Fifth book about Louisville’s Bingham family is the most revealing

August 22, 2015

The disintegration of the Bingham family’s Louisville media dynasty in 1986 prompted no fewer than four books about patriarch Robert Worth Bingham and the two talented but troubled generations he left in his wake.

Each book was revealing, but the basics were well-known: ambitious politico loses his wife in a tragedy and remarries America’s richest widow, who soon dies mysteriously. With his inheritance, he buys a newspaper and influence, which includes the ambassadorship to Great Britain. The Courier-Journal becomes a great newspaper until squabbling among his grandchildren prompts its sale to a chain.

150823Bingham002AThe juicy secrets revealed in previous Bingham books are nothing compared to those in this fifth one, the second written by a family member.

Emily Bingham’s Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux $28) is a thoroughly researched, well-written and frank biography of the great-aunt her elders never wanted to discuss.

Bingham, a Harvard graduate with a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina, will talk about and sign her book at 3 p.m. Sunday at The Morris Book Shop, 882 East High Street.

Henrietta Bingham was intelligent, beautiful and seductive. But she was forever traumatized by witnessing her mother’s death when a commuter train hit their car, and she could never escape the emotional grip of her narcissistic father.

She also was bisexual. Her most intense relationships were with John Houseman, who later became a legendary film producer and Oscar-winning actor, and the 1930s tennis star Helen Jacobs.

Other lovers included three members of England’s famous Bloomsbury set: writer Mina Kirstein, painter Dora Carrington and sculptor Stephen Tomlin. Then there were the actresses: Hope Williams and, probably, Tallulah Bankhead. And, possibly, black musicians of both sexes in Harlem.

Henrietta spent the Jazz Age and Great Depression living high on daddy’s money. Had she been straight, she, rather than her younger brother Barry, would have inherited the family’s media empire.

Instead, she lived a life of leisure, attracting lovers then pushing them away. Her only real accomplishment was a late-in-life career as a Thoroughbred horse breeder.

Despite years of psychoanalysis with Ernest Jones, a famous protégé of Sigmund Freud, Henrietta could never escape her demons. She died in 1968 at age 68 from the effects of alcoholism and mental illness.

Emily Bingham, author of "Irrepressible: The Jazz Age life of Henrietta Bingham." Photo by Leslie Lyons

Emily Bingham. Photo by Leslie Lyons

After reading this book, I had to ask Emily Bingham: what did the family think of her unflinching book?

“My generation has just all been fascinated,” said Bingham, 50. “We had only heard these sort of negative stories. It’s as if this whole part of our family tree is alive instead of shriveled.”

Her mother, Edie Bingham, and aunts, Sallie Bingham and Eleanor Bingham Miller, the last survivors of their generation, passed along photographs and heirlooms and have been very supportive of the book, she said.

“But if my grandparents (Barry Bingham Sr. and his wife, Mary) had been living, this would have been hard to do,” she acknowledged.

“I think they were quite understanding, actually, about that part of Henrietta’s life,” she said. “They also were the ones who bore the brunt of being worried for her, and the shame that came with that. People couldn’t talk about mental health, either.”

Emily Bingham said that every day growing up at the Binghams’ Melcombe estate she saw a framed photograph of an octagonal barn at her great-aunt’s horse farm, now the Harmony Landing Country Club at Goshen.

“I just remember being told she was an accomplished horsewoman,” she said. “It would be the one thing they would say and then the conversation would end. I got the feeling that she was sort of not very interesting. And that was obviously wrong.”

In an interview with her grandmother before she died in 1995, Mary Bingham finally talked about Henrietta.

Only after Emily Bingham and her husband, Stephen Reily, named their daughter Henrietta, because they liked the old-fashioned name, did her startled father, the late Barry Bingham Jr., discuss his aunt, whom he called “a three-dollar bill.”

He told his daughter there might be a trunk of Henrietta’s stuff in the attic. There she discovered personal possessions and old clothes, including one of Jacobs’ monogrammed tennis outfits. Then she found another trunk stuffed with nearly 200 love letters to Henrietta from Houseman and Tomlin.

That trunk, stored for decades above her childhood bedroom, led her to search out archives containing the revealing letters, diaries and memoirs of her great-aunt’s friends and lovers.

But Henrietta’s own voice is largely missing from this biography; she left no diary, and fewer than a dozen letters. She seems to have destroyed most evidence of her homosexuality.

“This project was like putting together a broken mirror and knowing that you were only going to see bits of the person in the end,” the author said.

Bingham would love to know more about Henrietta’s passion for black music in the 1920s and her relationships with famous performers she knew. She wishes she could have “been on the couch with her” during psychoanalysis, especially to understand more about Henrietta’s complex relationship with her father.

And, in a life with so many passionate, complicated relationships, she said, “I would want to ask her, ‘Who did you really love?”

Bingham thinks her great-aunt’s alcoholism and mental illness were fueled in part by social pressure to keep her lesbian relationships secret. Her efforts to live a lie included a brief, failed marriage in 1954.

Henrietta’s life could have been much different had she lived today, her great-niece thinks. She could have enjoyed openly gay relationships and become more independent from her controlling father.

Bingham hopes readers come away with a desire to find out more about the gaps and silences in their own family histories.

“They don’t not matter because they haven’t been talked about,” she said. “Often, they are creating some of the reality you are living with; you just don’t know how they shaped it.”

From cheap seats to expensive suites, a picture-perfect Derby

May 2, 2015
Fans watched races from the Jockey Suites balconies at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Fans watched races from the Jockey Suites balconies. Photo by Tom Eblen


A picture-perfect spring day brought a record crowd of 170,513 people to Churchill Downs for the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby. And what a spectacle they saw.

The most important two-minutes of the day belonged to American Pharoah, the favorite who won the $2 million mile-and-a-quarter race for 3-year-olds.

But there was so much more to see: Women in tight dresses, plunging necklines and hats that could qualify as architecture. Men wore either the finest or most garish suit they could find, often topped with a straw hat.

As always, it was a colorful sea of humanity, with everyone doing their best to have a good time. And, for many I talked to, it was their first Kentucky Derby.

“We’ve been having a lot of fun,” said Graham Yost, the Canadian screenwriter who created and is executive producer of Justified, the hit television series set in Kentucky, which just finished its six-season run in April.

Yost and his wife, Connie, were wined-and-dined in Lexington earlier in the week, but still weren’t quite prepared for their first Kentucky Derby.

“We had heard about the hats, but until you see them… ” Yost said. “Kentucky has become a huge part of our lives.”

“This is one of the best spectacles of all,” added singer Mac Davis, who was sharing the Yost’s table on Millionaire’s Row.

Far below the celebrities, in folding chairs beside an infield fence, Susan and Bob Syphax were experiencing their first Derby, too.

Seven months ago, they moved from California to Pulaski County and decided this was the year. So they dressed in their finest outfits and plucked down $60 each for general-admission tickets.

“I always wanted to go to the Derby,” she said. “I didn’t care where we sat; I just wanted to be here.”

James Roberts of Grand Junction, Colo., and six of his buddies from around the country flew into Louisville this week for their first Derby — and an early bachelor party before his Aug. 1 wedding.

“We came to see the race and hopefully get me to my wedding eventually,” Roberts said. “We’re having a blast. Now we’re ready to win some money on horses.”

“It’s been on our bucket list,” said Lee Vigil, who was here from Albuquerque, N.M., with his wife, Stella. “This is our 41st anniversary, so we thought we could come celebrate it at the 141st Derby.”

