Category Archives: News

Can downtown’s west side be vibrant again?

Columnist Tom Eblen, Lexington Herald-Leader

Aug. 16-

Along the creek where Lexington began and the street that was once its industrial heart, Barry McNees and a dozen partners hope to write a new chapter for downtown’s west side.
As they plan for the future, they’re spending a lot of time sifting through the past. It began more than three years ago when McNees bought an old industrial building on Manchester Street because he saw potential for redevelopment. A local historian of Kentucky’s bourbon industry stopped by one day.

“He asked what we were going to do with the Old Tarr Distillery,” McNees said. “And I said, ‘The old what?'”
NcNees learned that the circa 1866 building next door had been the warehouse for one of Kentucky’s first post-Civil War bourbon distilleries. Later, McNees and his partners bought the abandoned James E. Pepper Distillery down the street. Those two properties provide bookends and a theme for the Distillery District, an ambitious redevelopment project that the partners hope will someday house restaurants, clubs, art studios, a small distillery, a coffee shop, indoor recreation facilities, a farmer’s market, offices and condos. McNees, 39, who grew up on a tobacco farm near Winchester, hopes to preserve and reuse most of the old distillery buildings.
“That way, we’ll get both a modern development and one that celebrates Lexington’s past and its culture,” he said. “It gives you the romance of history and creates a destination where people will want to go.”
It also will make the development eligible for state and federal historic tax credits that could cover as much as 40 percent of renovation costs.

Another key will be seeking tax increment financing, known as TIF. It allows a portion of state and local taxes created by new development in a blighted area to be used for up to 30 years to pay for the public infrastructure — utilities, sewers, streets and sidewalks — needed to make the development possible.
Currently, the district’s properties generate $137,000 a year in state and local taxes, McNees said. Once the redevelopment is complete, he estimates the taxes will be a hundred times that amount.
McNees said city officials and the Downtown Development Authority have offered support and encouragement. The developers have conducted design workshops with students from the University of Kentucky’s College of Design to generate ideas for how the old buildings might be reused. And they have met with nearby neighborhoods and businesses to get them comfortable with the project. More public meetings are planned soon.
The Distillery District, along with the Newtown Pike extension, could literally reshape a large area west of Rupp Arena. State and local officials are soon expected to unveil the design for a “signature” bridge that will carry Newtown Pike across the railroad yard near Manchester Street. The double-span bridge is expected to include decorative lighting.

Eventually, others hope to restore Town Branch Creek through the neighborhood, creating an eight-mile greenway trail into downtown. McNees and his partners are designing their projects to take advantage of Town Branch, which flows virtually hidden along Manchester Street and is funneled underground once it gets to downtown.

The Town Branch Trail proposal also envisions restoring one of Central Kentucky’s oldest buildings, the 1790 James McConnell house. It now sits vacant beside a railroad track just across Manchester Street from the Pepper Distillery. It’s not far from McConnell Springs, where Lexington was founded.
“It’s totally neglected,” McNees said of the dry-stone house as he looked at it from the distillery’s roof. “Can you imagine letting the home of one of Lexington’s founders just sit there deteriorating like that?” McNees said he and his partners have invested almost $9 million so far acquiring and renovating the collection of industrial buildings on 25 acres along Manchester Street. The Old Tarr warehouse, an 11,500-square-foot structure that once housed 8,000 barrels of bourbon, was later used as a tobacco warehouse and as a machine shop, making parts for the IBM (NYSE:IBM) Selectric typewriters that were manufactured at what is now Lexmark.
The warehouse sat empty for years before McNees began converting it into an events hall that can hold 2,000 people. Its first test came in April 2007, when it was the site of the Beaux Arts Ball. Eventually, McNees wants to use adjacent buildings for restaurants and clubs, which would open in the back onto Town Branch Trail.
While the developers refine their plans, prepare a TIF application, seek financing and try to pull all the pieces together, they’re renting out some of the buildings they own for industrial storage and artists’ studios.
The most ambitious — and costly — piece of the project will be renovating the Pepper Distillery, which claimed to be the nation’s largest when it opened in the late 1800s. Most of the buildings there now date from the 1930s. The distillery’s largest structure is a concrete and block warehouse that once held 100,000 barrels of aging bourbon. Each of the five floors has tall ceilings and an acre of floor space. It is built like a fortress, so future uses are almost unlimited.

