickland had inspired several Lexington leaders when he spoke at the Creative Cities Summit here in April 2010. The next month, Commerce Lexington visited Pittsburgh, heard Strickland speak and toured Manchester Bidwell.

The Pittsburgh center’s youth arts program includes a ceramics shop, concert hall and commercial recording studio. Adult job-training programs tailored to Pittsburgh produce lab technicians, horticulture specialists and high-end chefs.

A Lexington replication effort never got off the ground in 2010. That was largely because of the expensive, methodical process Strickland insists upon to make sure replication centers succeed. It requires an initial fundraising effort of about $150,000 for a feasibility study to determine local job-training needs and opportunities, partners and buildings that could be renovated for facilities.

Nadzam and Tom Curren, a longtime manufacturing executive who took early retirement, now co-chair a Lexington steering committee of experienced business people and social work professionals. Strickland flew here last May for a kickoff event at the Lyric Theatre. The event was moved from a meeting room to the large theater when 200 people showed up.

So far, the group has raised $38,000 through the Blue Grass Community Foundation to show potential corporate funders that project organizers are serious.

“This isn’t the answer to everything,” Curren said of the Manchester Bidwell approach. “But it’s a program with a proven track record that would really add to the other things going on in town.”

When Nadzam isn’t at his full-time job at GreenHouse 17, formerly known as the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program, or running, he is focused on fundraising and friend-raising for his Manchester Bidwell dream.

“I want it to be as collaborative as possible, but this is very personal to me,” Nadzam said. “When you get out of poverty, it’s like surviving an avalanche. This would be my way of thanking Lexington for taking me in.”

 


Creating a city where people want to move, natives want to stay

March 29, 2014

In a 21st-century economy where jobs often follow people instead of the other way around, what assets help a city prosper?

That question has led researchers, civic and business leaders to focus on things previously considered nice but not essential: arts, culture and a sense of place that make people feel engaged and invested in their community.

Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, a dance choreographer-turned-urban planning researcher, has studied one variation on this phenomenon called “creative placemaking.”

She was here Thursday to speak at the annual Lafayette Seminar in Public Issues put on by the University of Kentucky’s Gaines Center for the Humanities. It was co-sponsored by LexArts, the McBrayer law firm, the North Limestone Community Development Corp. and Commerce Lexington.

Nicodemus has researched the economic and social vibrancy created when various community sectors — government, business, non-profit organizations and citizens groups — come together to use arts and culture to strategically shape the physical and social character of a city.

That kind of development has been happening organically in many parts of Lexington in recent years. “Lexington has become a place that people are excited about,” said Steve Kay, an Urban County council member. “This conversation couldn’t have happened five years ago.”

Three recent examples were discussed at the seminar. The first is Walker Properties’ redevelopment of National Avenue, a former light industrial street east of downtown, into a mixed-use retail, restaurant and arts district.

The second was Jefferson Street, which has blossomed into a restaurant district thanks to early investments by Wine + Market, Stella’s Deli and West Sixth Brewery. The brewery’s four partners played a big role in that, because they chose to buy a 90,000-square-foot former bread factory, now called the Bread Box. One of their challenges was figuring out what to do with all of that space.

Rather than just try to rent to other commercial tenants, Ben Self said, they wanted to foster a community of people, businesses and organizations that shared their values and vision for creating a vibrant community. He added that city regulators helped the partners cut through red tape to make it all work.

In addition to the brewery and tap room, the Bread Box now houses a non-profit bike shop, a coffee roaster, artist studios, a restaurant and an urban agriculture non-profit that grows fish and greens for the restaurant. “It just felt like the right way to do it,” Self said. “It’s a development that has a heart to it.”

Later this year, the Bread Box also will house an expanded Plantory, which has co-working space for non-profit organizations. The Plantory has outgrown its space in the Community Ventures Corp. building at East Third Street and Midland Avenue.

A third example in Lexington is the North Limestone neighborhood, where young entrepreneurs have been restoring century-old homes and commercial buildings and starting new businesses.

The North Limestone Community Development Corp. recently won a $425,000 grant from Artplace, a consortium of private foundations, banks and federal agencies that is investing in creative placemaking efforts around the country.

The money will be used to begin renovation of a former factory and 40 old shotgun houses to create studios and homes for artists and craftsmen. The idea is to turn a neighborhood liability — old buildings needing rehabilitation and occupants— into a cultural and economic asset.

An important key to creative placemaking is that, in addition to economic activity, it creates a sense of place that people find attractive. It makes a city a place where natives want to stay or return, and others want to move to.

“What we’re seeing now is a tying together of the economic and the sentimental,” said Jeff Fugate, president of the Downtown Development Authority. “That’s what’s exciting.”

For creative placemaking to reach its full potential, civic and business leaders must make sure public policy supports it and strategic thinking helps small initiatives add up to something bigger.

“It’s about bringing disparate groups together to make something special happen,” LexArts President Jim Clark said. “There is no cookie-cutter way to make a creative place. But you recognize it when you see it.”


Out & about in Lexington: March snow showers cover the flowers

March 25, 2014

140325GratzParkBW copyA dog-walker takes shelter beneath an umbrella in Gratz Park as a brief snow shower Tuesday afternoon gave Lexington a light coating. Below, jonquils in my yard. Photos by Tom Eblen

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Update on plans for finishing Lexington trails, adding bike lanes

March 22, 2014

Spring is finally here, which means better weather for bicycling. It also means more opportunities for my fellow cyclists to ask when the Legacy and Town Branch trails will be finished, and when there will be more trails and bike lanes.

Lexington has made progress in the past five years toward building a transportation system for more than motor vehicles, but it still has a long way to go.