Cathy Dewberry and Norline Simpson of Dayton, Ohio, spent much of their first Derby wandering the infield and photographing other women’s hats.

“What brought us here was the hats,” Simpson said from beneath a big turquoise and white one of her own.

“We love every bit of it,” Simpson added. “We will be back.”

High above the infield in the Jockey Suites complex, corporate executives used the day to entertain guests and clients in high style.

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray started the day in the suite rented by his family firm, Gray Construction, but he quickly started roaming Churchill Downs with Jamie Emmons, his chief of staff.

“This is a day when you can have a chance to quickly see a lot of people who have influence in Lexington and Kentucky,” Gray said. “It’s a long day, but a beneficial one.”

Derby day was also a good payday for thousands of service workers and vendors at the track.

Darrin Hildebrand of Sandusky, Ohio, was making and selling hand-rolled cigars for $15 each about as fast as he could roll them. Aaron Kluttz of Baltimore and his son, Luke, each got done and, after long draws, pronounced them good.

“We’ll go through 1,000 by the time it’s all said and done,” Hildebrand said.

The warm, sunny weather also meant brisk business for mint julep vendor Rob Hawkins. Three hours before the Derby, he had already sold a dozen cases.

“It’s never a bad day at the Derby,” he said as he rushed back for another case. “But when you have weather like this, everybody wants a drink.”

Dining room patrons on the fifth floor of the Jockey Suites line up for food at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Dining room patrons on the fifth floor of the Jockey Suites line up for food. Photo by Tom Eblen

Darrin Hindebrand of Sandusky, Ohio, lights a cigar he just made for Aaron Kluttz of Baltimore at the 141st Kentucky Derby on Saturday.  Hildebrand, who learned how to make cigars 22 years ago, later made one for Kluttz's son, Luke, left. HIldebrand said he would end up making about 1,000 cigars at Derby and Oaks, which sold for $15 each. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Darrin Hindebrand of Sandusky, Ohio, lights a cigar he made for Aaron Kluttz of Baltimore at the 141st Kentucky Derby on Saturday. Hildebrand, who learned how to make cigars 22 years ago, later made one for Kluttz’s son, Luke, left. HIldebrand said he would end up making about 1,000 cigars at Derby and Oaks, which sold for $15 each. Photo by Tom Eblen

Big-hatted spectators gather in the paddock at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Big-hatted spectators gather in the paddock. Photo by Tom Eblen

Fan photos from early in a beautiful Kentucky Derby day

May 2, 2015
Bob and Susan Syphax moved to Science Hill, Ky., from California seven months ago and were excited about seeing their first Kentucky Derby on Saturday. "I always wanted to go to the Derby," she said. "I don't care where I sit. I just wanted to be here." They sat in the infield, watching a big-screen television.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Bob and Susan Syphax moved to Science Hill, Ky., from California seven months ago and were excited about seeing their first Kentucky Derby on Saturday. “I always wanted to go to the Derby,” she said. “I don’t care where I sit. I just wanted to be here.” They sat in the infield, watching a big-screen television. Photo by Tom Eblen

Ohio State University students, left to right, Daniel LeHue, Elliott O'Flynn, Nicholas Kobernik and Kara Neff cheered for an undercard race in the infield Saturday before the 141st Kentucky Derby. This was their first Derby Day at Churchill Downs.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Ohio State University students, left to right, Daniel LeHue, Elliott O’Flynn, Nicholas Kobernik and Kara Neff cheered for an undercard race in the infield Saturday before the 141st Kentucky Derby. This was their first Derby Day at Churchill Downs. Photo by Tom Eblen

Damon Williams, left, of Stockton, Calif., and Zach Miller, right, of Austin, Texas, studied the racing program Saturday with James Roberts of Grand Junction, Colo. Williams and Miller were among six friends of Robertson from around the country who gathered in Louisville for his early bachelor party. He is getting married Aug. 1. It was the first time any of them had been to the Kentucky Derby.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Damon Williams, left, of Stockton, Calif., and Zach Miller, right, of Austin, Texas, studied the racing program Saturday with James Roberts of Grand Junction, Colo. Williams and Miller were among six friends of Robertson from around the country who gathered in Louisville for his early bachelor party. He is getting married Aug. 1. It was the first time any of them had been to the Kentucky Derby. Photo by Tom Eblen

Soldiers assisted with security in the infield at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Soldiers assisted with security in the infield at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday. Photo by Tom Eblen

Cathy Dewberry, left, and Norline Simpson of Dayton, Ohio, attended their first Kentucky Derby on Saturday in the infield. "We're all about the hats," Simpson said. "But we love every bit of it. We'll be back."  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Cathy Dewberry, left, and Norline Simpson of Dayton, Ohio, attended their first Kentucky Derby on Saturday in the infield. “We’re all about the hats,” Simpson said. “But we love every bit of it. We’ll be back.” Photo by Tom Eblen

Fans began gathering in the infield early for the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Fans began gathering in the infield early for the 141st Kentucky Derby. Photo by Tom Eblen

Soldiers assisted with security in the infield at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Soldiers assisted with security in the infield at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday. Photo by Tom Eblen

Infield fans watched undercard races before the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Infield fans watched undercard races before the 141st Kentucky Derby. Photo by Tom Eblen

Kentucky Derby’s little sister has her own style

May 3, 2014

140502KyOaks0020A giant, new video screen at Churchill Downs emphasizes the feeling that the 140th Kentucky Oaks on Friday is like one big reality television show.  Photos by Tom Eblen


LOUISVILLE — Whenever friends from out-of-state complain about how Kentucky Derby tickets are expensive and hard to get, I tell them about the Kentucky Oaks.

Both races have been run for 140 years, but until a few years ago, the Friday event for 3-year-old fillies was a secret Kentuckians kept to themselves.

The Oaks is no longer a secret. The crowd of 113,071 that saw the favorite, Untapable, win by 4½ lengths Friday, was the third-largest ever. But the Oaks is still a less costly, less crowded and less crazy day at the races.

Neither Oaks nor Derby may be the same again, though, thanks to Churchill Downs’ newest addition. The Big Board is a 90-foot-wide video screen that rises 170 feet above the backside and is visible throughout the track. When the sound is cranked up on its 750 speakers, the multimedia experience can almost rival the human and equine circus that surrounds it.

Several months ago, my younger daughter called wanting advice about getting Derby tickets. Shannon lives in New York now but was coming home to meet up with Lisa Currie, her pen-pal of 20 years, who was flying in from Australia.

Lisa wanted to go to the Derby, but was easily persuaded that the Oaks might be more fun. It is the same with Australia’s famous Melbourne Cup, she said. She and other locals prefer to go on one of the preliminary race days.

Walking around Friday, I found a lot of people who have discovered the Oaks’ charm.

“I like the Oaks better, although we’ll be here tomorrow, too,” said Denise Needham of Long Island, N.Y., who was here for her fourth Oaks-Derby weekend. “It’s just as much fun, but less crowded. And it’s for a good cause.”

She was referring to Churchill Downs’ partnership with the Susan G. Komen organization, which has made Oaks Day an annual celebration of breast cancer survival and awareness.

Before the big race, there is a parade down the track of breast cancer survivors chosen from all over the country. Almost all of them wore pink. But, anymore, almost everyone wears pink to the Oaks.

