Lexington stands at a crossroads

From Business Lexington
January 08, 2009
by Van Meter Pettit, AIA

Lexington, KY – Lexington, do you want to be a contender? Do you want to be one of the best small cities in America? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then we stand at a crossroads.

As the principal city of the Bluegrass we are a community of remarkable strengths: globally recognized equine and bourbon industries; a protected landscape that has earned the status of a world monument; a highly educated population built on a consortium of 18 institutions of higher learning. We have great advantages relative to other American cities. And yet, despite these blessings, we find ourselves in a pattern of declining wages and poor job growth. Why don’t we have the attractive energy of other university towns like Austin, Madison, Charlottesville, Ann Arbor, or Boulder? Why can’t we compete for visitors and transplants like Greenville or Chattanooga?

What’s holding Lexington back?

I believe it is our consistent failure to invest sufficiently in our city and in those cultural assets that make up the now all-important commodity: “Quality of Life.”

As our recently negotiated consent decree with the EPA attests, we as a community have failed to invest adequately in our infrastructure for decades. As a condition of our agreement, we are taxing ourselves to fix these long-ignored problems in a short period of time. With respect to other aspects of our city, like our parks, trails, sidewalks, and downtown streetscape, we stand in a similar state of neglect, but there is no governing authority that will punish us for failing to make these necessary investments. Ten years ago our parks were inventoried to national benchmarks and found to have an $80 million shortfall in facilities and maintenance (this has not changed).

When we look at cities with whom we would like to compete, we find trail systems and urban public spaces that are decades further developed and a minimum of $100 million ahead in investment. In addition, many of these places have started out with striking natural features like rivers, lakes, or waterfronts. On top of this they have made enormous public investments: converting major streets into parks or pedestrian malls, moving rivers, burying highways, or creating canals among abandoned warehouses. They have thought hard, forged consensus, and taken bold strategic risks. They have opened their wallets and invested in their own economic futures. And they are not standing still waiting for us to catch up.

Many of our peer cities are continuing to aggressively outpace us. They are enjoying the fruits of their labor and sacrifice, while we by comparison are poorly served by a false economy of non-investment. This is something many Lexingtonians know but have not fully accepted. Consequently, we are exporting jobs and educated young people to the greener pastures of higher quality cities. If a business refuses to modernize and invest in its facilities it will soon fall behind its competitors. Likewise, a city that is stingy to a fault regarding important investments ultimately cannot compete with better-equipped locales.

To our credit, we have a very active Chamber that annually sends a large group of business and civic leaders across the country in search of new ideas. In a few short years we have created multiple masterplans that, if followed, will serve us well. We have mustered dozens of task forces to study the myriad tasks that need to be done. Our mayor and council are fluent in the ideas of Richard Florida and the notion that “Quality of Life” is a necessary pre-condition for prosperity.

So what’s missing? Consensus. Money. And resolve.

We must accept the imperative of our situation, forge public consensus, and then execute our goals with boldness, thoroughness, and dispatch. If we will honestly hold ourselves up in comparison to the successes of our peers, neither failure nor delay is an option. If we will readily tax ourselves to avoid punishment (consent decree), why won’t we tax ourselves to compete and succeed?

Instead of waiting for the state or federal government to shower us with cash, why don’t we take care of our own needs? As we showed regarding the health department and the school board, a spirited public debate followed by a decision is all it really takes. Instead of taxing ourselves to meet EPA minimum standards for storm water, what if we created a ‘quality of life’ tax to fund our best common goals and priorities in a timely and committed manner? What if we stopped deferring and ignoring our needs and chased them down instead?

Some will say that the economy is too weak, that we should wait for better weather. But I will remind such folks that it was during the very hardest times that we created our finest institutions, UK and Keeneland. A community that has been dozing for decades does not have the luxury of waiting any longer. We can become one of the great small cities in America if we make up our minds to be. We are already halfway there.

Van Meter Pettit, a Lexington architect, is founder of Town Branch Trail, Inc., an organization advocating for a greenway and trail, or linear park, that would connect downtown Lexington with Masterson Station Park.

