UK Venture Challenge helps college entrepreneurs refine their ideas

March 1, 2015

150228UKVenture0178Mark Manczyk explained his idea for re.3, a company that would sell sustainable consumer goods, Saturday at the UK Venture Challenge. His presentation won first prize, a $1,500 scholarship, and he will go on to the next level of competition.  The second-place winner was Phillip Gordon, below. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

It takes more than a good idea to create a successful business. But the best way for an entrepreneur to start is to make his or her idea as good as it can be.

That is the focus of the University of Kentucky’s Venture Challenge, a competition for student entrepreneurs. The fourth annual challenge was held Saturday morning at the William T. Young Library auditorium.

Ten teams pitched business ideas to a panel of three judges, who chose three winners to share $3,000 in scholarship prizes. The first- and second-place finishers advanced to regional and state competitions sponsored by the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development.

“It’s a great exercise, because learning how to develop ideas is so important,” said Randall Stevens, a Lexington technology entrepreneur who was one of the judges.

“Rarely is your first idea the one that’s going to make it.”

Judging with Stevens were Shirie Hawkins, director of UK’s Bluegrass Small Business Development Center, and George Ward, executive director of UK’s Coldstream Research Campus.

The winner, who received a $1,500 scholarship, was architecture student Mark Manczyk, 23, of Taylor Mill. He pitched his idea for a company called re.3.

150228UKVenture0030The company would sell consumer products with short use cycles — such as non-prescription sunglasses and iPhone cases — that are made by environmentally sustainable methods. The added touch would be that once a product had outlived its usefulness, the company would take it back for recycling.

The judges liked his idea because it was a creative approach to an issue that consumers are increasingly concerned about.

“It’s all about ‘Can you build that brand?'” Stevens told Manczyk, suggesting that he consider a “subscription club” sales model to better engage customers for repeat purchases.

“I think that was a fantastic idea,” Manczyk said afterward, because it could help create a customer community. “It’s about rethinking recycling: the object is in some ways less important than the idea of being able to continually recycle and reuse.”

The second-place winner’s business idea also came from a personal passion, which developed after Phillip Gordon was pickpocketed in Spain. Gordon wants to create Nomad Apparel, a line of travel clothing with a zippered and radio-frequency-protected pocket for safeguarding credit cards and other valuables.

Gordon, 22, from Louisville, has designed jeans with a special secure pocket. He wore a prototype to his presentation, which got high marks from the judges.

“It really gave me an opportunity to hone my presentation skills and public speaking,” Gordon said of the Venture Challenge.

Taylor Deskins and Jessica Shelton pitched an idea for a stock market-themed bar in downtown Lexington, where drink prices would fluctuate throughout the night to engage patrons. They had seen a similar place in Spain.

After they presented, Stevens suggested that rather than open their own bar, they first develop and market the concept to existing bars to use perhaps once a week, as a way to gauge the concept’s popularity with less investment.

Maged Saeed and Alexander Hamilton pitched The Bar Hop, a smartphone app that would leverage social media data to help users decide which bar to go to based on how many of their friends were there and the ratio of men and women in the place.

The students also envisioned tie-ins with ride services, such as Uber and Lyft, and functions for buying drinks. The judges thought it was a creative idea, but was trying to do too many things. Focus on the core idea, they said, and build from there.

Afterward, Saeed and Hamilton spent some time talking with Ward, whose business career has focused on the hospitality industry. He had several suggestions for rethinking their app to increase its likelihood of success.

Warren Nash, director of UK’s Von Allmen Center for Entrepreneurship, pointed over to them and smiled.

“That’s what I like,” he said. “Watching the after-discussions, talking about how do you get there, how do you make the connections.”

Sponsors of the UK Venture Challenge include UK’s Gatton College of Business and Economics and Innovation Network for Entrepreneurial Thinking, as well as the Bluegrass Business Development Partnership, a collaboration of UK, Commerce Lexington and the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government.

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


Lectures show some Civil War issues still fresh as today’s headlines

February 28, 2015

abeEduardo Kobra’s Lexington mural of Abraham Lincoln. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

One great thing about living in this university city is that a lot of smart and interesting people come here to speak and you can hear them for free.

Two of my favorite annual events are the Kenan Lecture at Transylvania University and the Bale Boone Symposium, sponsored by the University of Kentucky’s Gaines Center for the Humanities.

Last month, the Bale Boone’s three speakers discussed the Civil War, which ended 150 years ago. Or did it?

Historian Ed Ayers, president of the University of Richmond in Virginia, gave a fascinating talk about the Civil War and how his school’s Digital Scholarship Lab is using technology to better illustrate and explain history.

Coleman Hutchison of the University of Texas talked about the history of the word and song Dixie, with all of their cultural symbolism and baggage.

The third talk was by David Blight, a Yale University history professor and acclaimed author, whose lecture title was a trick question: When Did the American Civil War End?

Blight’s answer was that it hasn’t. Sure, the shooting war stopped a century and a half ago. But the underlying issues — race, class, civil rights, social and economic justice, states’ rights and federalism — remain as fresh and raw as today’s headlines.

These lectures were not the familiar territory of Civil War buffs: armies, generals, battlefield maneuvers and what-might-have-beens. They explored how this epic conflict and its causes are still deeply embedded in our national psyche.

Consider, for example, states’ rights. Politicians in some states still try to “nullify” federal legislation, regulations and court rulings they don’t like. The Constitution’s intended balance between state and federal authority remains a source of dispute.

Now, as then, these disputes often boil down to whose rights are being served and whose are being ignored, Blight noted. At various times since the Civil War, the federal government has overruled state authority to protect civil rights, the environment and public health.

Liberty may be our most cherished freedom. But what does liberty mean? What happens when one person’s idea of liberty infringes upon the liberty of others?

For example, is government regulation of business an infringement on the liberty of business owners? Or is regulation necessary to keep some businesses from infringing on the liberty of other businesses, workers, citizens and communities?

The Federal Communications Commission’s decision last week on Internet regulation is a good example. Does “net neutrality” infringe on the liberty of Internet service providers, which often are monopolies, to maximize their investment? Or does it protect the liberty of consumers to access information and the liberty of other businesses to have a level playing field so they can compete in the marketplace?

Liberty’s double-edged sword is central to an issue many people think threatens the very survival of representative democracy in America since the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision in 2010.

Whose liberty should prevail? Is it the liberty of wealthy individuals and corporations to use unlimited funds to amplify their speech and buy influence? Or is it the liberty of everyone else to have a political process free of money’s corruption?

As the Civil War entered its final year, on April 18, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln discussed this philosophical question in a speech in Baltimore. He talked about liberty in the context of slavery, but his words speak eloquently to many of the political issues that bitterly divide us today.

“The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one,” Lincoln said. “We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.

“With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor.

“Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name — liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names — liberty and tyranny.”


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

January 20, 2015

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

January 3, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Here’s the local hero a forward-looking Lexington should celebrate

October 18, 2014

What holds Lexington back? Well, for one thing, we celebrate the wrong member of the Hunt-Morgan family.

That may sound trivial, but it’s not.

In my work, I talk with some of Lexington’s most innovative people. They are behind many of the exciting things now happening in this city. Privately, though, many say they feel as if they are swimming against the tide. Lexington resists change, is too comfortable with the status quo.

Lexington loves to celebrate its history, and rightfully so. But the value of studying history is not to dwell on the past; it is to better understand the present and find inspiration for the future.