“I get to wear pink and not get judged,” Rickey Spanish of Des Moines, Iowa, said with a laugh. He was wearing a pink shirt, pants and feather boa, and his Iowa friends were similarly attired.

“Today is all flash,” Spanish said. “Tomorrow, I’ll just wear a regular old suit to Derby.”

All of that pink has helped make the Oaks as good a people-watching event as Derby Day.

“The horses are OK, but the people are more interesting,” said Kitty McKune of Louisville, who stood people-watching as her husband, Mike, filmed the paddock crowd with a small video camera.

“Derby weekend brings out the best in everybody,” said Mike McKune, who shocked his wife by buying and learning how to tie a bow tie to go with this suit.

Frequently overcast skies and temperatures that barely broke into the 60s caused many men to lose their suit coats to women who draped them over their fancy dresses. Gusty winds had many women keeping at least one hand on their big hats.

“It was supposed to be warm!” said Katie Daniel of Louisville, who walked through the paddock wearing Daniel Nusbaum’s suit coat.

The weather definitely put a dent in beer sales, said Andre Williams, who said he has been hawking cold ones at Churchill Downs on Derby weekends for more than 10 years.

“They keep saying it’s too cold to drink cold beer,” Williams said, noting that his fellow vendors selling champagne and vodka “Lily” cocktails seemed to be doing better. “But it will pick up some the later the day goes.”

Judging by all of the crushed beer cans I walked over after the big race, he was right. By Saturday morning, though, they will all be gone so an even bigger, crazier crowd can leave many more beer cans. Derby Day is supposed to be much warmer.

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

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:


As first black senator, Powers gave voice to the powerless

February 9, 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s happening at Speed Art Museum during 3-year shutdown?

August 10, 2013

Photo by Tom Eblen |

Pieces of art, including early Kentucky furniture at right, has been stored in several galleries during the Speed Art Museum’s three-year renovation and expansion.  Photos by Tom Eblen  


LOUISVILLE — People gasped when Kentucky’s largest art museum announced in late 2011 that it was closing for more than three years for an extensive renovation.

Would the Speed Art Museum lose momentum during such a long shutdown? Or would the break allow it to shift into high gear? After a tour of the work-in-progress, I’m betting on the latter.

The Speed has raised more than $50 million, including $18 million from Louisville’s Brown family, to renovate its 1927 main building, demolish a 1972 addition and expand all over its 5-acre campus beside the University of Louisville.

When it reopens in early 2016, the museum will have 79,600 square feet of renovated space, 75,000 square feet of new space and 135,000 square feet of new outdoor facilities, including an art garden and piazza. Two new wings will add galleries, an education center, a 150-seat film theater and a café.

Like most museums, the Speed wants to attract a larger, younger and more diverse audience by offering relevant art experiences. Those efforts are already underway in a small, temporary space the Speed has rented in downtown Louisville, at 822 East Market Street.

But the Speed also is making a big commitment to Kentucky’s past: a large gallery showcasing the state’s rich decorative arts tradition.

Scott Erbes, director of collections and exhibitions at the Speed Art Museum, will curate the new museum's new Center for Kentucky Art. He holds a piece of painted pottery by Fayette Barnum (1870-1960), a Louisville artist and influential art teacher.

Scott Erbes, director of collections and exhibitions at the Speed Art Museum, will curate the new museum’s new Center for Kentucky Art. He holds a piece of painted pottery by Fayette Barnum (1870-1960), a Louisville artist and influential art teacher.

When the Speed’s director of collections, Scott Erbes, offered to give me a private tour of the shuttered museum, I couldn’t resist.

Our first stop was the famous English Room, where elaborate oak paneling carved in the early 1600s for a manor house in Devon has been stripped from the walls. Each piece has been numbered and shelved so it can be reassembled in a different room.

Some galleries were empty and in various stages of renovation. Others resembled high-class attics, packed with the museum’s 14,000 pieces of art. Paintings hung on sliding panels of steel mesh. Furniture and sculpture lined shelves. The arms of marble statues were covered with bubble wrap.

The Speed has loaned some pieces to other museums. Choice European paintings are part of an exhibit at The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky in Lexington through Sept. 22. Some Kentucky paintings are at the Hopewell Museum in Paris through Sept. 2.

I was most interested in plans for a new Center for Kentucky Art, a 5,600-square-foot gallery that will house paintings, sculpture, furniture, silver, pottery and textiles made or used in the state between the late 1700s and the mid-1900s.

“With the exception of paintings, Kentucky art had never been a major focus” of the museum, Erbes said. But that changed after he met Bob and Norma Noe of Wilmore.

The Noes are Garrard County natives whose ancestors came to Kentucky more than two centuries ago. The Noes lived for 25 years in the Washington, D.C., area, where he worked as a cost analyst for the Air Force. In their free time, they visited museums all along the East Coast.

“Many of them had sections devoted to their home state,” Bob Noe, 84, recalled. “It was very noticeable to me that there was no such thing in Kentucky, even though I knew many high-quality things were made here.”

The Noes began collecting early Kentucky pieces, and their hobby became a passion after they retired and returned to the state in 1979. The Noes went to local auctions and noticed that the best Kentucky pieces were being bought by out-of-state collectors. So they started buying.

130730SpeedMuseum0044“It was quite cheap then, because there weren’t many Kentucky collectors,” Noe said. “Now it is very, very expensive.”

The Noes wanted Kentuckians to have more appreciation for their arts heritage, so they began looking for an institution to donate their collection to. They considered the University of Kentucky, “but they had no place to put it,” he said.

They began talking with the Speed and were impressed that several board members and the staff shared their passion. In 2011, the Noes donated 119 pieces to the Speed, more than doubling its Kentucky holdings. The Noe collection is the foundation of the new center, which Erbes hopes to expand through other acquisitions and loans.

The new center will show the quality and variety of early Kentucky art. It will explain how styles developed as artists, craftsmen and their customers moved around the state. And it will link history to the arts, showing, for example, how the arts were used to promote and memorialize famous Kentuckians such as Daniel Boone, Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln.

“Rightly or wrongly, I have felt that Kentuckians have not had enough pride in their early beginnings,” Noe said, adding that he hopes the Center for Kentucky Art will help change that.

When the Speed displayed pieces from his collection at special exhibits in 2000 and 2002, Noe said, he enjoyed watching visitors’ reactions.

“I saw young people turn to their parents after leaving,” he said, “and say they didn’t know Kentuckians had made such beautiful things.”

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo and read caption:


Kentucky Derby 138: The day at Churchill Downs

May 5, 2012

LOUISVILLE — Oh, the humanity! Oh, the humidity!

After a stormy night, the sun shone brightly on Churchill Downs all day Saturday as a record 165,307 sweltering fans turned out for the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby. They got a good show for their trouble, as I’ll Have Another blew past front-runner Bodemeister to win the $2 million purse.

The two-minute race capped a day of partying and networking that began long before Mary J. Blige, all decked out in red, rocked The Star-Spangled Banner to several interruptions of applause.

The beer-for-breakfast crowd arrived early in the infield, hoping to stake out a prime spot to pitch a tent, spread a tarp and set up lawn chairs. Many of the groups of families and friends have been coming back to the same spot for years, if not decades.

“I’ve always wanted to come,” said Tony Sirkin, a furniture store owner from Chicago who at mid-morning was trying to lay claim to one of the few remaining patches of green until a group of friends could arrive. “It’s something you’ve got to experience.”

His goal for the day? “To meet my future wife,” Sirkin said.