Keith Lovan gets those questions more often than I do. And because he is the city engineer who oversees trail and bicycle/pedestrian projects, he actually has some answers. So I called him last week for an update.

legacytrail0002

The first section of the Legacy Trail, shown here going through Coldstream Park, opened in September 2010. Photo by Tom Eblen

The main 7.5-mile section of the Legacy Trail, between Loudon Avenue and the Kentucky Horse Park, opened in September 2010. It came together quickly thanks to good public-private partnerships, federal “economic stimulus” money and the urgency of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games the next month.

Since then, officials have been working through logistics and funding to bring the trail into town and east to the corner of Midland Avenue and Third Street, where the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden will be built this summer. “It’s all coming together,” Lovan said.

He plans to ask the Urban County Council in April to approve a land swap with R.J. Corman Railroad Group that will allow Legacy Trail construction to continue along a former rail line from near Loudon Avenue to Fifth Street near Jefferson Street.

If approved, work could begin in June and finished this summer, he said. Lovan also is working with the Hope Center on right-of-way near Loudon. That also could happen this summer.

The next step will be taking the trail east along Fourth Street’s existing right-of-way. Once paperwork is finished, design work can begin on that section, based on input from a 30-member citizens advisory group.

For that section, Lovan favors a two-way bike path separated from Fourth Street traffic by short posts or a similar barrier. If all goes well, that work could all be finished by the end of this year, he said.

Meanwhile, a Scott County group is working to extend the Legacy Trail north to Georgetown. That project was started by sports agent Dick Robinson before he died suddenly in 2011. His friends and family have continued the work. “We’re making good progress,” said Robinson’s widow, Christie.

She plans to schedule a public meeting in late April to announce a preferred route. A feasibility study by CDP Engineers of Lexington will be finished in May, she said. Then it will be a matter of raising money. Keep up with the group’s progress on its Facebook page.

Bringing Town Branch Trail into downtown is a more complicated project. Two miles of the trial are finished, from Bracktown off Leestown Road to Alexandria Drive.

Funding has been secured to bring the trail to the Bluegrass Community and Technical College’s Leestown Campus at New Circle Road, but other details must be worked out before construction can begin, said Van Meter Pettit, the trail board’s president.

Pettit is lobbying the state to include the trail’s crossing of New Circle Road and connection to a nearby development’s trails as part of a project this summer to widen that section of the road and its bridges.

Pettit says his plan would be quicker, cheaper and comply with federal directives to include bicycle/pedestrian facilities in highway improvement projects. So far, the state has agreed to accommodate a future trail crossing, but says its budget won’t accommodate what Pettit wants.

The only other trail project coming this year is a half-mile one between Armstrong Mill Road and the Tates Creek schools campus, Lovan said. But several bike-lane projects will be started or finished this year.

Those include bike lanes on Southland Drive, from Nicholasville Road to Rosemont Garden; on Todd’s Road, where 1.5 miles of sidewalks and bike lanes will be added from Forest Hill Drive to Polo Club Boulevard; and Clays Mill Road, where an additional 1,500 feet of bike lanes will be added.

Three bike-lane projects are planned around the University of Kentucky campus: Rose Street between Euclid Avenue and Rose Lane; Cooper Drive between South Limestone and Sports Center Drive; and Woodland Avenue from Euclid to Hilltop Avenue.


Lexington family and friends do good during ‘volunteer vacations’

March 18, 2014

130319Heitz-India0006Mike Heitz, left, and his wife, Janette, second from left, pose at Mother Clarac Matriculation School in Kumbakonam, India, where they worked with friends last month. Others, from left, are Sister Gladys; Sister Rosaria, the school’s founder, and Dan Lee from Singapore, a member of their volunteer group, which they call Fix-it Friends. Photo provided

 

Janette and Mike Heitz of Lexington love to travel, and they keep finding new ways to combine it with two of their other passions: bicycling and volunteer service.

The Heitzes organize bike trips to Europe with friends, and they have bicycled on their own in such far-flung places as Laos and Egypt. In 2006, Mike and their son, Cory, biked 7,435 miles down the length of Africa. The next year, Janette and their daughter, Jordan, biked 4,500 miles from Paris, France, to Dakar, Senegal.

A couple of weeks ago, the Heitzes returned from a different kind of trip. They, their daughter and more than a dozen friends from across this country, England and Singapore met in Kumbakonam, India. The group spent a week building basketball and tennis courts, painting a block wall and improving a computer lab at the Mother Clarac Matriculation School, run by the Sisters of Charity of Saint Mary.

This was the 13th such trip the Heitzes have taken in as many years.

“I don’t like to call it a mission trip,” Janette said. “I call it a volunteer vacation, because it’s not religion-based. We are just a group of people who have a little extra money and a little extra time and we like to travel. So each year we pick a third-world country and we all meet there.”

Mike started the tradition by participating in a Habitat for Humanity home-building trip to Ghana in 1999. He liked it so much, Janette joined him the next year.

“He thought he would ease me in,” she said, so they did a Habitat build in New Zealand. “I loved it. So the next year we jumped in the deep end and went to Mongolia.”

After that, the couple did annual Habitat builds in South Africa, Mexico, Costa Rica, Romania, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Then they decided to find their own projects along with friends they had met through Habitat and bicycling. Their group, which calls itself Fix-It Friends, includes a variety of faiths — Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Quaker and atheists.

The first Fix-It Friends trip was to Egypt. Then they went to Laos and Argentina, where they also worked with the Sisters of Charity. That led them to their recent trip to southwest India.