As a boy growing up here in the 1960s, I considered Gen. John Hunt Morgan a local hero. The Confederate cavalry raider was the star of the Hunt-Morgan House museum, his mother’s home on Gratz Park. His statue was on the courthouse lawn.

But the more I learn about Morgan, the less I respect him. He stole horses and burned towns, all to further a cause that wanted to break up the nation and keep black people in slavery. To my adult mind, that’s not hero material.

Morgan was a colorful, controversial character, and if Civil War buffs want to celebrate him, that’s fine. I would never want to see his statue removed from what is now the old courthouse lawn, because he is a significant figure in our history.

THMBut it is a shame he is more famous and celebrated here than his nephew, Thomas Hunt Morgan, a pioneering scientist and the first Kentuckian to win a Nobel Prize.

Thomas Hunt Morgan came along two years after his uncle’s death in a Civil War ambush. He was born in the Hunt-Morgan House on Sept. 25, 1866 and grew up behind it, in another family home facing Broadway.

That house was in the news last week. The Woman’s Club of Central Kentucky has deeded it to the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, which plans to restore it for programming and events.

I was vaguely aware of Morgan’s accomplishments, but I didn’t fully understand his significance until I read an essay Tom Kimmerer, a Lexington forest scientist, wrote recently for the website Planetexperts.com.

“Thomas Hunt Morgan was to become the most important biologist of his time, and laid the foundations for all of modern biology,” he wrote.

After a childhood of collecting birds’ eggs and fossils, Morgan earned degrees from the University of Kentucky and Johns Hopkins University. He spent 24 years doing pioneering embryology research at Bryn Mawr College. He joined the faculty of Columbia University in 1904 and the California Institute of Technology in 1928.

Morgan exhibited the best traits of scientific skepticism. He didn’t just theorize, he experimented. His work challenged, and eventually affirmed, two major concepts of biological science: Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Mendel’s ideas about genetics.

At Columbia, Morgan used fruit flies in sophisticated experiments to explain how genetics and evolution work. He showed that chromosomes carry genes and are the mechanical basis of heredity.

“He did not believe any biological theory unless he could test it,” Kimmerer wrote. “Almost every biological scientist working today is the beneficiary of Thomas Hunt Morgan’s approach to research.”

Morgan won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1933 and wrote seven books, all now classics of science. He died in 1945.

Kimmerer and I were talking recently about how Morgan may be one of the most accomplished Kentuckians in history. UK’s biological sciences building is named for him, and there is a state historical marker outside his boyhood home.

But I’ll bet if you asked most people in Lexington who Thomas Hunt Morgan was, they wouldn’t know.

Kimmerer has a great idea: Lexington should start planning now to celebrate 2016 as the year of Thomas Hunt Morgan, because it will be the 150th anniversary of his birth. This celebration could showcase Lexington as a city of modern scientific education, research and commercialization.

There could be Thomas Hunt Morgan banners on Main Street, exhibits and school science fairs. There could be a lecture series about his work, as well as the scientific research now being done in Lexington or by Kentuckians elsewhere.

Perhaps the Kentucky Theatre could show The Fly Room, a new scientifically accurate movie set in Morgan’s Columbia University lab, and invite filmmaker Alexis Gambis to come and speak. The film’s set, a recreation of that lab, was on display in New York this summer. Could it be brought here?

Could this attention help the Blue Grass Trust raise money to restore Morgan’s house? Could the Fayette County Public Schools’ STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics) Academy be named for him?

A statue of Thomas Hunt Morgan on the new Courthouse Plaza would certainly be appropriate. He should be a local hero, an example to future generations that a kid born in Lexington can grow up to change the world.


UK seminar will focus on challenges of local food economy

September 22, 2014

Creating strong local food economies has become a trend, if not a fad, all over the country. But the prospects in Kentucky seem more promising than in many places.

Kentucky’s fertile soil, temperate climate, abundant water, central location and dispersed population have made the state an agriculture powerhouse for more than two centuries.

Since the collapse of the tobacco economy, more Kentuckians have been exploring ways to recreate and reinvent local food systems like those that prevailed before World War II.

But local food is not just an issue of local economics and self-sufficiency.

It is often more nutritious than food grown in huge quantities and shipped great distances. That’s a big issue as America struggles with an obesity epidemic, lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and soaring health care costs. And local food also just tastes better.

But there are big challenges, from processing facilities to distribution networks. The biggest challenge is this: how can locally grown food be both profitable for farmers and affordable for consumers, especially those with low incomes?

Those questions are at the heart of this year’s Lafayette Seminar in Public Issues, an annual program sponsored by the University of Kentucky’s Gaines Center for the Humanities. The seminar will explore these issues in three programs over the next three weeks, all of which are free and open to the public.

The seminar’s keynote speaker at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Lyric Theatre is Robert Egger, who has spent 25 years feeding and providing food-related job training to poor people in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. His talk is called, “Revealing the Power of Food.”

As a young nightclub manager, Egger volunteered at what he found to be a well-intentioned but inefficient soup kitchen for homeless people in Washington, D.C. The experience prompted him to start D.C. Central Kitchen in January 1989 by getting a refrigerated van, picking up food left over from President George H.W. Bush’s inauguration and delivering it to local shelters.

The non-profit organization uses food donated by hospitality businesses and farms to feed hungry people and train poor people for food-related jobs. During 24 years as president of D.C. Central Kitchen, Egger helped start more than 60 similar community kitchens around the country.

Egger recently moved to Los Angeles to start LA Kitchen, which recovers fresh fruit and vegetables for use in a culinary arts job training program for men and women coming out of foster care or prison. He is author of the 2004 book, Begging for Change: The Dollars and Sense of Making Nonprofits Responsive, Efficient and Rewarding For All.

The seminar’s second session, at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 1 at the Lyric Theatre, is a panel discussion called “Whose Farm to Whose Table?” It focuses on increasing access to local food in Central Kentucky’s underserved communities.

Panelists are community garden activist Jim Embry; Mac Stone, co-owner of Elmwood Stock Farm and a founder of the Kentucky Proud program; Karyn Moskowitz of New Roots Inc. and the Fresh Stop Project; and Ashton Potter Wright, Lexington government’s new local food coordinator. The panel will be moderated by Lexington food blogger and cookbook author Rona Roberts.

The final session, at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 9 at UK’s W.T. Young Library, is a panel discussion moderated by former UK Agriculture dean Scott Smith. It will explore challenges of getting local food into universities, schools, businesses and other large institutions.

Panelists are Sarah Fritschner, Louisville’s local food coordinator; John-Mark Hack, executive director of the Midway-based Local Food Association; UK agriculture professor Lee Meyer; and Tony Parnigoni, Aramark Corp.’s regional vice president.

The topic is especially timely given UK’s controversial move to outsource its dining services to Aramark, the giant food corporation that is putting up $70 million to build new campus dining facilities.

Amid pressure from local food advocates, Aramark agreed to contribute $5 million to a new local food institute at UK and to purchase millions of dollars worth of food from Kentucky farmers.

“There has been a lot of buzz about local food and enhancing access to local food and capitalizing on the agricultural economy of the Bluegrass,” said Phil Harling, a UK history professor who recently became director of the Gaines Center. “We’re trying to bring together a bunch of different strands.”

If you go

  • UK’s Lafayette Seminar this year focuses on local food. All sessions are free and open to the public.

    5:30 p.m. Sept. 24, Lyric Theatre, 300 E. Third St. Robert Egger, founder of LA Kitchen and DC Central Kitchen, speaks on “Revealing the Power of Food.”