Nahru Lampkin of Detroit had the same goal Saturday as at his 17 previous Derbys: make a good day’s living as an entertainer. A fixture in the infield, he plays bongo drums and makes up hilarious rhymes about passing fans in hopes of encouraging them to drop some cash in his bucket.

“We come every year to seek this guy out,” Joe DeJohns of Chicago said of Lampkin. “This guy is really, really good.”

High above the infield and grandstand, in the air-conditioned comfort of the luxury suites overlooking the track, well-heeled groups of family, friends and business associates mingled.

For many at the Derby, it was a long day of glad-handing and networking. Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler stopped by the Jockey Club suite of 21c Museum Hotel, the Louisville-based company that recently announced plans to open its third location, a hotel in Lexington, in what has become a small chain of boutique hotels.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer had a hectic day, greeting people, presenting an undercard trophy and entertaining 24 economic development prospects whom he declined to identify.

“It’s a great way to show off our city; you couldn’t ask for anything better than this,” Fischer said. “They always come away favorably impressed.”

Gov. Steve Beshear worked the crowd, which included a visiting group of other Democratic governors from Maryland, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina. When the other governors gathered in a suite, the hall was filled with their dark-suited security guards staring at each other.

Scattered throughout the Downs were celebrities, including Cindy Lauper, Debra Messing and Miranda Lambert. Head and shoulders above them — in both stature and popularity — were members of the championship University of Kentucky basketball team. They wandered through rooms posing for photos with fans before making their way to the Winner’s Circle to help present the Derby trophy.

The Millionaire’s Row crowd included many familiar Kentucky faces: House Speaker Greg Stumbo, Alltech’s Pearse and Deirdre Lyons, Toyota’s Wil James, lawyer and politico Terry McBrayer, and developer Woodford Webb.

The Derby is a fashionista’s paradise. Women seem to compete to see who can wear the tightest dress, the highest heels and the most bodacious hat. Among men, the competition seemed to be for the loudest sport coat, although Jim Leuenberger of Shawano, Wis., took things a step further. He attracted a lot of attention in the paddock with a bright red suit and matching bowler hat.

“I saw a guy last year with a yellow suit,” said Leuenberger, who was attending his 18th Derby. “He told me about a Web site where you can get any color. I’ve always wanted a red one.”

Many Derby regulars get their kicks by wearing outrageous hats sure to attract attention and photographers.

The first time Jan and Scott Baty of Traverse City, Mich., came to the Derby six years ago, she put a plastic pink flamingo on her hat. Her hats have gotten bigger and fancier, but she has stuck with the theme.

“This is our first year with a double-flamingo hat,” said Scott Baty, whose own Panama straw hat was covered with roses. “We ran out of singe-flamingo options.”

But few attention-seekers had it as hard as Tracy Lindberg of Chicago, who was in the infield for his 29th Derby wearing a 50-pound stuffed horse he called Seabiscuit on his head.

“I usually can wear it two or three hours tops,” Lindberg said. “I’ve done an hour, though, and I already can’t feel my neck.”


A model for a different Kentucky image, reality

September 25, 2011

While driving to Louisville last week, I listened to a radio interview with Bob Edwards, who has published his memoirs. The Kentucky-born broadcaster talked about having to lose his accent for network radio and having to endure lots of hillbilly jokes.

Kentuckians cringe at such stereotypes, but I took it in stride that morning. I was on my way to the Idea Festival.

The festival, which started in Lexington in 2000 and has been an annual event since moving to Louisville in 2006, shatters stereotypes about Kentucky as a place of nothing but under-educated, narrow-minded, backward people.

People from around the world come to the festival to hear fascinating speakers discuss new ideas about every subject imaginable. The program strives to create an intellectual mash-up of scientists, business people, artists, students, politicians, academics and technology geeks.

The format is similar to the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences, whose “TED talk” videos have become an Internet sensation. The goal is to help attendees stretch their minds and open themselves to the kind of creativity that will produce the breakthrough ideas of the future.

IBM’s Watson computer was there to play Jeopardy! against high school students after the leader of the team that created the supercomputer explained how it works. An astrophysicist discussed string theory. A “neuromarketer” talked about how to trigger buying impulses in the brain. A researcher explained the science behind kissing.

A geo-strategist analyzed world political trends. A spoken-word poet talked about preserving humanity in a Facebook/Twitter world. A top IBM executive and the head of an organic tea company compared notes on fostering business innovation. Other sessions covered health care, climate change and the value of historic landscapes.

Author Wes Moore told the compelling story of his life and the life of a man with the same name and a similar hard-luck upbringing who became a cop killer, instead of the Rhodes scholar that he became. The idea Moore wanted to explore: how others’ expectations of us shape the life-altering decisions we make.

Then, out of nowhere, the stage belonged to Linsey Stirling, a hip-hop violinist from Arizona whose creative musicianship reminded me of what Lexingtonian Ben Sollee does with a cello.

“We all act as if math, science and poetry are different things, but all knowledge is connected,” said Kris Kimel, the festival’s founder and president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. “What the festival is about is how to deconstruct and reconnect that knowledge.”

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and his staff worked from desks in the lobby of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, where the festival was held, so they could attend as many sessions as possible.

About 300 city employees got to attend at least one session. Ted Smith, the city’s innovation director, encouraged them to use the experience to come up with ways to make local government more effective and efficient. “A lot of innovation comes from empowering people to bring ideas forward,” Smith said. “We want to encourage that.”

Eighty-five students from Louisville’s duPont Manual High School spent all week at the festival. Principal Larry Wooldridge said that happened because senior class president Michael Perry attended last year’s festival and convinced him that more students should come. Perry even set up a meeting between Wooldridge and Kimel to work out the details.

“These kids challenge me and the teachers every day. They come in with ideas, and they also say, ‘Here’s how we can do it,'” Wooldridge said. He said he hoped the festival would give him ideas for better integrating his school’s five diverse magnet programs.

Kimel said each of this year’s sessions — many of which were ticketed separately — attracted about 500 people. But he was disappointed that there were some empty seats. Next year, he wants more Kentucky business people and students to attend.

“When you get people in an environment like this, you get them to begin to understand that the world really is changing,” Kimel said. “If we don’t understand that, we’re going to be left out.”

Each time I attend the Idea Festival, I think about its potential to change outsiders’ stereotypes of Kentucky — and, more importantly, how such creative thinking could change the realities at the root of those stereotypes.

Ted Smith, left, debriefed some of the 300 Louisville city employees attending the Idea Festival last week to see what ideas for improving local government the festival's sessions and atmosphere may have sparked. He was sitting at the temporary office of Mayor Greg Fischer, which set up in the lobby of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts during the festival. Photo by Tom Eblen

Idea Festival opens in Louisville by ‘rethinking’ city

September 21, 2011

The Idea Hub in the lobby of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts has become an outpost for offices of city government and several local companies during the Idea Festival, which began Wednesday and continues through Saturday. Photo by Tom Eblen

LOUISVILLE — The Idea Festival opened in Louisville this morning with a panel discussion called “Rethinking Louisville.” But moderator Ted Smith, the city government’s director of innovation, was quick to point out that “rethink” is not the same as “change.”

Those two concepts are often confused. The annual Idea Festival is about opening people’s minds to new ideas that lead to innovation. Some of those ideas and innovations will lead to change — a concept many people see as threatening — but not always. Sometimes, solving problems and improving communities and economies is about preserving what you have that works.