“We think education is the key to a better life,” Mike said. So, in addition to basic facility improvements, the group likes to provide computers to schools and orphanages where they work that have electricity. In addition to fixing old computers at Mother Clarac School and setting up a wifi network, the friends are buying 20 rugged $100 tablet computers for the school.

The Heitzes said they enjoy interacting with local people where they work. One day in India, while making the hour-long walk back to their hotel from the school, they came upon a wedding in progress.

“They saw us as some sign of good luck,” Janette said. “Here we were in our work clothes, I had paint splattered all over me, and they invited us in and took photos with us.”

The Heitzes arrived early to see some of India’s sights, including Gandhi’s tomb and the Taj Mahal. Then, after their week of volunteer work, they biked 30-40 kilometers a day for six days in the Kerela state of southeast India.

“It is the flattest part of India, and beautiful,” Janette said, but riding was tricky because “traffic laws are regarded as only a suggestion.”

The couple met at West Virginia University, where he was the basketball team’s first 7-footer (1968-72). Heitz’s younger brother, Tom, played for Kentucky (1979-84).

Mike is an investment banker who specializes in taking companies public. When the IPO market slowed five years ago, he also started a company that buys environmentally distressed industrial properties, restores and re-sells them. Their children work in his companies. Jordan Hurd and her mother also write a popular lifestyle blog, The Two Seasons (The2seasons.com).

Next year, the Fix-It Friends plan to meet in Colombia.

“To me, the important part of this is that we’re promoting goodwill,” Janette said. “People in these places don’t always have the most positive attitude about Americans. But my hope is that in the future when they think of Americans they will think of us and they will think of love. It’s like my little answer to world peace.”

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


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.”


Old menus up for sale recall long-gone Lexington restaurants

March 4, 2014

Lexington antiques dealer Betty Hoopes loves her work, which she says is about preserving history and memories. It is not just what we furnished our homes with, but where we went and what we ate.

Over the years, Hoopes has collected mid-20th century restaurant menus, mostly from Lexington but also from New Orleans, Atlanta, New York and other cities she and her clients have visited.

Her first Lexington menu was from Canary Cottage, a popular Main Street restaurant and bar in the 1930s and 1940s. It was literally one of the coolest places in town, at least after the owners installed one of Lexington’s first air conditioners. Hoopes has that menu framed in her home.

Hoopes has donated several dozen menus to the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, which will be selling them in the silent auction at its annual Antiques & Garden Show at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Alltech Arena, March 7-9.

Menus“I just collected them because I love the history of Lexington,” Hoopes said. “I want somebody to get them who will keep them.”

My wife, Becky, was organizing items for the auction and brought home the box of menus, which I started looking through. They were an interesting snapshot of what once passed for the high life in Lexington. And, oh, the prices!

The first menus that caught my eye were from La Flame on Winchester Road, which Kilbern A. Cormney opened in 1959. He later owned the Campbell House Inn, and at one time he had so many local clubs that he held 27 liquor licenses, according to his obituary. He died in 2009 at age 93.

La Flame was Lexington’s “first real nightclub,” recalled retired Herald-Leader columnist Don Edwards. In a 2005 column, he wrote that La Flame’s entertainers included “Frank Sinatra Jr., mind readers, magicians, stand-up comics and, yes, classic strip-tease artists.”

The strippers didn’t go on until late at night “so the mayor’s wife wouldn’t get upset — that’s what I promised her,” Cormney told Edwards.

These La Flame menus appear to be from the early 1960s. The cover illustration shows the kind of shapely young woman in a tight skirt that “Mad Man” Don Draper would have been quick to chase. Most La Flame cocktails were 75 cents or 90 cents then, although a Zombi would set you back $1.95. The most expensive entree was the La Flame Sirloin strip steak, at $6. Lobster tails were $3.95 and lamb fries with gravy were $2.95.

The Little Inn at 1144 Winchester Road opened in 1930 as a Prohibition road house just beyond the city limits, which were then at Liberty Road.

“It grew into a crowded, popular place with a free-flowing bar and a jovial reputation,” Edwards wrote in a 1990 column when the building was demolished.

“By 1945, it had a back room filled with nickel slot machines and was known for great steaks and the best blue cheese salad dressing around,” he wrote. “Lots of people would have dinner there, then go dance to Big Band music at the Springhurst Club or Joyland Park.”

Judging by prices on these two menus and three wine lists, they are from the 1970s, when a “man size” prime rib cost $11.95 and a bottle of French wine went for $8.75. The Little Inn moved to Chevy Chase in 1989, but closed a few months later.

There are a couple of menus and a wine list from Levas’ restaurant. For most of its time (1956-1988), this Lexington institution was housed in an 1880s building at Limestone and Vine streets, which was demolished in 2008 for CentrePointe.

These menus appear to be from the 1960s, when a plate of fried oysters or sea scallops cost $6 and filet mignon was $8.95. The Levas family started with a hotdog stand in 1920. They were Greek, so customers could always count on the Grecian salad ($1.75) or lamb souvlaki ($7.50).

Other menus include Stanley Demos’ Coach House, the Imperial House Motel’s restaurant, the Lafayette Club, Old Towne Inn, Bagatelle, Merrick Inn and Bravo Pitino.

Then-Wildcat basketball Coach Rick Pitino opened Bravo Pitino in 1990, but two years later cut his investment and removed his name. It became Bravo’s and closed in 1998, long before Pitino became a Cardinal.


What did Code for America fellows think after month in Lexington?

March 3, 2014

codethree

Livien Yin, left, Erik Schwartz and Lyzi Diamond spent February in Lexington as Code for America fellows. Photo by Tom Eblen

Three young technologists spent February getting to know Lexington. They met with city employees, business people and non-profit leaders. They walked streets, rode along with code enforcement officers, held meetings in coffee houses and hosted happy hours with community activists. They spent “quality time” along Nicholasville Road. They ate a lot of local donuts.