    5:30 p.m. Oct. 1, Lyric Theatre. Panel discussion about expanding access to local food.

    5:30 p.m. Oct. 9, W.T. Young Library, 401 Hilltop Ave. Panel discussion about challenges of getting local food into large institutions.


Reconsider demolition of UK lab that played role in space race

April 22, 2014

WG1 The Wenner-Gren Research Laboratory opened in 1941 to do aeronautical research. Designed by Ernst Johnson, its front resembles an airplane cockpit.  Photos by Tom Eblen

I have made several trips to the University of Kentucky campus over the past year to take a good look at some of its iconic architecture before administrators demolish it.

The most recent trip was to see Wenner-Gren Research Laboratory. It is unique among the several mid-20th century buildings designed by noted Lexington architect Ernst Johnson that may soon meet a wrecking ball.

Swedish industrialist Alex Wenner-Gren, who got rich selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners, gave UK $150,000 in 1940 to build a laboratory for aeronautical research.

The mission called for a structure about as utilitarian as you could get: thick, strong walls to contain aircraft engine tests and funnel out the exhaust. But Johnson found a way to give his building style.

The long, narrow building resembles an airplane, with tail fins on the back roof and a curved front façade of glass block and fine brick work that reminds you of a cockpit. Form elegantly reflected function.

Wenner-Gren is one of the area’s few remaining examples of Streamline Moderne architecture. The style, which also was used in everything from steam locomotives to toasters, reflected mid-20th century Americans’ hopeful visions of a space-age future.

In the 1950s, the lab’s mission evolved from aircraft to biomedical research. In 1959, the lab got an Air Force contract to train chimpanzees, the first astronauts of the Mercury Space Flight program.

During a recent visit to Lexington, retired Space Shuttle astronaut Story Musgrave recalled doing biomedical research in Wenner-Gren while earning degrees in physiology and biophysics that prepared him for his future NASA missions.

wg2As with many older UK buildings, renovation and updating of Wenner-Gren over the years looks to have been basic and minimal. A water leak in the annex recently damaged a display case chronicling the lab’s significant scientific history.

Eli Capilouto, who became UK’s president in 2011, deserves a lot of credit for moving swiftly to play catch-up to longtime facilities needs, from student housing to academic buildings. But that rush has at times reflected a narrow vision of campus improvement, with little regard for history or architecture.

Architects and preservationists have complained about the planned demolition of several Ernst Johnson dormitories to make way for generic-looking residence halls outsourced to a private contractor.

Dining services also are to be outsourced to a major corporation willing to invest in new facilities. That has drawn criticism from students and others concerned about UK’s commitment to the local food economy and worker wages.

UK also plans to demolish Hamilton House, an 1880 Italianate mansion, to make way for a residence hall. Mathews Garden, a unique plot of diverse plant life managed by the biology department, along with two adjacent early 20th century houses, may be destroyed for a proposed expansion of the law school complex.

UK plans to replace Wenner-Gren with a new science classroom building. The dozen research labs now housed there will be moved to a College of Engineering building when this semester ends.

Critics have urged UK to preserve all or some of Wenner-Gren as part of the new science building. One good idea: Turn it into a cafeteria, café and coffee shop whose architecture and illustrious history could help inspire future scientists.

But UK administrators have shown little interest in investing much imagination or money in such adaptive reuse projects. So far, the architecture of the new buildings is nothing special.

You would think that, in their master-planning process, UK administrators would have involved their in-house experts, the College of Design professors who train most of Kentucky’s architects and historic preservation specialists. Well, no.

“I find it extremely disappointing that UK, as the flagship state university and our state’s keeper of culture, is letting accountants make decisions about what is architecturally and historically significant,” said Robert Kelly, a Lexington architect and longtime UK adjunct professor who has advocated for preservation of Wenner-Gren and other significant Ernst Johnston buildings.

“I find it analogous to asking your hairdresser how to perform cardiac surgery,” he said. “Hmm, that doesn’t look important — you can probably remove it.”


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.”  


Inequality will keep growing as long as big money controls politics

March 24, 2014

The gap between America’s rich and poor has been growing for nearly four decades. Many people worry about what this could mean for our economy, our society — and even the survival of our republic.

This trend is a stark reversal of the four previous decades, and it has sparked a lot of populist anger, from Occupy Wall Street on the left to the Tea Party on the right.

Consider, for example, a recent study that found incomes in Kentucky rose 19.9 percent from 1979-2007, but that 48.8 percent of that money went to the top 1 percent of earners. According to the Economic Policy Institute, that 1 percent saw their incomes rise an average of 105.1 percent, while the average income of the other 99 percent of Kentuckians grew only 11.2 percent.

Democrats have made inequality and economic opportunity their main campaign theme. Republicans are talking about it, too, but offering very different solutions for rebuilding the American middle class.

“Economic and Political Inequality in the United States” is the title of a conference March 27-28 at the University of Kentucky featuring several nationally recognized speakers. The event is free and open to the public. Details at: Debrassocialstimulus.com.

The keynote speaker is Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Ellen Goodman, whose talk is titled “Inequality: Working Moms, Designated Daughters, and the Risks of Caregiving.” She speaks at 7:30 p.m. March 27 at Memorial Hall.

The next day, beginning at 9:30 a.m. in the Student Center’s Worsham Theater, speakers include longtime UK history professor Ron Eller and economist Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy research in Washington. Topics include inequality in Appalachia and how the “culture wars” have influenced these trends.

I will be interested to hear what the speakers have to say. I will be especially interested to see if they can go beyond lamenting the problems and offer solutions that could have some chance of success in America’s increasingly toxic political environment.

For most of human history, stark inequality was the rule, contributing to both the rise and fall of countless empires. This began to change in the late 1600s with the Enlightenment, which led to creation of the representative democracies now found in most developed nations.

Representative democracy led to government-regulated capitalism and a flowering of technology and prosperity that, while uneven, was far better than anything that preceded it.

In this country, coming out of the Great Depression and World War II, it led to a dramatic narrowing of the wealth gap and an accompanying rise in economic and social opportunity and mobility that made America the envy of the world.

Wealthy industrialists realized that a prosperous middle class was needed to buy the goods they manufactured. A rising tide really did lift all boats. But research shows that America now lags many other nations in economic opportunity and mobility.

The spread of capitalism has lessened inequality in much of the world, although, as Pope Francis has consistently reminded us since assuming leadership of the Roman Catholic church a year ago, not nearly as much as it should.

While the global economy has been good for some overseas workers, it has cost many American jobs. It also has created a worldwide “race to the bottom” for labor costs, while making financial elites fabulously wealthy.

The collapse of communism seemed to show that, over the long haul, capitalism works best when it goes hand-in-hand with representative democracy. Or does it? China’s economic success since the 1980s under a ruling-class dictatorship raises some troubling questions.

Those questions are even more troubling amid the rising power of big-money influence in American politics, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling opened the floodgates. There seems to be a new Golden Rule: those with the gold can make the rules.

While conservatives now worry about oppressive government, liberals worry about oppressive capitalism and corporate-controlled government. The rise of inequality since the 1970s has mirrored the rising clout of big business and high finance and the decline of organized labor.

Until the balance of power shifts back toward what it was a generation ago, it is hard to imagine that the balance of wealth will, either.  