The Idea Festival began in Lexington in 2000 and moved to Louisville in 2006, seeking the sponsors and facilities that would allow it to become an annual event at a central facility. At this year’s festival, the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts is that place.

Mayor Greg Fischer has moved his office to the Idea Hub, a group of desks in the Kentucky Center’s lobby.”The mayor wants to promote entrepreneurial thinking, so he said, ‘Let’s just move the office here,'” spokesman Chris Poynter said.

Fischer was in Washington for a meeting Wednesday, so won’t actually get to the festival until Thursday. But Poynter said that about 300 city employees will be attending festival sessions, as well as daily discussions led by Smith about how those ideas can be used to make local government more effective and efficient.

Several major Louisville companies also have rented desks in the Idea Hub to serve as a base for employees attending sessions.

Here were a few ideas from this morning’s sessions:

Louisville traffic patterns have adapted pretty quickly to the sudden closure of a cracked Interstate highway bridge. Rather than creating Interstate gridlock, local commuters are finding secondary streets and bridges that can get them where they need to go. That won’t solve larger issues of interstate commerce, but it provided a lesson.

“The discussion about bridges has always been about Interstate bridges,” Smith said. “Maybe it takes a crisis to say ‘Are all the alternatives on the table?'”

Another example of not always seeing things in front of our faces came up in an earlier session. Charles Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation talked about how, when preserving and enhancing historic and signature buildings, cities often overlook the importance of the surrounding landscape. Landscape design and functionality is important, he said. “It’s another way to see and value place.”




Lexington, Louisville partnership makes sense

August 15, 2011
Mayors Greg Fischer, left, of Louisville and Jim Gray of Lexington. Photo by Mark Cornelison

Mayors Greg Fischer, left, of Louisville and Jim Gray of Lexington announce the project in Louisville last Thursday. Photo by Mark Cornelison

LOUISVILLE — The Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement was announced Thursday with all the fanfare that two cities’ business leaders could muster.

A furry University of Louisville cardinal mascot escorted Lexington Mayor Jim Gray to the stage of a Galt House ballroom as a furry University of Kentucky wildcat did the same for Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer. More than 1,000 people from both cities applauded, and a marching band played the Superman movie fanfare, symbolizing the goal of creating a super-region for advanced manufacturing.

The hype might have been goofy, but the ideas behind the effort and the process for achieving it could be an economic game- changer, not only for Louisville and Lexington, but for the entire state.

Brookings, the public- policy think tank, chose Lexington-Louisville as one of seven regions where it will work with business, government and educational leaders to develop a plan for regional economic development. The idea is to focus on business sectors that already are strong and have potential to become major players in international trade.

Brookings thinks regions, rather than individual cities, are the economic powerhouses of the future, especially as the world becomes more urbanized. More than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas, up from 30 percent in 1950 and 2 percent in 1800. By 2030, it could be 60 percent.

Kentucky mirrors the trend. More than 55 percent of Kentuckians live in urban areas, which account for 72 percent of the gross state product of $50.5 billion a year. More than 2 million of Kentucky’s 4.3 million people live in the 27 counties that make up the Louisville- Lexington region, which includes Elizabethtown. Metro Louisville accounts for 31 percent of gross state product; metro Lexington, 14.2 percent.

Fischer got the ball rolling with Brookings. A review of 11 previous economic studies quickly identified advanced manufacturing as an area for focus. Manufacturing employs 65,000 people, or 11 percent of the work force, in metro Louisville, and 30,000, or 8 percent of the work force, in metro Lexington.

The biggest manufacturing niche is the auto industry, with the Toyota assembly plant in Georgetown, two Ford assembly plants in Louisville and suppliers across the state.

Manufacturing jobs were key to creating the American middle class a century ago, and it is no coincidence that the middle class has declined as manufacturing has moved overseas. But some of that high-end manufacturing is moving back to the United States, and Kentucky has the potential to attract it, Fischer said.

“This is a can-do region with enormous assets,” said Amy Liu of Brookings. “We think there’s a real opportunity to succeed here.”

So what could make this different from so many well-intentioned but marginally successful economic development efforts in Kentucky? Several things.

Brookings brings a level of expertise to which Kentucky has rarely had access. The institution is donating its services, valued at about $750,000. Kentuckians are providing about $250,000 in support services and expertise, which will be paid for with private donations.

Fischer and Gray — two new mayors with similar entrepreneurial backgrounds and political outlooks — are powering the initiative. Sports entrepreneur Jim Host will chair the effort. Host is one of Kentucky’s most capable leaders — a drill sergeant with a strong record of getting things done in both cities. His most recent accomplishment: building the KFC Yum Center in downtown Louisville.

Host will lead a 15- to 20-member committee the mayors will appoint soon. And if the mayors are smart, two of those appointments will be the presidents of UK and U of L, which will be vital to this effort’s success.

The committee will develop a specific business plan to be announced by the end of 2012. The key to execution will be forming partnerships among government, industry and education groups. The public may offer suggestions at

Beyond the goal, though, this cooperative effort could be a big deal for Kentucky. That is because Louisville and Lexington — cities only 70 miles apart but long separated by cultural differences and sports rivalries — will be working more closely than ever before.

The effort also will focus statewide attention on the economic importance of the Louisville and Lexington metro areas. After all, 40 cents of every tax dollar generated in Louisville goes to the rest of the state, as does 23 cents of every Lexington tax dollar, Host noted. When the cities succeed, the whole state benefits.

“The leverage potential this has, we don’t even know,” Gray said. For example, he noted, Jefferson County school board members invited Fayette County school board members to the announcement luncheon. What might a closer working relationship there lead to?

“Greg and I naturally see alliances as a big deal,” he added. “And in this case, one-plus-one could add up to three, four or five. That’s what all of this really represents.”

A beautiful afternoon for a record Kentucky Derby crowd

May 7, 2011

LOUISVILLE —The weather forecasters were wrong, thank goodness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UK design project confirmed for European exhibit

May 4, 2011

The University of Kentucky’s College of Design received confirmation Wednesday that its project, Kentucky River Cities: Louisville, Paducah, Henderson, will be included in the 5th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam next April.

“It’s a big deal to be included,” Michael Speaks, dean of the UK College of Design, told me when I wrote this column about the project April 25. “They get a huge number of applications from all over the world.”

The architecture and urban planning exhibition, held every other year in Holland, says it “aspires to stimulate a wider discourse on the relationship between our environments and the quality of our lives.”

The 5th Biennale will explore new ways of planning and creating more sustainable cities.  The exhibition will focus on three cities — Rotterdam, Istanbul and Sao Paulo — but will include other examples of innovation around the world, such as the Kentucky project.

College of Design students and faculty, along with professionals from around the world and UK’s Center for Applied Energy Research, been working with community leaders in Henderson, Louisville and Paducah to research and plan ways of revitalizing industrial riverfront districts to boost the local economies.

Advice for Kentucky from business guru Saul Kaplan

February 14, 2011

Wait for others to do it, and it won’t get done. That old saying might not have the same ring to it as “United we stand, divided we fall,” but it could just as easily be Kentucky’s motto.

Increasingly, technology- enabled entrepreneurs are taking a different path. Rather than waiting for big companies, government or established organizations to figure out how to build a 21st-century economy in Kentucky, they’re trying to do it themselves.

They received some encouragement last week from one of the nation’s popular entrepreneurship gurus, Saul Kaplan of the Business Innovation Factory in Providence, R.I.

