On the right path? Town Branch Trail Connecting Lexington’s past to its future

By Van Meter Pettit
Guest Commentary for Business Lexington

Anyone who has spent time in Lexington can tell you it’s a lovely place to live or visit. We have a 200-year-old history, two universities, a highly educated population, and a diverse and prosperous economy. We sit astride two major highways – and of course (as if anyone will let you forget) we’re the Horse Capital of the World.

For just a moment, let’s step back from the Lexington we all know and love and ask a question: What more could Lexington be? What are the missing pieces that would make Lexington an even more wonderful and prosperous place, the kind of magnet for talent, creativity, and by extension, economic development, that other places in the country have become?

In drawing a comparison, let’s look at successful medium-sized cities like Austin, Boulder, San Antonio, Providence or Portland. What is a common feature? Each has a vibrant and well-designed urban center that has transformed their respective downtowns into 24/7 live-work-play environments.

In my opinion, Lexington has tremendous unfulfilled potential in this regard. Without diminishing downtown’s numerous entrepreneurial businesses or the spike in private development that has sprouted over the last year, our downtown is still well behind the curve of other American cities with whom we should be able to compete. Our downtown has numerous existing and dormant locations of interest, whether they be historical, cultural or economic, but downtown conspicuously lacks a centering element that would synch it together.

A growing number of Lexingtonians are beginning to believe that it is high time for Lexington to dream big and follow that with action. If we can “connect the dots” of our city, promoting a number of places of interest through a unifying and active experience, then we will pull tens of thousands more visitors off the highway to visit, attract many more bright young professionals to live and work here, and convince scads more lively retirees to spend their golden IRAs with us.

What could provide that unifying thread? The very same element that drew frontiersmen to this glorious spot of wilderness in the first place: Town Branch Creek.

Ever wonder why Lexington is located where it is? Why the city grid has no cardinal bearings? Why the central business district is so long and thin?

Believe it or not, Lexington was settled in 1779 along the banks of the middle fork of Elkhorn Creek, a small tributary called Town Branch that now lies buried under Vine Street.

What Town Branch Trail, Inc., a five-year-old 501-c-3 nonprofit, hopes Lexington can achieve is no less than the rebirth of the forgotten creek where our city was born at the dawn of the American Revolution. At its fullest, the project would take the form of a ten-foot-wide asphalt path shared by bicycles and pedestrians running a minimum of eight miles from downtown Lexington out to Masterson Station Park (which has an additional four-mile grass loop). Within the immediate downtown area, we envision a half-mile ribbon park running down Vine Street that would connect Thoroughbred and Triangle Parks (over the footprint of the buried creek). This Vine Street section of the trail would emulate the dry-stone canal and tree-lined “commons” that our city created out of the creek over 200 years ago. (We don’t propose digging up the actual buried stream.)

The scope and potential of this project can at first appear by degrees thrilling, daunting, or hopelessly far-fetched. Nonetheless, this project is slowly becoming a reality. A Downtown Master Plan commissioned by the Lexington Downtown Development Authority has integrated this project as a central element. Town Branch Trail is a major component of the city’s unanimously approved Greenway Masterplan. It has been integrated into the design for the Newtown Pike Extension, and Congressman Ben Chandler has offered enthusiastic support for the idea. To date, the project has attracted over $1,000,000 of in-kind donations of land and labor and $450,000 of funding to build two miles of trail. On October 8 at 10 a.m., we will dedicate the first half-mile of trail across from Masterson Station Park in the McConnell Trace neighborhood.

Now let’s put our efforts in context: The San Antonio Riverwalk took 40-plus years to create, and cities like Austin and Portland have been building miles of urban trails since the 1970s. These lovely places have been enjoying a very positive urban renaissance for decades as a result. Our situation is a bit like what Mark Twain said about Kentucky: “When judgement day comes, I’m moving to Kentucky, because everything happens there twenty years later.” Well, our twenty-year lag time is over, folks, and we have lots of nitty-gritty work ahead, but with equal measures of inspiration, perspiration, and cooperation we can carve a path into the future that will take Lexington to a whole new level of prosperity and urban life.