Lecture highlights camera club that produced photography stars

March 13, 2014

Coke1Van Deren Coke (1921-2004) made this photo in 1952 in Lexington’s old Union Station, which was on Main Street where the Helix garage, Lexington Police Department and Fayette County Clerk’s office are now located. Photo: UK Special Collections.

 

Before there were pixels and iPhones, back when photography required film, darkrooms and chemicals, almost every American city had a camera club. Most members were hobbyists who wanted to learn how to make pretty pictures.

The Lexington Camera Club was different.

From its founding in 1936, Lexington Camera Club members, who included doctors, lawyers and businessmen, were unusually serious about developing their craft and exploring artistic expression.

By the time the club disbanded in 1972, it had produced two major figures in the art photography world and many more accomplished photographers.

James Birchfield, the retired special collections curator of rare books at the University of Kentucky, will give a free lecture about this remarkable camera club at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Presidents Room of UK’s Singletary Center for the Arts.

“It was not a provincial outlook,” Birchfield said of the club. “It was a big vision of the history of photography and what contemporary photography was doing. This particular cluster of people seemed to generate an extraordinary flowering of fine photography.”

Birchfield’s lecture is in conjunction with an exhibit at the university’s Art Museum of prints from an impressive photography collection it has assembled since the 1990s, thanks to one of the camera club’s members.

When Robert C. May died in 1993, he left the museum 1,200 of his own photographs and his collection of original prints from some of photography’s greatest names. He also left a substantial bequest so the museum could purchase more photography and create an annual lecture series that brings major photographers to UK’s campus. Eugene Richards, the noted documentary photographer, speaks at 4 p.m. Friday in Worsham Theater in the UK Student Center.

The museum exhibit, Wide Angle: American Photographs, continues through April 27 and features prints by famous photographers including Ansel Adams, Elliott Erwitt, Edward Weston, Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, Harry Callahan, Russell Lee, Doris Ulmann, Robert Frank, Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman.

The exhibit also includes nine photographs by Lexington Camera Club members, including its two biggest stars: Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-1972) and Van Deren Coke (1921-2004).

140316CameraClub-a2The club began in 1936 with monthly meetings that included formal critiques of each member’s prints. Guest speakers included Ansel Adams, America’s most celebrated landscape photographer.

Many early club members were interested in landscape and travel photography, while others focused on historical and documentary pictures. Among the documentarians was lawyer and historian J. Winston Coleman, who photographed throughout Kentucky and collected nearly 6,300 historic images that are now at Transylvania University.

The club took an artistic turn under the leadership of Van Deren Coke, who was then president of his family’s Van Deren Hardware Co. on Main Street. Coke’s early photographs of Lexington scenes soon gave way to abstract, artistic images.

Coke got to know many celebrated photographers and became one himself. After graduate school, he went on to be photography curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and director of the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.  He taught for many years at the University of New Mexico and started its art museum.

Meatyard was an optician who joined the club in 1954. He became famous for his unusual photographs, which often involved people wearing masks or posing in abandoned Central Kentucky farmhouses.

Over the years, his images were acclaimed for their unique expression. He also was a major influence on other club members who became well-known photographers, including Robert May, James Baker Hall and Guy Mendes.

Meatyard was president of the club when he died of cancer at age 46 in 1972. The club disbanded within a few months.

“Meatyard fostered exploration and discovery within the Camera Club,” May wrote in a 1989 essay. “As photographers, the members did not look just for new things but for new ways of seeing.”

Meatyard’s photographs are still published frequently in books, and his prints command big prices at galleries and auctions. As recently as 2005, the International Center of Photography in New York mounted a major retrospective of his work.

Mendes was one of the club’s youngest members when he joined in 1968. A retired producer for Kentucky Educational Television, he remains an active photographer.

In an interview last week, he recalled that writer Wendell Berry introduced him to Meatyard. “Gene was something else,” Mendes said, adding that Berry’s young son told him: “He makes really strange pictures.”

Mendes accompanied Meatyard and May on weekend photography outings in the countryside around Lexington. He said they and other club members showed him how photography could do more than record reality; it could express feelings and be a medium for artistic experimentation.

“They taught me lessons I still use today,” Mendes said. “For all of the changes photography has gone through, the basics are still the same.”

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UK shouldn’t destroy unique teaching garden with 350 species

February 11, 2014

140210MathewsGarden0009AJames Krupa, a UK biology professor, stands in the dormant, snow-covered Mathews Garden beside the now-vacant Mathews house. The garden contains about 350 species of native plants, including many rare ones. Below, a rare American elm tree stands in the garden near the College of Law building. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Mathews Garden at the University of Kentucky doesn’t look like much in its winter dormancy, covered with snow.

Dr. James Krupa, a biology professor, says UK administrators have long complained that the garden doesn’t look like much any time of the year. But that’s not the point.

The century-old garden may be the most biologically diverse half-acre in Kentucky, Krupa said, with about 350 species of mostly native plants and trees. The garden provides a unique teaching facility, allowing students to see and compare many unusual plants that rarely grow together.

But like some of its plant species, Mathews Garden is endangered. A proposed renovation of UK’s College of Law building would destroy this unique garden, as well as two adjacent houses, built in 1900 and 1920.

When the $65 million law school renovation was announced in 2012, administrators said the project would claim both houses and the garden. Krupa said he was told recently that the garden is doomed.

But UK spokesman Jay Blanton said no decision about the fate of the garden or houses has been made and won’t be made until after state and private funding are secured for the much-needed renovation. “Those decisions would be part of the design process,” he said.

140210MathewsGarden0004AWhen the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation last month released its annual list of Central Kentucky’s most-endangered historic places, every one was owned by UK. Mathews Garden and the two adjacent houses were on the list for the second straight year. The group also complained that UK had demolished a circa 1800 house at Spindletop Farm without notice or warning.

UK trustees have approved plans to demolish several buildings designed between the 1940s and 1960s by noted architect Ernst Johnson, as well as a circa 1880 Italianate mansion, to make way for new dormitories that will be built and leased by a private contractor.

Architects have complained about the loss of the “architecturally significant” buildings, as well as poor design and construction quality of the new dormitories.

Clarence Mathews, a UK professor of botany and horticulture, created the garden in his back yard after he built a frame house at the edge of campus in 1900. Mathews’ daughter, Ruth, transferred the property to UK in 1968, but continued to live there. She died in 1986.

The Mathews house and the Ligon house next door have been used for UK offices. But the Mathews house is now vacant and showing signs of exterior decay from lack of maintenance.

Krupa said he volunteered to restore the garden in 2000. He said he began by removing 20 truckloads of honeysuckle and other invasive species.

Over the years, Krupa said he has spent countless hours and more than $41,000 in UK funds and his own money improving and maintaining the garden, which he said is used by classes with 1,500 students each year. He has added plants, trails, benches and plant identification markers.

Krupa said the garden is a living botany textbook, with every Kentucky variety of dogwood, azalea, hydrangea and viburnum and other plants. It has dozens of native wildflowers and several rare trees, including roundleaf birch, Georgia oak and striped maple.

The garden has a rare reproducing American elm tree. More than 75 percent of the once-ubiquitous American elms were lost to Dutch elm disease in the mid-20th century. Krupa thinks this may be the last one on campus.

“It’s really amazing that so many species are here in this one place,” Krupa said.

But Blanton said: “The question now is should a facility of dense undergrowth be in the center of campus or more appropriately relocated to a research tract on farms owned by the university?”

Krupa said the garden could not be relocated successfully. “Half of the biological diversity is in the soil,” he said.