During a whirlwind 28-hour trip, Kaplan met with city and business leaders in Lexington and Louisville. He talked to entrepreneurs and business students in both cities, and to some who drove in from as far away as Cleveland, Columbus, Pittsburgh and West Virginia.

Kaplan created the non-profit Business Innovation Factory in 2005 as a laboratory for entrepreneurs working on “areas of high social impact,” such as health care, education and energy. Before that, he was a strategy consultant in the health care industry and executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corp.

Kaplan’s trip to Kentucky was organized by Eric Patrick Marr of The Lexenomics Group, a non-profit economic development organization. Kaplan donated his time, and Randall Stevens of the Lexington business incubator Base 163 paid for his travel.

“The visit was fantastic,” Kaplan told me as he was leaving to fly home Tuesday. “I was pleasantly surprised by the momentum here. There’s definitely the makings of a very entrepreneur-oriented economy.”

Kaplan’s message was that innovation and entrepreneurship must be central to any economic development strategy. And like any consultant, he loves buzzwords. His favorites are: connect, inspire and transform.

“You need to get innovators from across all the silos in your community to communicate and collaborate more effectively,” he said. The next step is inspiring creative people with stories of successful entrepreneurs. Finally, he said, dramatic transformation is required to create a robust, sustainable economy and address many of society’s biggest challenges.

“Incremental change isn’t going to create the economic future that this community wants and needs,” he said. “How can you turn your community into a real-world lab oratory, a place that celebrates experimentation, where people are willing and able to try new things, to try new ideas … to determine what works and what doesn’t work?”

Elder care in Kentucky is one area ripe for innovative problem solving and entrepreneurship, Kaplan noted. The state has an aging population and a growing health care infrastructure. Plus, Louisville is home to the nation’s largest elder-care companies.

“We know that the majority of the elder population want to age in place in their own homes with dignity, but the system wasn’t designed that way,” he said. “How can we create a new set of solutions and new approaches to do that? Those solutions could create new jobs and businesses.”

Kaplan said he sees several assets Kentucky can build on. First, the Lexington-Louisville-Northern Kentucky region is big enough to have a critical mass of important assets, but it isn’t too big.

Second, he said, “It has incredible quality of place. I could see it the minute I left the airport. And quality of place is the best asset any community can have. Everything should be viewed through the lens of how do we enhance and protect that quality of place, and at the same time figure out how to unleash entrepreneurial innovation.”

Finally, Kaplan said, the recent elections of Lexington and Louisville mayors with innovative business backgrounds offers a unique opportunity for economic transformation.

“Having spent time with both mayors, I think they get it,” he said. “I think they want to catalyze the kind of entrepreneurial economy and community we’ve talked about here over the past couple of days. If I were living here, I would be optimistic.”

Kaplan said top-down economic development planning — the “bring in the big outside company” incentive strategy that Kentucky has failed at more often than it has succeeded — isn’t the way of the future.

“Bring the entrepreneur and the innovator to the center of the economic development conversation,” he said. “And tie that conversation to solving real social challenges within the community.”

New Louisville mayor wants Lexington partnership

January 2, 2011

Louisville Mayor-elect Greg Fischer, right, chats with people in mid-December at a holiday lunch for Louisville tourism officials. Photo by Tom Eblen

LOUISVILLE — Anyone who has lived in Kentucky very long knows Lexington and Louisville are separated by much more than 75 miles of Interstate 64 and a blue vs. red college sports rivalry.

The state’s two largest cities have always been insular in ways that no longer make economic sense. That is because success in a 21st-century global economy can be as much about collaboration as competition — and a lot more about regions than cities.

Kentucky’s business and civic leaders have been slowly coming around to this idea. But the election of new mayors with similar backgrounds, outlooks and goals could be a game-changer.

Lexington’s new mayor, Jim Gray, and Louisville’s new mayor, Greg Fischer, take office this week. They are both 50-something Democrats who begin their first executive jobs in government with experience as chief executives of creative, entrepreneurial and globally focused companies. If anybody gets the new economic reality that cities face, they should.

“I do think it’s a new day for both cities,” Fischer said. “Having mayors that understand that should be a plus.”

I know Gray, 57, pretty well. But I hadn’t met Fischer until last month, when I drove to Louisville to interview him at his no-frills campaign headquarters in a converted bourbon warehouse east of downtown.

Fischer, 52, was born and raised in Louisville. He graduated from Trinity High School before heading to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Fischer said he helped start or invest in about 20 companies, beginning at age 25 with SerVend, which makes automated ice and beverage dispensers still used in many restaurants.

Long active in the community, the married father of four hasn’t been in politics long. He lost the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in 2008 to Bruce Lunsford, who then failed to unseat Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. Fischer succeeds Louisville’s longest-serving mayor, Jerry Abramson, who stepped down to become Gov. Steve Beshear’s re-election running mate.

Fischer said he first met Gray, the CEO of his family’s construction company, about four years ago. Fischer wanted to pick his brain on behalf of a company he partially owns, Dant Clayton Corp., which builds sports stadiums.

“Little did we know four years ago that we would be sitting across the table in different capacities now,” Fischer said. “I enjoy Jim’s personality, his optimism, his team-building approach. He’s got good energy to him.”

Fischer said he hopes to have a regular dialogue with Gray. “We have been texting back and forth, but haven’t had substantive conversations yet,” he said.

Fischer’s ideas and philosophy sound strikingly similar to Gray’s.

Like Gray, Fischer’s top priority is creating jobs. While there have been some encouraging announcements recently by major employers such as Ford Motor Co. and General Electric, Louisville has lost more than 24,000 jobs in the past decade, mainly in manufacturing.

Fischer said he plans to focus on industry sectors in which Louisville is already strong, such as transportation logistics and health care companies that focus on long-term and aging care. Partnering with Lexington and other nearby cities also will be a priority.

The two cities’ economies tend to complement rather than compete with each other. And there are many things they share, such as a central location and auto manufacturing and supply industries.

Those rival sports teams are attached to major research universities that could play a bigger role in developing long-term knowledge jobs in Kentucky, Fischer noted. “People talk about the rivalry, but I see that as an advantage, because we’re always talking to each other,” he said.

“It makes all the sense in the world for Louisville and Lexington — Frankfort’s obviously there, and maybe Elizabethtown — to work together as a region to be viewed as relevant on an international scale,” he said. “We’ve got to be thinking globally now when we think about competition. We’ve got to be able to overcome any parochial interests or baggage and look forward.”

The two cities also must work with Northern Kentucky to convince the rural-dominated General Assembly that what is good for urban areas is good for the entire state, because they produce most of Kentucky’s jobs and taxes.

Fischer would like to see legislation allowing local-option sales taxes to allow Kentucky cities to be more competitive with similar-sized cities in other states. But just as important is comprehensive state tax reform that will encourage businesses to set up shop here rather than elsewhere. “Right now,” he said, “our tax code is not our friend.”

As Louisville and Lexington develop long-term strategic plans, they should pay attention to how those complement each other. “Then let’s create a joint plan between our cities,” he said.

“We are in a natural position to be more allies than what we are,” Fischer said of Louisville and Lexington. “We’re just an hour away. If we were living in a large metropolitan area, that would be the average commute, or less, for a lot of people.”

Wrapping up the old year, preparing for the new

December 30, 2010

I have been using some of my 2010 use-it-or-lose-it vacation time during the past couple of weeks, so I haven’t been in the paper much.