Unlike Old Tarr, where only the warehouse survives, the Pepper site still has almost all of the buildings that were there when it was a working distillery.
Last week, McNees took me on a tour of the Pepper site. It was like stepping back in history, because most of the equipment was left in place to gather dust when bourbon-making stopped in the early 1970s.
“This whole thing has been like a significant archaeological dig,” McNees said as we walked through each building, stepping around junk, broken glass and pigeon droppings. The old mash tubs were still there, along with the brick kilns used to dry used mash for cattle feed. Huge gears and light fixtures sit on shelves in the machine shop. There are stacks of production records from the 1960s sitting on shelves near a box with cans of grain samples from the early 1950s. McNees dipped his hand into an old grain sifter and scooped out hulls.
The developers began going through the Pepper property earlier this year, making basic repairs, cleaning up and deciding which machinery to keep and which to sell for scrap. AM talk radio plays non-stop in the main building to scare away critters. McNees hopes to restore the distillery’s smokestack, which used to spell out “Pepper” but is now a few letters short because the top was removed. The old water tower seems to be in good shape, and it has become the Distillery District’s logo symbol.

A large lot beside the Pepper Distillery — familiar to most Lexingtonians as the place they used to go to claim a towed car — has been cleared. McNees hopes to have outdoor concerts there in a few months. The first Pepper building likely to see reuse is the timber-frame barrel house. A local group plans to put a small “craft” distillery and tasting room there by next spring and has ordered a 200-gallon copper still from Portugal.
McNees and his partners have a big, expensive job ahead of them. But if they can find the money to match their imagination, the Distillery District could become an economic engine for downtown and a place that leverages Lexington’s rich past for a more prosperous future.

This post comes from and the Lexington Herald-Leader

Environment protections urged as part of LFUCG contracts

In light of the recently approved settlement agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency, Lexington should consider adding environmental standards to the contracts it issues, Van Meter Pettit told the Urban County Council on Thursday.

Pettit is president of Town Branch Trail Inc., which wants to create an 8-mile trail following the Town Branch of Elkhorn Creek from Masterson Station Park through downtown. He addressed the council about a towing contract that the council unanimously awarded to Bluegrass Towing Service on Thursday.

Under the contract, Bluegrass Towing, which operates on Manchester Street by the Town Branch, will be called to tow or impound vehicles at the request of the police, code enforcement and the parking authority.

Pettit said his issue wasn’t with Bluegrass Towing or the contract it was awarded. His concern centers on improving environmental standards.

There are grandfathered businesses and properties all along the Town Branch — which is one of the most polluted waterways in the state — that are operating under standards appropriate when they were developed, Pettit said. “At a certain point, a community has to raise its environmental standards.”

The city could incrementally improve the environment by including items in its contracts such as not allowing certain operations in a flood plain or requiring activities to be a certain distance from waterways, Pettit said.

Bluegrass Towing’s facilities have been inspected twice in the last 60 days by two different state environmental divisions, said Andy Alphin, president of Bluegrass Towing. Neither inspection turned up any environmental violations, he said.

The city needs to do everything it can to improve the environment and clean up the streams, said Councilman Tom Blues, whose district includes the area where Bluegrass Towing is located.

But Bluegrass Towing has complied with every local and state law and the city should move forward with awarding the contract, he said.

In addition to Pettit’s concerns, the contract awarded to Bluegrass Towing is being disputed by A1 Winchester Towing & Repair, which contends it should have been given the contract because its bid was lower than Bluegrass Towing’s.

The city could save $100,000 if A1 Winchester gets the contract, said Justin Morgan, an attorney for A1 Winchester Towing.

From the Lexington Herald-Leader Friday May 23, 2008
By Michelle Ku
This post comes from and the Lexington Herald-Leader

Downtown vitality sapped by closed decision-making

Downtown Lexington is in the midst of a major comeback by just about any measure you can make.