Rather than expand sideways and take the garden and old houses, Krupa suggests that the law school expand back, which would displace a parking lot and a small, non-descript 1950s building.

“Administrators have always called this a weed patch,” Krupa said of Mathews Garden. “But it’s only a weed patch if you’re ignorant. I’m up against ignorance, arrogance and a lot of faculty that are afraid to take on the administration.”

For an institution of higher learning that trains many of Kentucky’s architects and historic preservation specialists, UK administrators are showing little regard for either discipline. Let’s hope they don’t flunk botany, too.

 

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The entrance to Mathews Garden. The century-old home and garden were built by Clarence Mathews, a UK botany and horticulture professor.

 


Remembering when JFK came to Lexington — maybe

November 20, 2013

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Sen. John F. Kennedy waved to the crowd as his presidential campaign parade moved along Main Street in Lexington on Oct. 8, 1960. Kentucky Gov. Bert T. Combs was in the back seat with Kennedy. Joe Mellen drove the car, which was heading for a rally at the University of Kentucky. Herald-Leader File Photo

 

Many people my age and older can remember where they were when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

A former colleague in Atlanta has the most impressive story of anyone I know: he was standing with his elementary school class along the parade route in Dallas.

I was 5 years old that day, with my mother at a church craft show. I don’t remember it.

But I do have a memory from three years earlier, or at least I think I do. I have never been sure if it is an actual memory or one conjured up from hearing my parents tell me many times over the years that I saw John F. Kennedy in Lexington.

It was Oct. 8, 1960. Kennedy was a 43-year-old senator from Massachusetts, the Democratic nominee a month away from defeating Richard Nixon in the closest presidential election in 44 years.

Kennedy was on a campaign swing through Kentucky. He was picked up at Blue Grass Airport by Harry B. Miller Jr., a Lexington lawyer who died last week at age 89.

Kennedy waved to people as he rode down Main Street in an open-top convertible, seated beside Gov. Bert Combs. The car took them to the University of Kentucky campus, where they joined other prominent Democrats on an impromptu stage — a flatbed truck parked by the Administration Building.

I lived a block from campus, in an old house on Harrison Avenue — now South Martin Luther King Boulevard — where UK is now building a massive dormitory complex. My mother pushed me over in a stroller and we met my father, who hoisted me up on his shoulders so I could watch Kennedy’s speech.

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library has a transcript of that speech, which now seems rather ordinary and written to impress a Kentucky crowd.

PRWfL.AuSt.79Kennedy got applause by praising the tobacco support program and Lexington’s favorite son, Henry Clay. (He mistakenly referred to Clay as a Transylvania College graduate. Clay was a trustee and law professor there, but not a student.)

Kennedy then accused the Eisenhower Administration, in which his opponent was vice president, of being asleep at the wheel during “a time of danger” when the world was changing and the Cold War was heating up.

“I am not pleased to see countries around the world, when asked who will be first, say the Soviet Union in outer space, in science, in military power, in the next 10 years,” he said. Kennedy then delivered a dose of the “New Frontier” challenge that would inspire a generation of idealistic young Americans.

“No college graduate can go out from any college today without being a man of his nation and a man of his time; without pursuing in his own life, not only his private interest, but the welfare of his country,” Kennedy said.

It was still a man’s world in 1960.

My mother, Marion Eblen, remembers it as a good speech. She was even more impressed by Kennedy’s looks — especially when his car passed within a few feet of us as he left campus.

“He was as handsome as any movie star,” she said.

Phil Patton was 12 years older than me, and his memories of that day are vivid. His older brother had brought him to Lexington to see Kennedy, and after attending the parade down Main Street they rushed to UK to hear his speech.

“I was such a political junkie, even at age 14, that I had a big poster of Kennedy on my bedroom door,” said Patton, now 67 and a circuit court judge in Glasgow. He got to shake Kennedy’s hand and remembers him as tan, handsome and charming.

Kennedy’s charm was put to the test later that day, when he made another campaign speech in Bowling Green.

The mayor presented Kennedy with a gift that only a Southerner could appreciate: a country ham. Like any well-aged ham, it was covered with green mold. Kennedy winced, but quickly recovered.

“It took a brave man to eat the first oyster,” the candidate said with his famous Yankee accent. “I’m going to take your word for this. If you say it’s good, I’ll eat it.”

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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kennedy greeted supporters upon his arrival at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington on Oct. 8, 1960. He held a proclamation given to him that heralded “John Kennedy Day” in Lexington. Herald-Leader File Photo


UK historian Ron Eller leaves big shoes to fill; who will?

November 13, 2013

Ronald Eller, a University of Kentucky history professor and outstanding writer who has focused on Appalachia, was honored last Friday as he donated his papers to UK Special Collections in preparation for his retirement at the end of the year.

ellerEller came to UK in 1985, succeeding Harry Caudill, the Eastern Kentucky lawyer whose 1962 book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, focused national attention on the exploitation of Appalachia. Eller picked up where Caudill left off, analyzing the forces that have shaped Appalachia’s evolution.

Eller’s 1982 book, Miners, Mill hands and Mountaineers: The Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880-1930, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A 2008 book, Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, is the best book I know of about the region’s modern history.

No word yet on the Appalachian scholar UK will hire to succeed Eller in the history department, but he or she had better be good. We cannot really understand modern Kentucky without understanding Appalachian history.


Authors document Robinson Forest in the hope of preserving it

May 7, 2013

 

130502RobinsonForest-TE0106

In their new book, “The Embattled Wilderness,” Erik Reece and James Krupa write this: “To look out over the forest’s steep ridges — slopes that novelist James Still called ‘a river of earth’ — is to understand that Robinson Forest is simultaneously one of the most biologically diverse landscapes in North America and one of the most threatened.” Photos by Tom Eblen  

 

JACKSON — As we hike uphill through beech and yellow poplar trees, a wild turkey flies out of the woods and across the trail in front of us. A few hundred yards higher, Erik Reece stops suddenly and points at a scarlet tanager foraging among the oaks.

At the crest of the ridge, we climb an old fire tower and are rewarded with a spectacular view of Robinson Forest. On this clear, spring morning, the forest looks like a rolling “river of earth,” as James Still described the natural landscape of Eastern Kentucky in his classic 1940 novel, River of Earth.

The green waves roll out in every direction until they suddenly stop at Robinson Forest’s boundary. Beyond the boundary are huge, gray scars from surface mining and the flattened, denuded remnants of “reclaimed” coal-mine land, now struggling to support foreign grasses and scrubby trees.

“We hope more people will go to Robinson Forest, but a lot of Kentuckians won’t, so we wanted them to experience it vicariously,” said Reece, co-author with James J. Krupa of the new book,The Embattled Wilderness: The Natural and Human History of Robinson Forest and the Fight for Its Future (University of Georgia Press, $24.95).

Reece will sign copies of the book from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Friday at The Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.

130502RobinsonForest-TE0070

Erik Reece on Lewis Fork creek in Robinson Forest.

Reece is a UK English professor best known for his award-winning 2006 book, Lost Mountain: Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia. Like Lost Mountain, this book has a forward by renowned Kentucky author Wendell Berry.

Krupa is a UK biology professor who over decades of study has explored every ridge and valley of the main 10,000-acre block of the 14,786-acre forest, which contains some of the state’s cleanest streams.

“It is one of the last and largest examples of the oldest, most biologically diverse ecosystem in North America — the mixed mesophytic,” the authors write in their introduction.