Council approves CentrePointe, Distillery tax financing districts

Friday, Dec. 05, 2008
By Beverly Fortune – bfortune@herald-leader.com

The Urban County Council gave final approval to plans to help revitalize two areas of downtown, one around the old Fayette County courthouse and the CentrePointe development, the other along a stretch of Manchester Street. Improvements, which would include renovation of the historic courthouse and the James E. Pepper distillery water tower, a bourbon museum, new sidewalks and lighting, would be paid for using new tax revenue that the districts areas are expected to generate when the projects are completed.

This type of funding, called tax increment financing, is a first for Lexington and still needs state approval.
Tuesday’s approval was the last local hurdle for the projects before they are forwarded to Frankfort for more scrutiny by the state as it decides whether to pledge revenues. Council members gave unanimous approval to support the Lexington Distillery District. On the Phoenix Park/Courthouse Development Area, they split 10-5.

After the vote, Centre Pointe developer Dudley Webb said his team was pleased “because we think it is the right decision for the city and for downtown.” Barry McNees, developer of the Distillery District, said he was “ecstatic” at getting approval. “We are excited to go to the next level.” Probably next week the city’s tax increment consultant, Jim Parsons, will finish assembling data and documents and deliver the two applications to the Department of Financial Incentives in the state Economic Development Cabinet. A review of each application might require meetings with city officials and the developers to get additional questions answered, Parsons said. The department staff will determine whether each project meets eligibility criteria for state support, and if so, how much that should be. The department makes a recommendation to the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority Board.

If the KEDFA board gives a preliminary green light, the state will hire an independent firm to do a financial analysis on both applications. “What the state will be looking for is whether the projects will be a net positive financial gain for the state,” Parsons said. “If you are just moving jobs from one part of the state to another, there is not a positive economic impact.” Following the state’s financial scrutiny, the KEDFA board will vote on whether to commit future state tax revenues to CentrePointe and the Distillery District.

These are the first projects to need a financial analysis by the state since the requirement for independent scrutiny was passed by the General Assembly earlier this year. Five districts were approved last year and didn’t need the investigation. “Assuming there are no hiccups, I would think no later than March or April we should get final approvals from the state,” Parsons said. The city must ultimately make the decision whether to issue bonds or to pay for public improvements after the two projects are completed and start generating money.
“That’s still a possibility. The agreements tonight don’t preclude that,” Parsons added.
Reach Beverly Fortune at (859) 231-3251 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3251.

Friday, Dec. 05, 2008
By Beverly Fortune – bfortune@herald-leader.com

Barrel House Distilling Company supports Town Branch Trail

A New Craft Distillery started in the old Pepper Distillery along the Town Branch Creek is supporting Town Branch Trail with a portion of its proceeds. We are thrilled to have their help and wish them the best at reinvigorating the distilling industry in Fayette County. Check out a great article in the Herald-Leader:


Here’s their website:


Here’s their story:

Barrel House Distilling Company, Lexington’s new Craft Distiller, is owned and operated by Frank Marino, Jeff Wiseman, and Pete Wright. We started work on the project during the winter of 2007, and are about to release our inaugural product – a premium vodka, Pure Blue, Which is the first Vodka made in Lexington. Our micro distillery is located in the Barreling House on the old Pepper Distillery in historic Lexington, Kentucky. We are the first tenant in this zone of the development. As native Lexingtonians and Bourbon lovers, we strive to continue the tradition of Pepper Distillery in producing fine spirits.

What We Produce

Barrel House Distillery currently is producing four spirits: Pure Blue Vodka TM, Kentucky River Rum TM, Woodshed Whisky TM, and Barrel House Bourbon TM. Our goal is to create beverages which stimulate the senses, and help others enjoy our passion as much as we do.

Barrel House Distilling Company supports the revitalization of the Lexington Distillery District and the development of the Town Branch Trail. These projects bring Lexington back to its roots – when the Town Branch of the Elkhorn Creek played a vital role in the growth of Lexington, while supplying water for the local bourbon distilleries.