We have produced more new housing downtown in the last few years than in many preceding decades. The Lexington Center-Rupp Arena Complex has been dramatically improved. The fine building stock of our historic urban neighborhoods has enjoyed a big boost in investment and a shift back to home ownership. Major urban stakeholders — schools, universities, churches and hospitals — have made major investments in staying downtown. It is a place full of life, with concerts, parades, footraces, sidewalk cafes and children playing in fountains.

Success has a thousand parents and probably as many people deserve thanks for downtown Lexington’s turnaround.

A dense downtown is an efficient economic engine for the whole state that can create a world-class quality of life while avoiding the negative affects of sprawl. This, in turn, will attract and retain the young talent needed to maintain and increase our economic vitality.

So how do we build on this successful pattern? How do we make Lexington competitive with an Austin, Portland, Boulder, Madison or Charleston? As Vice Mayor Jim Gray says, how do we raise the standards of our B-minus downtown to match our A-plus landscape?

There are no shortcuts. It takes planning, coordination and cooperation among all downtown public and private organizations and stakeholders — and significant public investment. This level of open and transparent team play can happen only with an inclusive government that welcomes civic engagement.

That engagement has happened recently with the creation of a Downtown Masterplan and a Newtown Extension area plan. An urban streetscape plan is in the works, and a citywide 2040 visioning process is under way.

But these great starts are undermined by a number of big urban projects that have been conceived behind closed doors, then unveiled as “done deals.”

These include the redesign of Bluegrass Aspendale and Ann Street; the new Rupp Arena proposal; the deal involving Eastern State Hospital, Bluegrass Community and Technical College and the University of Kentucky’s Coldstream Research Campus; and, now, the CentrePointe development.

Each one of these big projects has merit and is potentially beneficial to our city, but that is beside the point. They all were either specifically excluded from the Downtown Master Plan (for now obvious reasons) or they disregarded its recommendations. Public input has been minimal at best or came after the fact as a means of damage control.

Each time a big idea is foisted on the community without prior public input, it undermines the civic engagement and buy-in necessary to make downtown succeed.

We can’t have it both ways. If civic volunteers feel as if our most important projects are not open for discourse, they will lose faith in the process. Downtown needs significant public funding to spur the private investment necessary to grow our economy. With public investment (tax incentives included) comes real public oversight.

Downtown needs a permanent public-private oversight board to guide the area’s development. We will never take our city from good to great without a coherent and transparent process to make decisions large and small about downtown. Our economic future depends upon it.

Homebuyers Want Trails

In a survey conducted by the National Association of Home Builders in 2002, homebuyers were asked to rank their preferences in buying a house. When asked about the importance of 18 community amenities, the highest ranking features were (with percent ranking as important or very important): highway access, 44 percent; jogging/bike trails, 36 percent; sidewalks, 28 percent; parks, 26 percent; playgrounds, 21 percent, and shops within walking area, 19 percent.

24-Mile Railroad connecting Lexington to Lawrenceburg has trail potential

Original Name: “LL” branch of Louisville Southern (Lexington to Lawrenceburg)
Date Constructed: 1888-1889
Length: 24 miles
Location: The line runs through Fayette, Woodford, and Anderson counties.
Highlights: Starting behind Rupp Arena and the Newtown Pike Extension, beside Town Branch Creek and the James E. Pepper Distillery, travels through beautiful thoroughbred horse country, behind Keeneland Race Course, through the village of Pisgah, to Versailles, crossing the Kentucky River on a breathtaking1659 foot long, 280 foot high structure at Tyrone called Young’s High Bridge, passes beside the Wild Turkey Distillery and ends in Lawrenceburg.
Historic highlight: Hauled thoroughbred horses in specially equipped cars to Keeneland, Calumet, and King Ranch.
Current ownership and conditions: The western-most 3 miles were in service until recently for the Austin Nichols Distillery (Wild Turkey) from Lawrenceburg; Young’s High Bridge has been closed to train traffic since 1985; a 5.5 mile “middle stretch” from the bridge running to Versailles has been operated by the Bluegrass Railroad Museum since 1987. The eastern-most 15 miles from Versailles to Lexington is actively owned and operated by RJ Corman.