“Unfortunately, industrial development has churned under the mountains surrounding these 14,000 acres, turning Robinson Forest into an island of biological diversity surrounded by an ever-expanding desert,” they write, adding that there is every reason to believe that coal and timber interests want to plunder this land, too.

Reece and Krupa are both fine writers. In this small, engaging book, they alternate chapters, explaining the natural and human history of this unique corner of Breathitt, Perry and Knott counties and making a case to preserve it.

Krupa describes the geological history of Robinson Forest and the surrounding Cumberland Plateau, which was formed before there were dinosaurs, mammals or even flowering plants. These mountains were once covered by a shallow inland sea and then swamps. Dead ferns and trees sank to the bottom for thousands of years, forming peat and eventually bituminous coal.

Krupa also discusses his research into the ecological diversity of the current forest. Who knew lichens and wood rats could be so fascinating?

Reece’s chapters describe the forest’s human history, from settlement to the early 20th century, when Cincinnati business partners F.W. Mobray and E.O. Robinson bought the forest and cut virtually all of its timber.

In 1923, Robinson gave the wasted land to the University of Kentucky for research to “tend to the betterment of the people of the mountain region of Kentucky.” Under UK’s stewardship, most of the land has regenerated over the past 90 years into a second-growth version of the biologically diverse, native forest.

But coal operators, who wield considerable clout, have periodically pressured UK to allow mining in the forest. Reece said he and Krupa decided to write this book after the UK Board of Trustees’ controversial 2007 decision to clear-cut 800 acres of the main forest.

Although the forest recovered from clear-cutting a century ago, critics doubt that can happen again because of the extensive surface mining on surrounding land and the planting of invasive species as part of mine “reclamation.”

Reece said he and Krupa hope their book will prompt UK officials to rethink their management strategy for Robinson Forest and embrace a broader ecological research mission. A part of such a mission could be helping Kentucky adapt to climate change.

Specifically, the authors urge broader input into decision-making about the forest. Currently, Robinson Forest is managed by UK’s Forestry Department. Also, they want UK to separate research and revenue goals, so that there is not periodic temptation to log or mine Robinson Forest to make money for the university.

Reece is up for tenure this year, and he acknowledges this book won’t be popular in some corners of the university. But he thinks Robinson Forest is worth fighting to preserve.

He said the book was inspired by The Unforeseen Wilderness, which UK commissioned Berry to write in 1971. It advocated for preservation of the Red River Gorge at a time when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wanted to destroy it with a flood-control dam.

“We want to give readers a sense of why Robinson Forest is worth saving,” Reece said. “If you can convince people to love something, they won’t destroy it.”

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Excerpts from the final chapter of The Embattled Wilderness

“Robinson Forest is many things: it is one of the most important eco-systems in Appalachia, it is a laboratory for crucial research and teaching, and it is a gift held in trust for future generations of Kentuckians. But it is also a model for how we must proceed in our habitation of the natural world. In fact, Robinson Forest represents a model for an entirely new definition of “economy,” whereby our American systems of exchange, both of wealth and energy, are brought in 130508ReeceBookCover001line with the most important and inescapable economy of nature.”

“What we as 21st century Americans must finally come to understand is that the economy of consumption operates in direct opposition to, and at the peril of, the economy of nature. … Kentucky should look to Robinson Forest as a model for a sustainable, post-coal economy. We must replace the industrial logic of the strip mine with the much more ancient wisdom of the forest.”

“To abandon wilderness places like Robinson Forest would be to abandon ourselves. To ignore the natural laws of its watersheds for the logic of our own industrial imagination would be to abandon our better selves — to abandon a sustainable future for the sake of short-term avarice and indulgence. But to preserve the world will mean learning the lessons of Robinson Forest, and in doing so learning to preserve that embattled wilderness.”

 


UK’s Modernist buildings worth a second look — and worth saving

April 28, 2013

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Holmes Hall on Euclid Avenue was built by the University of Kentucky in 1956-1958 and designed by Ernst V. Johnson. Its most distinguishing feature is a covered walkway of stone, brick and concrete canopy. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

When local architects started emailing me about preliminary plans to demolish several Modernist-style buildings on the University of Kentucky campus, my first reaction was to roll my eyes.

Like many people, I have always struggled to appreciate, much less like, a lot of mid-20th century architecture. It seems so plain, boxy, cold and, in the hands of some architects, just plain ugly.

To try to understand why so many professionals consider these buildings important and worth saving, I decided to take a closer look and learn more about them.

Nearly 30 percent of UK’s structures date from the 1950s and 1960s, and many academic buildings and residence halls have been neglected for years. To his credit, UK President Eli Capilouto is trying to catch up, initiating construction and renovation projects all over campus.

Initial plans included demolishing as many as seven of the 13 campus buildings designed between the 1930s and 1950s by noted Lexington architect Ernst V. Johnson: Jewell (1938), Holmes (1956) and Donovan (1955) residence halls, the Engineering Quadrangle (1938), the Wenner-Gren Aeronautical Research Laboratory (1941), the Funkhouser Biological Science Building (1942) and the Mineral Industries Building (1951).

The wrecking ball may also be aimed at the Kirwan-Blanding residential complex (1967), designed by Edward Durrell Stone. He was one of America’s best-known and most prolific Modernist architects, and his work has always been widely loved — and hated.

“It’s easy to see why most people don’t turn on to it,” said Graham Pohl, a Lexington architect with Pohl Rosa Pohl.

130423UKDorms-TE0065Modernism was the first architectural style in centuries that didn’t reference the past. Modernism began in Europe nearly a century ago, but didn’t catch on in this country until after World War II. Then it was everywhere.

“People felt free to be expressive and experiment with forms and new materials that felt right to them,” Pohl said. “It was a product of economic growth and national optimism about the future.”

But Pohl acknowledges that the style was widely abused. When so-called Urban Renewal reshaped America’s cities into concrete jungles built around the automobile, it included a lot of slap-dash architecture that was called “modern.”

“One of the reasons people don’t like Modernism is that it has been used as an excuse to do shoddy work,” Pohl said. “It’s more difficult to do good Modernism than good traditional work.”

Pohl said most of the buildings UK has considered tearing down are anything but shoddy. As an example, he cited Holmes Hall, an International-style building with an elegant stone and concrete stair-step canopy and interesting brick work.

Johnson’s buildings all have elegant brick work, perhaps because he was the son of a Swedish mason and worked his way through Yale as a union bricklayer.

“It’s more than decorative,” Pohl said of Johnson’s brick patterns on Holmes Hall. “It speaks to aspects of the building and the relationship between walls and openings. There’s a lot about that building that suggests someone thought deeply about it.”

Pohl also likes Stone’s Kirwan-Blanding complex, with its 23-story towers surrounded by smaller buildings arranged in a park-like setting. He likes the relationship of the vertical towers to the “incredibly elegant” horizontal canopies that connect the buildings.

“A lot of people see those forms as being part of their parents’ generation and they intentionally don’t want to relate to them,” said Pohl, adding that these buildings have much more architectural merit than anything that is likely to replace them in this era of budget-cutting austerity.

I grew up around the corner from Holmes Hall, on the block where UK is now building a massive dormitory complex. I have always admired Holmes Hall’s stair- step canopy, if not the rest of the building.

130423UKDorms-TE0137But I never liked Kirwan-Blanding — until, that is, I went to photograph it for this column on a beautiful evening last week. The moon was rising between the towers, which were bathed in the glow of the setting sun. Students were all around the buildings, studying among the trees and flowers or throwing Frisbees and footballs. I appreciated those buildings for the first time.