On Saturday, Lyzie Diamond, Erik Schwartz and Livien Yin flew back to San Francisco, where they will work until mid-November creating technology tools that citizens can use to improve life in Lexington.

The three are on fellowships with Code for America, a nonprofit organization that calls itself the Peace Corps for Geeks. Lexington was selected this year as one of eight cities to host fellows, who also are working in Rhode Island and Puerto Rico.

The fellows’ goal is to leverage technology to empower citizens to improve their communities. Lexington’s participation is supported financially by 30 local people, businesses and organizations, including Mayor Jim Gray, the Urban County Council and Commerce Lexington.

In addition to the fellows’ technology expertise, sponsors wanted their fresh eyes on Lexington’s progress, problems and potential.

“They can help us see what we maybe cannot see,” said Bob Quick, president of Commerce Lexington.

At the end of their month here, I met with Diamond, Schwartz and Yin to find out what they discovered about Lexington, and what they hope to accomplish.

“It went by fast,” said Yin, adding that they plan to return to town for a couple of weeks in April. By then, the snow and ice will be gone and the pace of life will be quickened by Keeneland and other spring activities.

They will spend this week debriefing with the other Code for America fellows and narrowing the focus of their project. They will be listening for common themes and additional ideas from other fellows. But their thinking at this point is to focus on tools to improve communication and collaboration in Lexington.

They said “data visualization” tools could help Lexington residents better understand information already collected by many local organizations and government agencies.

“Sometimes it’s just shining a light on things that already exist and providing tutorials, examples to get people to use existing tools,” Diamond said. “Trying to find ways to get people excited about new things is one of the challenges of the fellowship.”

One example of such a tool is What’s My District?, which was developed by Open Lexington, a volunteer group of local technologists that is nonprofit, nonpartisan and dedicated to more transparent government. To see that tool and others in development, visit its website: Openlexington.org.

Diamond, 24, is originally from New Jersey and also has lived in Hong Kong, Oakland, Calif., Philadelphia and Portland, Ore. Her expertise is digital map-making, and one of her favorite activities while in Lexington was teaching a group of Girl Scouts the basics of how to do it.

Yin, 24, is from Lincoln, Mass., studied art in college but learned technology skills after moving to San Francisco to pursue her interest in neighborhood-based urban revitalization.

Schwartz, 33, grew up in Albion, Mich., and graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio. Since playing in Chicago rock bands, he has worked for several years developing web applications for businesses. His wife, Sarah Smith-Schwartz, is from Lexington.

All three said they enjoyed their time in Lexington. They were impressed by the amount of grassroots community improvement they saw, as well as the community spirit and strong personal networks.

“In every meeting we’ve had, the person we’re meeting with will mention a name of someone we already have met with or know and someone we haven’t met with yet,” Diamond said. “People are really connected to each other here, which is awesome. For a town of 300,000-plus, that’s impressive.”

“Lexington seems to be changing so fast,” Yin added. “I’m excited by the level of engagement that’s already happening.”

Whatever technology tools the three develop, they are likely to be geared toward small-scale action, because many Lexington neighborhoods are already engaged and tend to have different needs and issues.

“How can we help people have more impact, know about more stuff they care about and communicate with others more effectively?” Schwartz asked.

“So many connections happen by word-of-mouth and face-to-face interaction,” Diamond said. “We’re trying to find ways not to replace that but to boost it and facilitate it.”


Building movie complex in historic district would set bad precedent

March 1, 2014

House1The theater developer’s plans call for moving the John Lowman House from the West High Street bluff, where it has been since 1808. Photos by Charles Bertram.

 

The good news is that a proposed 10-theater IMAX movie and restaurant complex would be a great addition to downtown Lexington. The bad news is that the developer wants to build it in the wrong place.

Dallas-based Look Cinemas is proposing this huge complex for the southeast corner of West High Street and South Broadway. The site is within one of Lexington’s most significant historic districts, which homeowners have painstakingly restored after decades of demolition, abuse and neglect.

If city officials approve Look’s plan without substantial changes, it could undo a half-century of preservation efforts and undermine legal protections for all 15 Lexington historic districts.

Look has yet to make a formal application to the city, but it has been working on the project for a year. It has met with the South Hill neighborhood and others to try to address concerns and minimize the impact on adjacent homes.

The complex is well-designed, but it is too massive for that location. It fills virtually the entire one-acre site and rises as high as 70 feet above street level. Plans would require moving a 206-year-old house that is one of the last remaining on the High Street bluff.

At an informal design review last Wednesday, the three architects and one engineer who serve on the city’s Board of Architectural Review made it clear that this project, as now envisioned, meets none of the legal guidelines for construction in a Lexington historic district.

Board members all but rejected the developer’s plan to move the 1808 John Lowman House a half-mile away to the Western Suburb historic district. They also expressed skepticism about moving it within South Hill to one of two parking lots across from Dudley Square at Mill and Maxwell streets.

Board members noted that much of the house’s historic significance has to do with its location on High Street. They also expressed concern about the movie complex’s proximity to the 1895 George Lancaster House on South Broadway. Both houses are some of the last examples of the 19th century mansions that once lined both streets in that neighborhood.

Board member Graham Pohl, an architect, said moving the Lowman House off High Street is a “non-starter,” and he warned that this entire plan has serious implications beyond South Hill. “It sets a terrible precedent for every historic district in town,” he said.

