Downtown bookends show off new look

Herald-Leader columnistNovember 29, 2009 

There's more energy in two long-neglected corners of downtown Lexington than there has been in decades, and Monday night will be a good chance to glimpse some of it.

The East End Holiday Celebration is from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at Isaac Murphy Park on the corner of East Third Street and Midland Avenue. Everyone is welcome to help decorate a community Christmas tree and enjoy hot cider, hot chocolate and caroling.

That same evening, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on the opposite side of downtown, supporters of the Lexington Distillery District are gathering at Buster's, a popular nightclub in a recently restored 140-year-old bourbon warehouse that is part of the district along Manchester Street.

The economic downturn has forced the Urban County Council to whittle down its list of bonded capital projects to avoid hurting the city's credit rating. The cutting will commence Dec. 3 at 4 p.m. at the Budget and Finance Committee meeting in City Hall.

Monday's gathering at Buster's is part of a grass-roots effort to urge council members not to cut $3.2 million allocated for initial infrastructure improvements in the Distillery District. The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation and other community groups last week launched an e-mail and petition campaign.

Although most council members have voiced support for the Distillery District, tough choices must be made. It is competing with about $61 million in other capital bonding requests, such as street-resurfacing projects and maintenance items for city buildings.

Barry McNees, the Distillery District's lead developer, has made a compelling case for city investment, which would be used for street and sidewalk improvements and work on the Town Branch Trail through the area.

McNees said the timing of council support is critical. That's because a former vice president of one of Kentucky's major distillers has formed a new company that wants to invest about $11 million initially and perhaps $25 million eventually in a boutique distillery, bottling plant and restaurant in part of the long-abandoned Pepper Distillery complex.

Before the company commits to the investment, it wants to make sure the city will provide the public infrastructure needed to support it, McNees said. Because much of that area was largely abandoned for decades, it lacks modern infrastructure.

The distillery's initial investment, combined with $11 million in other private money already invested in the development, would qualify the Distillery District for state-approved tax-increment financing. That means tax revenues generated from new development in the area would repay the city for up to $45.8 million in infrastructure improvements.

Several council members I talked with last week said they think the Distillery District is a smart investment for creating new jobs and tax revenues and rehabilitating a shabby part of town.

"Once we can start investing in the public part — curbs, gutters, burying utility lines, etc. — the businesses will follow more quickly," Council member Linda Gorton said. "And then the revenues will come in."

Like the Distillery District, the East End is coming back to life after decades of decline. If you haven't driven around there lately, come down to the Christmas tree lighting and take a tour; you won't recognize the place.

New housing developments are nearing completion, the Lyric Theatre is being restored, and an art garden is planned for Isaac Murphy Park, which will soon be the end of the 9-mile Legacy Trail to the Kentucky Horse Park.

Monday night's holiday event is being sponsored by the city, the Blue Grass Community Foundation's Legacy Center, the Isaac Murphy Art Garden board, the Living Arts and Science Center and the William Wells Brown and Martin Luther King neighborhood associations.

The East End and Distillery District are dramatic bookends for the revitalization that downtown Lexington has been experiencing for several years, and Vice Mayor Jim Gray sees a pattern.

Both are projects that focus first on improving the economy and quality of life for Lexington residents; attracting visitors is a secondary goal. And both are authentic reflections of Lexington's history and culture — the rich African-American heritage of the East End and the bourbon-making legacy of the Distillery District.

"They're both recognizing the value and inspiration of history," Gray said. "But they're not being stuck in history; they're building on it and moving us forward."

Reach Tom Eblen at (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415, or at teblen@herald-leader.com.

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