Architecture, like art, is often subjective, said Sarah Tate, an architect and founder of the Lexington firm Tate Hill Jacobs. She greatly admires Johnson’s work, for example, yet has never liked Stone’s. But that is not the point, she emphasized.

“Architecture is a reflection of history and culture, and that campus is a little museum of modern architecture,” Tate said. “Johnson’s buildings give us an architectural handbook of the influences that got us from the late 19th century to the late 20th century. I don’t think (UK officials) know what they have here.

“These mid-century buildings are part of our DNA,” she added. “You don’t want to take them all away. They are important links in our history and culture.”

Sasaki Associates, the Boston planning firm that UK hired to develop a new campus master plan, recently recommended as its first scenario renovating and reusing these historic Modernist buildings. UK officials should take that advice.

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UK sets public forums tomorrow and April 18 on food outsourcing

April 8, 2013

The University of Kentucky officials have scheduled two public forums to gather opinions as they decide whether to outsource food service operations. I wrote about the issue in my column Sunday.

The first forum will be 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. tomorrow evening (Tuesday, April 9) in the Worsham Theater at the Student Center. The second forum will be 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. on April 18 at the William T. Young Library’s  UK Athletics Auditorium.

To read my Sunday column, click here. To read more about UK’s goals and process, click here.

 


UK food service decision: what is best for Kentucky in the long run?

April 6, 2013

The University of Kentucky raised eyebrows last year when it decided to outsource housing to a private company. Now, it is considering doing the same with food service.

These are tough questions, but, after years of declining state support, UK needs to be asking them. What are the right answers?

By all accounts, UK Dining Services is well-managed. It pays for itself and provides good food and jobs. So why consider outsourcing? It is not about saving money, UK spokesman Jay Blanton said.

As with the decision to outsource housing in a 50-year deal with Memphis-based Education Realty Trust, this possible deal is more about raising capital. Lots of it.

“A business partner potentially could pop tens of millions of dollars into infrastructure improvements,” Blanton said.

UK needs capital because it has a lot of catching up to do on infrastructure. The General Assembly has always been stingy about letting UK borrow money for new and improved buildings, even when it could generate revenues to repay the debt.

But there are other considerations, too, Blanton said. Might a giant food service corporation be able to offer more variety and convenience at less cost?

“The question becomes what are the core competencies we have?” he said. “What are the things we do best as an institution, and then what are the things that need to be done as services to students that might be best facilitated with a partner?

“We’re not going to give up course delivery and instruction; we do that better than anybody else,” he added. “But are we the best entity to build a residence hall? Are we the best entity to provide food service? Or is that better facilitated through a partner? It’s worthwhile to at least ask the question.”

There are other issues, too. Dining Services has become a key player in supporting Kentucky’s budding local food movement. This year it will buy more than $1 million worth of “Kentucky Proud” products.

UK Dining Services is just the kind of partner UK’s College of Agriculture needs to help Kentucky farmers develop more sustainable production methods that in the long run will provide the state with more healthy food and stronger local economies.

As a land-grant university, UK’s mission extends beyond the classroom. The university has a responsibility to help show Kentucky the way forward by supporting innovation that will improve quality of life. That is a big reason some students, faculty and citizens have objected to outsourcing.

UK officials said last week that they will consider proposals from food service corporations, hold public meetings and make a decision by the end of the year about whether or not to outsource.

But, in response to the concerns, UK officials said that if they do outsource, they will protect current employees’ jobs and set criteria for vendors. That would include a mandatory commitment to partner with the Kentucky Proud program to buy locally produced food.

Those assurances are commendable, but are they good enough? That depends on how the criteria are set, and how well UK officials follow through during the decades this contract is likely to last.

Tens of millions of dollars in up-front capital is a powerful incentive. But any company offering that kind of capital to UK will want to find ways to get its money back, plus a healthy profit.

In many ways, UK’s outsourcing of housing made sense. UK will quickly get a more adequate supply of good, on-campus housing. But some critics worry that the housing will be too expensive for students. Others worry about the quality of the new residence halls.

Those critics say UK should have negotiated for more durable and energy-efficient construction, which would then have saved money in the long run through lower operating costs. Plus, at the end of the contract, UK would inherit buildings with more potential for future use.

Whichever way UK decides to go on food service, a real commitment to supporting local, healthy and sustainable food production is critical for Kentucky’s future.

As UK officials consider all of the implications of this long-term decision, they should keep this question in mind: Will a corporation care more about what is best for Kentucky or what is best for its shareholders?


The story behind fabulous Spindletop Hall, now celebrating its 75th

October 9, 2012

Spindletop’s double staircase when the mansion was new in the late 1930s.  Photo Provided

Pansy Yount wanted only the best for herself and her daughter. So when Texas oilman Frank Yount’s widow decided in 1935 to buy a Kentucky horse farm and build a mansion, the result was jaw-dropping.

This month, Spindletop Hall celebrates the 75th anniversary of its completion and the 50th anniversary of its conversion into a country club for University of Kentucky faculty, staff, alumni and friends.

The Club at Spindletop Hall is hosting three anniversary events: a Texas barbecue on Oct. 19, a gala dinner dance on Oct. 20 and a horse and carriage brunch on Oct. 21. (Some tickets are available to the public; call (859) 255-2777 for more information.)

The 1,050-member club hopes to use the celebration to attract a couple hundred new members and raise money to continue restoring the mansion and improving the club.

“She’s a beautiful lady, but there are some things we need to address for the future,” club manager Gerald Marvel said of Spindletop Hall.

Among those attending the events will be Kathryn Haider of suburban Chicago, who has her own name for Spindletop: Grandma’s house. In a telephone interview, Haider recalled idyllic summers spent at Spindletop: fishing, riding ponies and spending time with her grandmother.

“She was an absolutely wonderful woman,” Haider recalled. “I just adored her. She was a great mentor to me.”

Spindletop is named for the salt dome near Beaumont, Texas, that became a fabulously rich oilfield after Anthony Lucas drilled the first “gusher” in 1901. Initial reserves played out within a few years. But Miles Franklin Yount, a mechanically inclined Arkansas farm boy who moved to Texas to seek his fortune, thought there was more oil to be had if only he could drill deep enough. In 1925, he did.

Yount died in 1933. When his Yount-Lee Oil Co. was sold in 1935, his widow and teenage daughter, Mildred, received a fortune that today would be worth about $208 million. Pansy Yount decided to move to Lexington and indulge her passion for American Standardbred horses.

She bought Shoshone Stud and several surrounding parcels off Ironworks Pike north of Lexington and renamed it Spindletop. As the centerpiece of the 1,066-acre farm, she built a 45,000-square-foot mansion that cost the equivalent of about $17 million today.

Durability was a priority: a massive foundation and steel beams supported the brick-and-stone building, which even had “fireproof” concrete decking in the attic and roof.

“It’s almost built like a bomb shelter,” said David Graham, a recent club president.

Yount imported craftsmen from Europe to carve woodwork, mold plaster and paint art on the walls. In the entrance hall, there were enormous curved staircases. The huge Gothic library had a hammerbeam roof and a mantel salvaged from an English castle. Yount built a music room for her talented daughter, whose instrument collection included a concert harp and two Stradivarius violins.