Indeed, this would be the first case of moving a house in a historic district since the early 1980s, when legal protections were more lax. A few houses were moved before city historic districts were created, to keep them from being demolished. They include the circa 1784 Adam Rankin House, Lexington’s oldest house, which was moved off High Street to South Mill Street, directly behind where Look Cinemas now wants to build.

“This area has been gnawed on since the ’60s,” said board member Sarah Tate, an architect. “I think there’s a time when you just have to say, ‘Stop. This neighborhood can’t be infringed on anymore.’”

Here’s what Tate was referring to: When Rupp Arena and Lexington Center were built 40 years ago, most of the historic South Hill neighborhood was demolished to create a massive parking that lot city officials now want to redevelop. The fraction of the neighborhood that remained was given city historic district protection.

Most of those old buildings have since been restored into valuable, owner-occupied homes and condos. Many South Hill structures date from the early 1800s and are architecturally significant. If this incursion is allowed, what will be next?

The Board of Architectural Review is unlikely to approve Look’s plan unless the 1808 house stays and the cinema complex gets smaller. But the board could be overruled by the Planning Commission, which is more susceptible to economic and political pressures. That would be a tragedy.

The good news is that there is a much better site for this complex: across South Broadway on the huge city-owned parking lot where the rest of the South Hill neighborhood once stood.

Look Cinemas’ complex is just the kind of private development Mayor Jim Gray wants and needs on that lot to help pay for the proposed $328 million renovation of Rupp Arena and Lexington Center.

Look officials told the board they prefer their site, in part because the Rupp redevelopment process is still in its early stages. They said they can’t wait. Developers always say they can’t wait.

Here is what needs to happen: City officials must quickly figure out how to speed up their process and relocate Look Cinemas to the Rupp lot or some other downtown site. What they cannot do is further damage South Hill and risk setting a precedent that could jeopardize the investments made in all Lexington historic districts.

Yes, downtown needs new development like Look Cinemas. But Lexington will never “save” downtown by continuing to destroy the irreplaceable historic fabric that makes it unique.  

lotDevelopers hope to build an IMAX theater in this block bounded by West High Street at the bottom, South Mill Street on the left, and South Broadway on the right. 


1910 Coal & Feed Co. building redone as corporate headquarters

February 24, 2014

140218BCWood0016Brian C. Wood, founder and CEO of BC Wood Properties, stands in the lobby of the company’s headquarters as Jeannette Crank works behind the front desk and a meeting is conducted in a second-floor conference room. Wood said the renovated circa 1910 Elmendorf Coal & Feed Co. building has been a perfect space for the business. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

A couple of years ago, Brian Wood, the founder and CEO of BC Wood Properties, took the company’s president, King Offutt, down West Fourth Street to show him where Transylvania University, his alma mater, was building new athletic fields.

That part of town was beginning to see dramatic change, including conversion of the huge Eastern State Hospital property into a new campus for Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

While driving around, they turned down Henry Street, a byway that connects to West Third Street. It runs along railroad tracks and old grain elevators near Newtown Pike.

Then they saw it: a hulk of a brick building. It had been built in 1910 by the legendary millionaire horseman James Ben Ali Haggin to house his Elmendorf Coal & Feed Co. Since then, though, it had suffered at least two fires and years of vacancy.

“We had been looking for a building for a couple of years” to house the growing company’s headquarters, Offutt said. “We wanted a building with character.”

140218BCWood0032At the time, the company worked out of Eastland Shopping Center, one of more than 30 retail properties with 5.5 million square feet of space that BC Wood Properties now owns and manages in eight states.

“It was love at first sight,” Wood said of the three-story building. “A diamond in the rough.”

After they looked around the outside and in a few windows, Offutt reached for his cellphone and called the owner. “We want to buy your building,” he said.

Considerable work and a couple of million dollars later, BC Wood Properties has one of the coolest office spaces in Lexington: foot-thick, exposed brick walls; warm wood everywhere, including massive hewn posts and beams; big windows that fill the space with natural light.

The company’s in-house construction experts did most of the renovation. Local craftsmen made long trestle tables for shared conference space between offices and custom metal signs.

140218BCWood0025A huge wooden sliding door was preserved on one wall. Casual seating around the building includes old wooden pews bought on eBay from a Wisconsin church. The façade along Henry Street preserves the painted sign for another long-ago tenant, Central Kentucky Blue Grass Seed Co.

“It works really well,” Offutt said of the building. “It’s certainly improved morale among our employees. They love the building and coming to work in it.”

The building had a modern metal addition on the back, which Wood turned into an employee gym and basketball court. The company pays for a fitness trainer to come in three times a week to work with employees, and the benefit has proven popular, he said.

Preserving the building’s industrial character was their approach to the renovation, Wood said.

“We wanted to keep the essential historical nature, and not try to turn it into something it’s not,” Wood said, noting that is a key principle of the company itself.

Wood started BC Wood Properties 20 years ago and has focused on a specific niche: modest shopping centers in high-traffic locations where middle-class people shop regularly for things they need to live. He said the strategy has worked well: its properties remained more than 90 percent leased throughout the economic slump.

It also helps that the company handles all management, construction and maintenance in-house, rather than outsourcing it, to ensure that properties stay in good shape. That requires a strong team, Wood said, which includes a full-time staff of 18 in Lexington and another 14 employees elsewhere.

Last year, the company raised a $43 million private equity fund for acquisitions, about one-third of it from local investors. That allowed it to purchase 11 shopping centers in five states last year, Wood said.

Wood and Offutt are both 41-year-old Lexington natives, and they said they enjoy being part of the revitalization of Lexington’s northwest end.

“This building reflects who we are,” Wood said. “We didn’t want a high-rise presence. We enjoy being on Henry Street beside grain bins and Blue Stallion Brewery. This is us.”

