First year as columnist has been a joy

Herald-Leader columnistApril 1, 2009 

I became a columnist a year ago this week. It has been a fascinating journey, exploring Kentucky places, people and ideas.

I hope you are enjoying it as much as I am.

I took you to the last Great American Steamboat Race between the now-retired Delta Queen and the Belle of Louisville. We had a great view, too: the Belle's roof, just outside the pilot house.

We went to Graves County for the 128th annual Fancy Farm Picnic. Sure, I wrote about the political speeches. But what I really went to write about were the folks of St. Jerome Catholic Church, who each year cook fresh vegetables, homemade pies and 18,500 pounds of the best barbecued pork and mutton you'll ever taste.

I brought you the sights and sounds of Danville's Brass Band Festival, the Kentucky Derby and the state high school marching band championships. I took you to meet the "green jacket" men and women who help make Keeneland special and the Lions Club members who organize the Blue Grass Fair.

We sat around the boardroom table with the Dawahare cousins as they talked bravely about the demise of their family's century-old chain of clothing stories.

You met some fascinating people and their work: entrepreneurs Pearse Lyons and Pete Mahurin; artists Verna Mae Slone, Seth Tuska and Lino Tagliapietra; journalists Al Smith, Don Edwards and Don Neagle; and innovators such as architect Helm Roberts, who designed the unique sundial that honors Kentucky's Vietnam veterans.

I have reached into the past for wisdom that could help Kentucky build a better future. Lessons came from the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Henry Clay and Thomas Clark — and from a faded, forgotten book I found in the Lexington Public Library's basement.

I looked for new ideas that could make Kentucky a better place — innovation, entrepreneurship, environmental stewardship, smart growth and sustainable development — and the people working to make those ideas reality.

A year ago, many people in Lexington were upset about developer Dudley Webb's plan to demolish a downtown block to build the 35-story CentrePointe tower with a luxury hotel and million-dollar condos.

The old buildings, which dated to 1826, are now gone. CentrePointe has yet to rise out of that crater, and I doubt it ever will.

I wrote a lot about CentrePointe because I saw the controversy surrounding it as a turning point for Lexington. More people than ever seem interested in downtown revitalization, citizen participation in development decisions and creative reuse of the old buildings that reflect Lexington's history and character.

The old style of adversarial development seems to be giving way to a more community-friendly process. Lexington has several developers who understand good urban planning, and a couple of true visionaries, Barry McNees and Holly Wiedemann. Even some of the old dogs are learning new tricks.

Development decisions say a lot about what kind of future a city sees for itself. Is it about making a quick buck or creating sustainable quality of life? The latter requires innovation and, sometimes, returning to tried-and-true principles like two-way streets, mixed-use neighborhoods, good pedestrian and bicycle access and reliable public transportation.

I've shared some things Lexington could learn from Austin, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; and Louisville. And some things other Kentucky towns could learn from Berea and Morehead.

I've complained about things in Kentucky that frustrate me: the lack of respect for knowledge and education; petty politics; wasteful highway spending; the power of the coal industry; the fear of change; and the reluctance of political leaders to create a modern tax system.

During the nearly 10 years I was managing editor of the Herald-Leader, I got a lot of calls and e-mails from readers. But, as a high school principal once told me, "Your job is like mine. Nobody calls because they're happy."

One of the joys of being a columnist has been getting a lot of calls and e-mails from people who like what I write. Of course, others write or call with other views. Often, those lead to good discussions. Most people who don't like a column prefer to leave anonymous comments online, and that's fine, too.

I get a good laugh when critics begin by saying that they never read my column or the Herald-Leader, but just happened to see a particular piece. Those people often are the first to send an e-mail or leave a comment online. And they do so repeatedly.

I like to hear from readers, whether it's compliments, criticisms or ideas. Some of my best columns have come from readers' tips and suggestions.

During the next year, I hope we'll continue to have some fun, learn a few things and perhaps share some knowledge that could make Kentucky a better place.

Reach Tom Eblen at (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415, or at teblen@herald-leader.com. Read and comment on his previous columns at his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.

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