The music room also housed the console for a Kimball reproducing organ, which could be played manually or with paper rolls of “recorded” music. It sent music throughout the mansion, which was literally designed around it. The club has begun restoring the organ.

Pansy Yount was a strong-willed woman who could be both demanding and generous. Lexingtonians were shocked in October 1942 when she donated Frank’s Duesenberg, one of the most expensive automobiles of the time, to a World War II scrap drive.

Haider recalled the time her grandmother went Christmas shopping at Woolworth’s on Lexington’s Main Street. She was especially well treated by the sales ladies, so she invited them all out for dinner at Spindletop.

“Grandma treated them just like royalty,” she said.

Yount was too independent and egalitarian to get along with some of the wealthy elite of Beaumont and Lexington. Although she had little formal education, she developed excellent taste and a voracious appetite for books.

“She was extremely independent, and a very savvy business woman,” Haider said. “She thought out everything she did. If some people didn’t like it, she didn’t care.”

In 1949, Young married her farm manager, horse trainer William Capers “Cape” Grant. They divorced a decade later, and she had decided to move back to Texas.

When Yount decided to sell Spindletop, she called Lexington friend Fred Wachs, then publisher of the Herald and Leader, for advice. He suggested she donate it to the university. UK President Frank Dickey flew to Texas and negotiated the sale of the farm and mansion for the gift price of $850,000, payable over 10 years.

Yount died in 1962, the year UK converted her mansion and 50 surrounding acres into a private club with a dining room, tennis courts, swimming pools and other amenities. Over the years, other land has been used for offices and facilities for UK agriculture and energy research.

UK owns the mansion, which is operated by the club. They both contribute to maintenance and improvements. Haider said she is pleased with the interest they are now showing in preserving Spindletop Hall.

“Everyone is so devoted to the place,” she said. “That home is truly a gift to Kentucky.”

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Alltech announced job-creation competition

May 22, 2012

Alltech announced a job-creation competition Tuesday for business students at the University of Kentucky, University of Louisville and University of Pikeville, with a $20,000 prize for the winning school.

Pearse Lyons, president and founder of the Nicholasville-based animal nutrition company, said the business plan competition is focused on fostering innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development in nine Eastern Kentucky counties: Bell, Floyd, Harlan, Johnson, Knott, Letcher, Magoffin, Martin and Pike.

“It’s time to balance the scales and cultivate a Kentucky that leads the nation not just in college sports but in employment as well,” Lyons said, noting that many of the targeted counties have unemployment rates twice the national average.

“With its hardworking people, vibrant culture, picturesque landscape and abundance of natural resources, Kentucky is ripe for the right idea,” Lyons said. “What we need is innovation and inspiration — sparks that will kindle the economic flame.”

Lyons announced the competition during a free seminar on entrepreneurship in the state that he and veteran Kentucky entrepreneur Jim Host put on at Lexington Center. It attracted a capacity crowd of more than 400 people, including many Central Kentucky business leaders.

The seminar was held in conjunction with Alltech’s 28th annual International Symposium, which each spring brings a couple thousand of the company’s customers here from all over the world.

Officials at each university will choose a competition team from among master’s in business administration students and some undergraduates. The competition will run from November through January 2013, when students will present their final plans to a panel of business leaders, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs.

The winning plan will be the one that best fosters economic development in the nine-county region and appeals to investors interested in funding it. The winning team will receive $20,000 from Alltech for their university’s business school.


Post-game mayhem highlighted neglected neighborhoods around UK’s campus

April 8, 2012

When the University of Kentucky beat Louisville and Kansas to win the NCAA championship last week, the media spotlight focused on more than the basketball team’s talent and Kentucky fans’ pride.

The nation got a vivid look at how far Lexington and UK still have to go in overcoming decades of neglect in some neighborhoods surrounding campus.

What should have been celebrations turned into near riots in the Elizabeth Street neighborhood off South Limestone. There were dozens of injuries and arrests as fires were set and vehicles damaged amid a hail of flying beer bottles.

Things could have been much worse, had not Lexington police and firefighters handled the situation with such skill and professionalism. And after the first and worst night of trouble, new UK President Eli Capilouto issued a stern statement. He urged students to “not be stupid,” and he warned that illegal behavior would result in criminal prosecution and university sanctions.

Some of the troublemakers weren’t UK students or even Lexington residents. Still, the national reputations of both UK and Lexington were tarnished. Will parents of prospective students wonder if UK is a safe environment for their children? Will people interested in moving their families or companies to Lexington wonder about the city’s quality of life?

Last week’s mayhem was a wake-up call to both UK and Lexington officials. They must redouble their efforts to clean up neighborhoods around campus that have been allowed to become little more than student-rental slums.

The problems began in the 1970s, when UK dormitory construction and maintenance began falling behind enrollment growth. About the same time, longtime residents of some nearby neighborhoods built between the early 1800s and early 1900s began dying off or moving away.

Many homes were sold to the university for campus expansion. Others were sold to student-rental entrepreneurs, who either cut up old homes into rental rooms or knocked them down to build boxy apartment complexes.

Once-lovely neighborhoods where many faculty and staff used to live fell into disrepair, as fewer and fewer homes were occupied by their owners. UK’s hands-off attitude reached its zenith in 1998 when officials banned alcohol from campus, which pushed student parties into the surrounding neighborhoods.

Landlords used zoning loopholes to build large dorm-like additions to bungalows and pave over yards, overwhelming those areas with people, cars, garbage and storm-water runoff. Those neighborhoods were not designed for such density.

Diane Lawless, the Urban County Council member who represents those neighborhoods, said the problems have been made worse by spot rezoning and years of building inspection that was “way beyond lax.”

City officials and neighborhood leaders have spent more than a decade trying to catch up to the problem. Studies by the Town-Gown Commission and Student Housing Task Force helped lead to new laws limiting off-campus parties, tightening zoning regulations and halting construction of the “vinyl box” additions. Mayor Jim Newberry’s administration launched a crackdown on code violations.

Still, about 75 percent of UK’s 28,000 students now live off-campus. That compares with only 25 percent of the 1,100 students at Transylvania University, where surrounding neighborhoods have experienced few student-rental problems.

Since Capilouto took office last June, he has made housing and neighborhood issues a priority. UK has launched an ambitious partnership with a private company to replace 6,000 aging dormitory beds and build 3,000 more.

“UK has been working much closer with us on neighborhood issues,” said Derek Paulsen, the city’s new planning commissioner. “But we’re going to be playing catch-up with this legacy for awhile.”

Paulsen’s appointment is another positive sign. For the first time, all city planning, zoning and building regulation will be under one department. Paulsen, an academic, has written several books about designing socially sustainable communities that deter crime.

New apartment complexes west of campus, built on sites once occupied by tobacco warehouses, have taken some of the pressure off older neighborhoods. But those developments bear watching, too. Any area dominated by transient rental property will be less stable than one that includes a good mix of owner-occupied housing.

The upcoming move of the Bluegrass Community and Technical College to the former Eastern State Hospital site could take pressure off the Elizabeth Street neighborhood. But without good planning, zoning, building inspection and code enforcement, Lexington risks the same pattern being repeated in older Northside neighborhoods.

In addition to better planning and zoning and more aggressive enforcement, city officials must clean up the damaged neighborhoods around UK. That will include significant investment in long-ignored infrastructure and more support for owner-occupied homes.

“It’s an economic development issue, because this is what visitors see when they see Lexington,” Lawless said. “What’s good for these neighborhoods and downtown is good for Lexington and the university.”