But I got up early this morning to be the guest of Mick Jeffries (above) on his Trivial Thursdays show on WRFL.

For those of you unfamiliar with WRFL, that’s Radio Free Lexington, 88.1 on the FM dial, the University of Kentucky’s eclectic, student-run radio station. (WRFL broadcasts from the basement of the Student Center in  space formerly occupied by the University Bookstore, where my father was the manager for many years. This is a small town.)

And for those of you not familiar with Mick — photographer, writer, graphic artist, disc jockey, trivia buff and all-around good guy — I always refer to him as Lexington’s unofficial Commissioner of Fun. That’s because whenever I run across something fun happening in Lexington, he’s usually in the middle of it.

This morning, from 7 to 9, Mick played an assortment of music while we talked about trivia associated with Dec. 30, how 2010 played out in Lexington, local culture and happenings and whatever else struck our fancy. If you have two hours to kill, you can download the podcast here.

I will be back in the paper, and online, this weekend. I’ll have a year-in-review slide show of my favorite photographs from 2010, as well as an interview with the new mayor of Louisville, Greg Fischer. He talks about how he and the new mayor of Lexington, Jim Gray, need to get Louisville and Lexington to work together more for the benefit of Kentucky’s economy. I’ll also have a blog post from Sunday afternoon’s inaugural ceremonies for Gray and the new Urban County Council members.

I hope you are thinking of your New Year’s resolutions. One of mine is to write more on this blog than my three or so newspaper columns each week. See you in 2011!

Will Lexington, Louisville finally cooperate more?

August 16, 2010

The best way to get to know someone is to travel together. That was the idea behind the joint trip to Pittsburgh in May by 200 members of Commerce Lexington and 100 members of Greater Louisville Inc.

Kentucky’s two big cities have always been separated by much more than 75 miles of asphalt. But these days, cities, states and regions that want to succeed economically can no longer afford to let cultural differences, petty jealousies and college basketball rivalries keep them from working together.

The trip went well. But the big question was this: Would there be any follow-up?

Commerce Lexington’s trips are sometimes criticized as junkets because the travelers come home, go on summer vacation and never get around to following up on most of the city-improvement ideas they gathered.

Lexington and Louisville officials said they are determined that that won’t happen this time. Last Thursday, summer vacation ended, and it was time to get to work. A Commerce Lexington/GLI steering committee met all day and, that evening, announced follow-up plans to the trip’s participants at a reception in Louisville’s 21C Museum Hotel. The attendees included both cities’ mayors.

The two chambers of commerce announced plans to form a joint task force to follow up on seven top priorities and to hire a full-time staff person to drive the process. Most of those priorities were identified and ranked by the 300 travelers during a session in Pittsburgh.

Top priorities include exploring the feasibility of light passenger rail between Lexington and Louisville, and creating Bidwell Training Centers in both cities. Bidwell is a remarkably successful job-training center for poor people in Pittsburgh. Founder Bill Strickland’s presentation about it during the trip had almost everyone in the room teary-eyed and cheering.

Strickland is now working with other cities to replicate Bidwell’s success. Talks began this summer about seeing whether the concept could mesh with a Fayette County Public Schools project to develop an agribusiness vocational training center on Leestown Road.

Other top priorities include the cities working together to promote Kentucky’s horse industry, and to pursue legislation that would allow the cities to have a local-option sales tax. The cities say they need the extra money to provide the infrastructure necessary for business to flourish.

Presidents Bob Quick of Commerce Lexington and Joe Reagan of GLI said afterward that such taxing authority probably would have to be done in the context of overall state tax reform, which is long overdue. “Some of these things will take some time to build the right coalitions,” Reagan said.

The two chambers and city governments already work well together, but closer ties are needed between them and Northern Kentucky, Quick and Reagan said. The so-called Golden Triangle has been Kentucky’s growth engine for a couple of decades, and it will become even more important in the future.

But, Reagan said, “The last thing we want to do is pit urban against rural. We have to look at the big picture.”

Jerry Abramson, who is retiring after 21 years as Louisville’s mayor to be Gov. Steve Beshear’s running mate next year, said the cities’ most important challenge will be convincing the rest of the state that investment in the Golden Triangle benefits the entire state. That’s because much of the tax revenue and economic development created by Lexington, Louisville and Northern Kentucky flows throughout Kentucky.

“As we develop our strategies, we must take into account how it’s going to positively affect the other citizens of the state,” Abramson said. “How does it play in Paducah? What’s in it for Hazard?”

Education is the key to continued prosperity

May 17, 2010

Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt isn’t a trained educator; his background is in public policy. His audience of Kentuckians last week consisted mostly of business people.

But his sobering message was as much about business and public policy as it was about education. He said the mediocrity of American public schools is a huge threat to the nation and its economic prosperity.

“It is incontrovertible that America is in decline,” Roosevelt said. “It is serious, and it is deeply rooted in education.”

The percentage of Americans who are college graduates has remained at about 30 percent for the past half-century, while it has doubled and tripled in some other countries, he said. More than half the engineering students at U.S. universities now are foreigners.

America’s anti-academic popular culture, where most children spend hours each day watching television and playing video games, is a big part of the problem. “We celebrate swagger over work,” Roosevelt said.

The focus on improving the achievement gap among poor and minority students, as important as it is, obscures the fact that good schools and students aren’t doing well enough compared with those in countries that are the emerging economic powers.

American school children’s curricula are less rigorous, and they spend less time in school than students in other countries. Striving, Roosevelt said, is no longer a core American characteristic as it is in countries such as China and India.

“It’s an odd form of arrogance to think we’re going to be internationally competitive with the old agriculture-based school calendar,” he said.

Other factors Roosevelt cited include the lack of national education standards, poor management of schools and teacher mediocrity, which is a result of low prestige, low pay and low standards. Teacher hiring and tenure policies are part of the problem. So are hidebound teachers’ unions, although non-union schools don’t seem to perform any better than unionized ones, he said.

Roosevelt said business and civic leaders must demand more from public schools, and they must be willing to provide the resources and leadership to improve them. School systems must become more willing to include non-traditional educators, such as retired professionals and new college graduates in such programs as Teach for America.

Excellent teachers are vital. “We need a national call to action to encourage the best and brightest to go into teaching,” he said.

Roosevelt has overseen significant reforms in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, which have launched a $250 million scholarship program called The Pittsburgh Promise. It guarantees that students who graduate with good grades beginning in 2012 will receive a four-year scholarship for higher education worth about $10,000 a year.

“We need to think about what we want in this country,” Roosevelt said. “More education is the key to improving economic growth and quality of life.”

Roosevelt followed another speaker with a powerful message about education. Bill Strickland is the founder and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corp., an after-school arts program that targets inner-city high school students and an industry-designed vocational training program for unemployed adults.

“It’s all in the way we treat people that shapes behavior,” said Strickland, who spoke in Lexington last month at the Creative Cities Summit. “You can take people who are on the liability side of society’s ledger and make them into assets. It’s called common sense, which is in very short supply in our country right now.”

Efforts are already underway to work with Manchester Bidwell to replicate its program in Lexington, perhaps as part of a new Fayette County Schools vocational education program in agriculture sciences.

Another key to economic prosperity will be getting Kentucky to adequately value and fund its research universities. As Pittsburgh has shown, research universities are key to creating the ideas, technologies and companies that will shape the future of regional economies.