Added Offutt: “This area is going to change so much in the next five years, it’s going to be fun to watch.”

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Transylvania transition offers fresh start, important lessons

February 18, 2014

Transylvania University has the opportunity to make a fresh start with a new president. How well everyone seizes that opportunity will determine the institution’s future for many years to come.

SeamusCarey

Seamus Carey

Seamus Carey, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., was chosen Monday to become the 26th president of Kentucky’s oldest university, chartered in 1780. He was one of four finalists brought to campus to meet with faculty, staff, students and alumni.

Transylvania has been in turmoil since soon after Owen Williams, a former Wall Street banker with impressive credentials but little academic leadership experience, was hired as president in 2010.

Williams took over after the retirement of Charles Shearer, who earned a lot of affection and respect during his 27-year presidency for rebuilding Transylvania, nearly tripling its endowment and doubling enrollment.

Williams impressed Transylvania trustees with his intellect, his diverse accomplishments and his plans for taking the liberal arts college to the next level.

Owen Williams

Owen Williams

But Williams’ arrogant and autocratic style rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, both on campus and around town. Williams antagonized Transylvania’s faculty to the point that it voted 68-7 last May to express no confidence in his leadership.

Trustees responded by giving Williams a unanimous vote of confidence and blaming the faculty. Still, within weeks, Williams announced he would leave at the end of this academic year. Carey takes over in July.

Transylvania’s turmoil offers lessons the university community — or any large organization, for that matter — should take to heart.

The first lesson is that it matters how you treat people. However intelligent or visionary a leader may be, he can’t accomplish much if people won’t follow him.

The second lesson is that governing boards make better decisions when they are diverse and aware. When mounting dissatisfaction with Williams exploded into faculty rebellion last year, trustees were surprised. Had they been plugged into the broader Transylvania and Lexington communities, they would not have been.

The final lesson will be more of a test. How well can Transylvania’s faculty, trustees, staff and students work together with the new president to try to achieve some of the worthy goals Williams sought?

Transylvania reached the top echelon of American universities for a brief period in the 1820s. The rest of its history has been a series of ups and downs. Can Transy become a national player again? Improvement requires change, and change is hard.


Mayoral mystery: So far, challengers’ strategies remain unclear

February 18, 2014

Mayor Jim Gray attracted two challengers to his re-election when the filing deadline came Jan. 28. So far, those challengers have offered few clues about why they are in the race or how they hope to win.

The first challenger is Danny Mayer, an associate professor of English at Bluegrass Community and Technical College. He also was the publisher of North of Center, an alternative community newspaper that closed last fall after four years.

North of Center criticized some of Gray’s downtown development strategies. But, more often than not, the newspaper seemed more interested in being a cheeky gadfly than a community voice that many people would take seriously.

Mayer, 38, is a smart guy, but he has no obvious qualifications or experience to be mayor. If he entered the race to raise issues he thinks need to be discussed, it will be interesting to see how he handles the opportunity.

Gray’s other opponent, Anthany Beatty, has both the qualifications and experience to be mayor. He spent his career in the Lexington Police Department, and he was a successful chief for six years before retiring and becoming the University of Kentucky’s vice president for campus services and public safety. Beatty, 62, is smart, well-liked and has excellent people and management skills.

Were Gray not an accomplished, popular, visionary and well-financed incumbent with few liabilities, Beatty would be a strong candidate. As it is, Beatty is a long shot, unless Gray screws up big in the next eight months.

Beatty must make a compelling case for why Gray, 60, should be turned out of office. How does he hope to do that? What issues will he focus on? So far, he hasn’t said.


Freed slave left his mark on Lexington; his son went even further

February 15, 2014

140212Tandys0002Henry Tandy and Albert Byrd, two black bricklayers in Lexington during the late 1800s and early 1900s, formed a partnership that did the brick work on many notable local buildings. Tandy & Byrd’s biggest job was the Fayette County Courthouse. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

 

Henry A. Tandy was one of many newly freed slaves who moved to Lexington at the end of the Civil War. He would leave marks on this city that are still visible, and his son would do the same in New York.

Tandy was born in Kentucky, but it isn’t known exactly when or where. He came to Lexington in 1865 at about age 15 and made a name for himself as a craftsman, business executive and entrepreneur.

After two years as a photographer’s assistant, Tandy went to work in 1867 as a laborer for G.D. Wilgus, one of Lexington’s largest building contractors. Within a few years he was a skilled bricklayer and a foreman, according to architectural historian Rebecca Lawin McCarley, who researched his life and wrote about it in 2006 for the journal Kentucky Places & Spaces.

HenryTandy

Henry A. Tandy

Tandy saved money and, after marrying Emma Brice in 1874, bought his first real estate from George Kinkead, an anti-slavery lawyer whose mansion is now the Living Arts & Science Center. Tandy built the only two-story brick house in Kinkeadtown, a black settlement now part of the East End.

By the time their son, Vertner, was born in 1885, the Tandys had sold their home in Kinkeadtown for a profit and moved in with her parents at 642 West Main Street. Tandy is thought to have built the brick house there, and he lived in it for the rest of his life.

In the 1880s, Tandy began buying investment lots around town. He built and rented some of the best houses in Lexington’s “black” neighborhoods at the time.

Among the Wilgus projects that Tandy worked on were the Opera House, St. Paul Catholic Church and First Presbyterian Church. When Wilgus’ health deteriorated in the 1880s, Tandy took over many of his duties. It was then unheard of for a black man to run a white man’s business.

When Wilgus died in 1893, Tandy and another black bricklayer, Albert Byrd, formed their own company, Tandy & Byrd. It became one of Lexington’s largest brick contractors, with as many as 50 workers.