Given this heritage, we are proud to announce that a portion of the proceeds of each bottle of distilled spirits we sell will go to the Town Branch Trail project. For more information, please visit:



New Year Update


Dear Town Branch Trail supporter,

On behalf of the board of Town Branch Trail, Inc. I would like to extend our deepest thanks for your support in this passing year. At this time of New Year, holidays, and thanksgiving we would like you to know that with your support we are working to make a beautiful trail and by extension a beautiful city. Members of the community like you are invaluable to us in making this project a reality. In this tenth year of our efforts we have witnessed a watershed of breakthroughs. Here below are some of the biggest:

1) The first 1.8 miles of Town Branch Trail are nearing completion. By springtime the last half-mile will be finished. It has been a joy to watch the trail grow and become well used. McAlister Stone is installing beautiful drystone mileposts, furlong posts, and benches crafted from “Kentucky Marble” quarried near Shakertown. We are also installing three more of our environmental education signs in the spring. Look for a big dedication/celebration in early summer 2009.

2) The rest of the west side of TBT, from Alexandria Drive to Newtown Pike Extension is being contracted for feasibility and trail design. An additional mile of the trail will begin construction over this next year. The section next to proceed in construction will connect McConnell Springs Nature Park with Town Branch Creek and run west up to New Circle Road. We will share these plans with you as they develop.

3) Sections of Town Branch Trail are included in both TIF projects approved by the LFUCG Council and are awaiting approval by the state. TIF stands for tax incremental financing, a funding mechanism that would allow the creation of a trail through the Manchester Street Distillery District as well as to make a Vine Street Linear Park through the downtown core. These TIF projects represent miles of what TBT has been proposing as trail for many years and it is a great endorsement of our concept that the city is making these great strides. Nothing is guaranteed even with the TIF approved; private developments will need to take shape for these opportunities to be realized, so we will keep you posted as it unfolds.

4) RJ Corman Railroad Group has proposed a 15-mile rail-with-trail that would run from Manchester Street beside Town Branch Creek all the way to Versailles on the shortline that the company owns and currently operates. At TBT, Inc. request the city has commissioned a feasibility study to determine how this might be accomplished. If this rail line were to be fully exploited, it would take pedestrians and bikers all the way to Lawrenceburg over the Kentucky River on Young’s High Bridge for a distance of 22 miles (Though compelling, this is not a simple matter: there are four owners and a massive 100-year-old iron bridge of undetermined structural status). Because this spectacular line connects two distilleries and runs behind Keeneland and right into TBT, we felt compelled to step forward.

5) Another LFUCG Masterplan adopts TBT and our concepts as major components of their recommendations. In the first downtown masterplan Ayers Saint Gross recommended transforming the Vine Street corridor into a continuous linear park based on our trail concept plan. The new streetscape masterplan by KKG avoids the big linear park idea on Vine Street but takes up the idea of a major plaza behind Rupp Arena that we first pitched a year and a half ago as NEW TOWN BRANCH. They also suggest opening up Vine Street as a greenway, but at the request of the city, in a less emphatic way. Although we are not in perfect agreement with all that these outside consultants have suggested, by in large, it is fantastic work for Lexington. For our goals and efforts it has been a big help to get repeated support and emphasis from these successive masterplans. We will be continuing our mission to get the idea of a linear park through to government and community leadership. Watch for this in the spring.

6) Town Branch Trail, Inc. made the transition to a full-time nonprofit. We saved a fortune over the years with donated labor and borrowed space, but the demands for time and attention grew too great for this to continue. The community outpouring has been nothing short of spectacular, especially considering the financial climate. We have set a goal of raising $500,000 by 2010 to run the organization and in our first year we have pledges of $200,000 with cash donations of over $65,000. Thanks to all of you who have been so very generous. Your gifts are being well used and are deeply appreciated.

7) Our Environmental Education Project is poised for completion in 2009. Based in research and successive grants, TBT has created a series of signs to be installed along the trail to inform the general public about basic watershed information and how the built environment impacts the natural system of urban waterways. In addition, we are currently editing a 3-part package of video, print, and online material to be distributed for use throughout Bluegrass middle school classrooms. With interviews from experts in history, water quality, equine, and bourbon distilling, this project should be a great way to raise youth awareness of our special region. It is tailored to fit KERA curriculum precisely. Look for updates on this in the coming months.

8) TBT has been working closely with the Blue Grass Community Foundation, the Knight Foundation, and the Legacy Project to create a series of links between the proposed North-South Legacy Trail and our West-East Town Branch Trail. Our goal is to provide the city with a seamlessly connected trail system that encircles the Downtown and takes bikes and pedestrians into our famed Bluegrass Horse Country.

With great thanks and best wishes for 2009,

Van Meter Pettit, AIA