During a panel discussion, University of Louisville President James Ramsey and University of Kentucky President Lee T. Todd Jr. were critical of the General Assembly’s failure to adequately fund the research and education necessary for Kentucky’s economic future.

“Really important startups come out of deep wells of research,” said Tim McNulty of Carnegie Mellon University. “Innovation is very much a local sport.”

Did Lexington, Louisville leaders learn from trip?

May 15, 2010

Will last week’s trip to Pittsburgh by Commerce Lexington and Greater Louisville Inc. be just another expensive junket? Or will it help Kentuckians overcome some self-defeating traits, such as complacency and a tendency to ignore the obvious?

Those traits, among others, have often held this state back, despite Kentucky’s central location, beautiful landscape and abundant natural resources. The Kentucky visitors were told that Pittsburgh’s transformation over the past three decades occurred because the city was forced out of complacency.

Generations of industrial pollution had made the coal-rich region’s air and rivers so dirty that they were simply unacceptable. When the steel industry collapsed, Pittsburgh was forced to reimagine and diversify its economy. Lexington and Louisville shouldn’t have to be in crisis to learn some lessons from that.

Pittsburgh reinvented itself by leveraging its assets — sometimes literally.

The city has $6 billion in philanthropic assets, thanks to old industrial families with names such as Heinz, Carnegie and Mellon.

While that money has been a huge help, several Pittsburgh leaders echoed the comments of Grant Oliphant, president of The Pittsburgh Foundation. “It’s really not about money,” he said. “It’s about leadership and imagination.”

At a time when many people thought Pittsburgh should be desperate enough to welcome any development, the philanthropic community urged civic leaders to be choosy. That led to downtown design standards, good architecture, environmentally friendly construction and an emphasis on making Pittsburgh more beautiful and pedestrian-friendly.

“Pittsburgh was a fabulous city (in which) to be a car,” Oliphant said. “For people, not so much.”

Changing that involved many battles with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, but the city usually prevailed. Some of the results are extraordinary, such as several beautiful iron bridges that were restored rather than being replaced with ugly concrete.

Investment in the arts sparked the revival of a critical downtown district, prompting people and businesses to want to move there.

When it came to rebuilding and diversifying Pittsburgh’s economy, leaders focused on the city’s core strengths — manufacturing, energy and finance — but looked for ways to reinvent them for the modern economy. Well-funded local research universities have helped Pittsburgh businesses focus on innovation, technology and entrepreneurship.

Pittsburgh’s public schools were such a mess that foundations cut off support to force change. Bold reforms led to Pittsburgh becoming one of three American public school systems to receive a major Gates Foundation grant — a $40 million award to explore better teaching methods.

Perhaps the boldest stroke of all is the $250 million Pittsburgh Promise — a guarantee that, beginning in 2012, each Pittsburgh Public Schools graduate with good grades will receive a four-year scholarship for higher education worth about $10,000 a year.

When thinking about the future, it is more important to focus on the “what” than the “how,” Oliphant said. “It is the appeal of a large, transformational idea. When the vision of ‘what’ is compelling, people will figure out the ‘how.’ ”

As I listened to the presentations, I kept thinking: What are Kentucky’s core strengths that could be reinvented for a modern economy? For example, how could the horse industry follow the bourbon industry’s lead in reinventing itself? How could more investment in research universities create Kentucky’s technology industries of the future? How could more school reform provide the workforce those new industries will require?

Most of all, I thought: What are the big, transformational ideas for Lexington and Louisville?

The theme of this trip was “today we partner, tomorrow we prosper.” But it could have been more simply expressed with Pittsburgh native Fred Rogers’ famous question: “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

While only 75 miles apart, Kentucky’s two largest cities have always been separated too much by culture, ego and college sports rivalries. While that has never been smart, it is now simply unacceptable.

Kentucky is too poor and too far behind other states by most measures of economic and social progress for Lexington and Louisville to not work more closely together, share resources and become a more powerful force in the rurally dominated General Assembly.

“It’s about time we realize that we have more in common with each other than what separates us,” Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson said. “Great things are happening in all 120 counties, but we are the economic engine of this commonwealth. Without us, it doesn’t work. And with us, it creates the opportunity for other communities, other counties to grow and expand.”

It also means that the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville must collaborate more, rather than competing for precious resources the way they compete in basketball and football.

Those are obvious things that Lexington and Louisville can no longer ignore; as obvious as the words that have been on the state seal since Kentucky became a state in 1792: United We Stand, Divided We Fall.

Ideas for Lexington, Louisville collaboration

May 12, 2010

PITTSBURGH — Unlike previous Commerce Lexington trips, this one had a purpose beyond simply networking and gathering ideas from another city that might be used to improve Lexington.

The 200 Lexingtonians who made the trip joined 100 Louisvillians who are members of that city’s chamber of commerce, Greater Louisville Inc. It was an effort to build relationships and foster cooperation between Kentucky’s two largest cities.

As part of that mission, attendees got together Wednesday, the last day of the three-day trip, and brainstormed ideas for how Lexington and Louisville could work together to improve Kentucky’s economy and quality of life.

Once the ideas were collected and posted on the meeting room walls, each person had six stick-on dots to choose their favorites. The top vote-getter was something I often hear discussed: Creation of a light rail line connecting Lexington and Louisville and, eventually, the Cincinnati suburbs of Northern Kentucky.

Other popular ideas included:

■ Joint lobbying of the General Assembly on issues important to both cities. One such issue is authority to ask city voters to approve a local-option sales tax to help address local needs.

■ Promoting and preserving the horse industry.

■ A joint economic development council, and a closer working relationship between Commerce Lexington and GLI.

■ Creation of organizations in both cities modeled after Pittsburgh’s Manchester Bidwell Corp. The Kentuckians this week heard a presentation from Manchester Bidwell founder Bill Strickland about the effectiveness of his after-school arts program to engage at-risk youth and business-specific job-training programs for unemployed people.

Efforts already are under way to create one in Lexington, and Fayette Schools Superintendent Stu Silberman is a strong supporter.

While those ideas got the most votes, there were some other good ones, too, including:

■ A closer working relationship between the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville. Specific suggestions ranged from elimination of duplicative programs and services so limited state resources could be focused to an outright merger of the institutions to accomplish that goal.

■ A series of quarterly meetings and events to keep dialogue going between members of Commerce Lexington and GLI.

■ A regional job bank.

Valuing the arts

One of Wednesday’s speakers was Tom Sokolowski, the irreverent director of the Andy Warhol Museum, which the Kentucky group visited Monday evening. It is dedicated to the Pittsburgh-born artist who celebrated late 20th century popular culture by creating art from iconic visual images, including Campbell’s Soup cans and news photographs.

Sokolowski said cities need more risk management, but he didn’t mean the traditional definition of avoiding risk. “I mean putting risk into what we do,” he said, because outstanding results usually involve taking risks.

For example, Sokolowski said, his museum’s decision to present a show of old postcard images of lynchings in 2001 was controversial, but it led to a productive discussion about race relations in Pittsburgh.

Art, he said, can create civic engagement by giving people a way to discuss touchy issues that can lead to solving problems. “The arts are a barometer of our communities, and the arts are a leveler,” he said.

Leaders trying to create great cities should pay attention to art’s transformative effects. One example is Pittsburgh’s effort to salvage a downtown neighborhood that had become a red-light district by turning it into a Cultural District. It now houses art galleries, arts organizations and two restored old theaters and two new ones.