Tandy & Byrd’s biggest project was the old Fayette County Court House. Others that remain standing include the First National Bank building on Short Street, Miller Hall at the University of Kentucky and the Merrick Lodge Building, where The Jax restaurant is now at Short and Limestone streets.

Tandy & Byrd also built the annex for the Protestant Infirmary at East Short Street and Elm Tree Lane. The infirmary was the forerunner of Good Samaritan Hospital. Until recently, the annex housed Hurst Office Furniture.

Tandy & Byrd constructed the Ades Dry Goods building on East Main Street, which now houses Thomas & King’s offices and Portofino restaurant. The partners did a lot of brick work for Combs Lumber Co., which built many turn-of-the-century Lexington homes (including mine).

Tandy was one of 49 people profiled in W.D. Johnson’s 1897 book, Biographical Sketches of Prominent Negro Men and Women of Kentucky.

“Opportunity came to him, and he seized it,” Johnson wrote of Tandy. “Through his indefatigable efforts a large force of Negro laborers have found steady employment, and thereby obtained comfortable homes for their families.”

Tandy was prominent in the black community, with leadership roles in the “colored” YMCA, the A.M.E. Church, black fraternal organizations and the Colored Fair Association, which organized Kentucky’s largest annual exposition for blacks. He was active in the National Negro Business League and spoke at its national convention in 1902.

Byrd died in 1909, and Tandy retired in 1911 after finishing Roark and Sullivan halls at Eastern Kentucky University. But he continued dabbling in real estate and got into the livery and undertaking business. Tandy died in 1918, and he has one of the biggest monuments at Cove Haven Cemetery.

Although Tandy got little formal education, he made sure his son did.

Vertner Woodson Tandy

Vertner Woodson Tandy

Vertner Woodson Tandy studied under Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He finished his studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where he was one of seven founders of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first black college fraternity. He was the first black to pass the military commissioning exam, and he eventually became a major in the New York National Guard.

Tandy would become New York’s first black registered architect, and the first black member of the American Institute of Architects. Among many buildings he designed was St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Harlem and two mansions for America’s first black woman millionaire, the hair-care products pioneer Madam C.J. Walker.

The Villa Lewaro mansion Tandy designed for Walker in exclusive Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y., was restored in the 1990s by Harold Doley, the first black to buy an individual seat on the New York Stock Exchange.

Tandy designed one building in Lexington that still stands: Webster Hall, which housed teachers at Chandler Normal School for blacks on Georgetown Street, which he had attended.

Vertner Tandy died in 1949 at age 64. A state historical marker honoring him stands beside the family home on West Main Street, which is now used for offices.

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Don Wilson, Lexington’s generous Music Man, dies at 92

February 15, 2014

donwilson001Today’s Herald-Leader obituaries include Donald Eugene Wilson, who died on Thursday at age 92.

Don Wilson moved to Lexington after World War II and started work as a musical instrument repairman. He soon became famous as the baton-twirling drum major of the University of Kentucky’s Wildcat Marching Band, performing with his young daughter, Donna, from 1949-1955.

Wilson later opened Don Wilson Music on Southland Drive, which for decades has sold and rented the instruments that have helped make Central Kentucky’s high school bands some of the nation’s best. His spirit and generosity became legendary in Kentucky music education circles. I wrote this column about him when he turned 90 years old.

Rest in peace, Don Wilson. You brought the joy of music into so many Kentuckians’ lives.


Lexington’s Fayette Cigar Store a downtown retail survivor

February 10, 2014

140206FayetteCigar0060

Fayette Cigar Store has been at 137 E. Main St. since Dale Ferguson bought the building in 1977. He resisted attempts by the city to buy the building when it purchased other property on the block, which now includes the Fayette County Court Houses, left, and the Downtown Arts Center, right. Below, Ferguson and a daughter, Dee Bright. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

With all of the talk about the need to attract retailers back to downtown Lexington, I thought it would be good to talk with one who never left.

Dale Ferguson, 75, and his family have been selling newspapers, magazines, tobacco products and sundries downtown since 1928.

That was the year his father, H.C. Ferguson, opened a newsstand on Mill Street. Soon after World War II started, he bought Fayette Cigar Store at 151 West Main Street “when the owner got drafted,” Ferguson said.

When that building was scheduled for a renovation that would have forced him to close for several months, Dale Ferguson bought a bigger building at 137 East Main in 1977 and moved the business. Fayette Cigar Store has been there ever since, despite the best efforts of developers and city officials to buy his property.

Surrounding buildings were bought in the 1980s for a proposed World Trade Center and cultural complex. Eventually, the new Fayette County Court House complex was built on his west side and the Downtown Arts Center on his east side.

At one point, Ferguson said, he agreed to city requests to swap his building for a similar one in the next block, but financial terms couldn’t be reached with its owner. So Ferguson stayed put, through thick and thin, trying to make a living on his 32-foot-long slice of Main Street.

140206FayetteCigar0023Ferguson’s three-story building dates from 1864, with central and rear sections added in the early 1900s. Before he bought the building, bookies operated in the upper floors, which was connected to an adjacent building by a hole in the wall. Now, the upper floors are accessed by an antique elevator.

Modern fire codes would keep Ferguson from using the upper floors for anything but storage and an office unless he could figure out a way to build a staircase.

“That stops a lot of downtown development,” he said, “A lot of these old buildings don’t have fire escapes.”

Ferguson said making Main Street one-way in 1971 hurt business, as did eliminating more and more street parking over the years.

“It was a mistake to do it,” he said of the one-way conversion, but added that he isn’t convinced making Main Street two-way again would do much good. “It’s too late.”