Below is a history created by Emmett Bell:

The Louisville Southern (LS) began construction of its new railroad in Louisville, and proceeded in a east-southeast direction through Jefferson, Shelby, and Anderson Counties, reaching Lawrenceburg in mid-1888. Late in the same year, surveyors began plotting out a tortuous route (compared to the rest of the railroad) from Lawrenceburg, eastward towards Lexington. The last 24 miles of the railroad would require two large bridges, including a 1659 foot long, 280 foot high structure over the Kentucky River at Tyrone, as well as numerous steep grades, cuts, and sharp curves. LS president Bennett Young hired the Union Bridge company of New York to build the Kentucky River bridge, which had required Congressional approval to construct, and to oversee the project personally. Young was a well known person during this time, and was a highly regarded hero from the Civil War. He had planned and led one of the northern most actions of the war, when his band of raiders robbed a bank in St. Albans Vermont. After the war, Young became active in Reform politics in Kentucky, and was named the president of the Louisville Southern because of his numerous successful business ventures and political actions.
As construction on the Kentucky River bridge (now named Young’s High Bridge) continued, track crews pushed the line steadily towards Versailles, and a connection with the Versailles And Midway (V&M), which built a line between those two cities, and a branch to Georgetown, in 1885. The LS Finally reached its goal in early August when it established a connection with the Cincinnati Southern (Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific) in Lexington. On August 21st, 1889 a special train departed Louisville and made it’s way to the east end of Young’s High Bridge, where the ceremonial last spike was driven, and then proceeded to Lexington with Federal, State, and local officials on board. The Louisville Southern was finally a reality.
Shortly after completion, the LS acquired the V&M, and began making improvements on the hastily constructed mainline. Not unlike many of the new railroads of this era, the LS started to suffer from financial woes, and ended up in receivership in the fall of 1889. The line was leased to the Louisville, New Albany and Chicago (MONON) on October 14, 1889, and this would prove to be the first of several different reorganizations of the railroad. After a stockholders revolt, the line came under the control of the East Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia Railroad (ETV&G), which was later absorbed by the Southern Railway in Kentucky, and finally the Southern Railway System.
The line prospered, with several scheduled passenger trains a day, and an ever increasing amount of freight traffic. The Southern Railway took over operations of the CNO&TP between Cincinnati and Chattanooga, and began running regular passenger trains between St. Louis, Louisville, Lexington and points South.
As traffic increased, the portion of the railroad between Lawrenceburg and Lexington began to be a bottleneck, with its uneven topography and curves, and the Southern began construction of a upgraded line from Lawrenceburg, south through Harrodsburg, to a point north of Danville (SJ Tower) where it connected to the CNO&TP. All passenger traffic, and most of the freight traffic was routed via the new “Lawrenceburg cut off”, and the 24 miles from Lawrenceburg to Lexington became the “LL” branch. Traffic remained moderate over the line for the next several decades, with large amounts of coal being brought to the Kentucky Utilities steam plant at Tyrone, and other local traffic for online customers. Thoroughbred race horses were also handled across the line in specially equipped cars, being moved in and out of the Keenland race track, and from Calumet and other horse farms near the railroad. A special spur and loading ramp was constructed at Kings Ranch (MP 20.0LL), behind Calumet Farm to serve this business.
In the early 1980’s, coal traffic began to decline, and was suspended in 1984. The loss of the coal business, plus the ever worsening condition of Young’s high Bridge and the track in general, forced the closing of the “middle” 5 1/2 miles of the branch. The last train crossed the bridge in August of 1985, bringing to a close 117 years of continuous service on the old LS.
The western 3 miles of the line were left intact to allow service to the Austin Nichol’s distillery (makers of Wild Turkey Bourbon Whiskey), and the out of service portion between the east end of the Kentucky River bridge and MP 9.0LL was sold to the Bluegrass Railroad Museum in 1987 for tourist train operations. Norfolk Southern still retained the eastern 14 miles between Versailles and Lexington to serve several customers in Versailles. NS train K-21 and K-22 made the trip to Versailles 5 days a week until the traffic levels became too low for NS to justify operation. The line was sold to Gulf And Ohio Railways, and on May 11th, 1996, a newly formed G&O subsidiary, the Lexington & Ohio Railroad began operation of the line.

History compiled and written by Emmett Bell.