A bigger improvement, he said, would be adding more street parking, preferably angled or perpendicular spaces that would be easier for people to use and accommodate more cars.

During the last streetscape renovation in 2010, Ferguson lost a loading zone in front of his store, which hurt business.

“People would pull up, run in and buy a $200 box of cigars, and be gone in a few minutes,” he said. “They can’t do that anymore.”

But the biggest obstacle Ferguson sees to getting more retailers back in downtown Lexington is high per-square-foot rents.

“If I didn’t own my building, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I blame a lot of it on the Webbs, who overpaid for property and then had to get a return on their investment.” But the biggest problem, Ferguson said, is that too few people work downtown — he suspects less than a fifth as many as did two or three decades ago. The addition of downtown condos over the past decade hasn’t made much difference, he said. But he thinks more big apartment complexes like Park Plaza would help.

Ferguson now runs Fayette Cigar Store seven days a week with help from one of his four daughters, Dee Bright. Thanks to a resurgence in cigar smoking, customers come to the store for its extensive selection of high-end smokes, which are kept in a former bank vault in back. Pipe smoking also is on the rebound as cigarettes decline.

Cigars and fine pipe tobacco are the store’s biggest profit centers. But Ferguson says he doesn’t know what the future holds, noting that all of his main wares — tobacco, magazines, newspapers and greeting cards — have been in decline for years.

Ferguson has tried to fight back by adding niche products such as basic drugstore items and local honey. Still, business is tough.

“I have a pretty loyal customer base,” he said. “Thank God for that.”

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Mayor Jim Gray’s upbeat speech also a re-election pitch

January 21, 2014

It was cloudy and snowing outside, but Mayor Jim Gray was all sunshine and warmth Tuesday as he gave his annual State of the City speech.

One reason for Gray’s relentlessly upbeat talk is that Lexington is in better shape than most cities, as he pointed out several times. A lot of good things are happening here, and Gray and his administration can take at least some of the credit.

Another reason for the sunny report is that Gray is running for a second four-year term in November. This speech before an annual luncheon sponsored by the Lexington Forum was all about making the case for re-election.

With the Jan. 28 filing deadline only a week away, Gray has no opponent. That hasn’t happened for almost 30 years, so somebody is likely to challenge him. But it may not be much of a contest.

Gray is popular and personable. His administration has significant accomplishments, many good things in the works and no major vulnerabilities so far. Plus, Gray’s re-election fund already has $180,000 in the bank.

With former Vice Mayor Mike Scanlon’s announcement last week that he won’t run, the only potential opponent of significance would seem to be Anthany Beatty, who was Lexington’s first black police chief and is now assistant vice president for campus services at the University of Kentucky.

Beatty is well-known, well-liked and was an effective police chief. But his candidacy for mayor could be a long-shot. Beatty said Tuesday that he will make a decision by this weekend.

There also has been speculation that Beatty might run for an at-large seat on the Urban County Council, but Beatty said he has no plans to run for council.

Even if Beatty doesn’t run, Gray is likely to get at least token opposition. Running for mayor is always a good way for people to attract attention to specific issues — or themselves. It can be good for civic dialogue, or at least entertaining.

Still, Gray wasn’t taking any chances Tuesday. The closest thing to a controversial issue he mentioned was to urge support for state legislation allowing voters in Kentucky cities to authorize a time-limited, 1 cent sales tax increase for specific construction projects.

Any proposal for higher taxes is controversial among some tax-averse voters, but this one is a no-brainer. Local voters should have the right to approve higher taxes for a purpose they value without being micro-managed by Frankfort.

Most of Gray’s speech was a laundry list of accomplishments, good rankings on national lists and feel-good optimism about Lexington. He put his accomplishments in the context of his three goals as mayor, which were posted on banners behind him: create jobs, run government efficiently and build a great American city.

“I am proud to report that the state of our city is strong and getting even stronger,” Gray said. “Lexington is today a beacon for other cities.”

Borrowing a device recent presidents have used in their State of the Union speeches, Gray recognized several do-gooders in the audiences, as well as two women who wrote public love notes to Lexington, one a letter to the editor in the Herald-Leader and the other a Huffington Post blog essay.

Gray also went out of his way, as he often does, to recognize and praise council members. Unlike some previous mayors, Gray has realized he can be more effective if he tries to get along with council members.

(The day before, during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Unity Breakfast, Gray realized he had forgotten to recognize several council members in the audience. So he passed a note to the Lafayette High School student who was acting as emcee and asked him to do it for him.)

Gray made a point of recognizing Emma Tibbs, the influential leader of the Fayette County Neighborhood Council, whose litigation forced the city to agree to fix persistent waste-water problems. And he praised public safety employees, many of whom have been unhappy with pension reforms and other city cost-cutting efforts.

The mayor did his best to leave the Lexington Forum crowd upbeat about the state of the city, no doubt hoping the feeling will last until at least November.


MLK Day is one of Lexington’s great annual celebrations

January 20, 2014

140120MLKDay0080It seemed fitting that the annual march passed Eduardo Kobra’s new mural of Abraham Lincoln. Photos by Tom Eblen

The Martin Luther King Jr. celebration is one of my favorite annual events in Lexington, because it brings a diverse group of local people together to discuss important values and draw inspiration.

The 20th anniversary of Alpha Phi Alpha’s annual Unity Breakfast was especially inspiring because almost the entire program was done by Fayette County Public Schools students. They were all impressive. With sunny skies and mild winter temperatures, the symbolic march through downtown was more pleasant than it often is. And the program that followed the march was a great opportunity to hear Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, one of the great voices for civil rights for more than a half-century.

It’s a great day to be in Lexington.

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