In his first major speech since taking office, Mayor Jim Gray pledged to tackle several controversial issues in downtown Lexington, including the stalled CentrePointe development and more two-way streets in the area.
Gray announced Tuesday members of his staff met Monday with developers Dudley and Woodford Webb about a possible reconfiguration of CentrePointe, a proposed high-rise hotel and condominium complex that turned a once bustling block into a vacant field.
"I am pleased to say a dialog has been opened on CentrePointe between my administration and the developers," Gray said in his State of the Merged Government speech.
Gray also talked about the city's serious financial woes, runaway costs in the police and firemen's pension fund and the need for more job creation and economic innovation as he addressed a civic and business leaders who filled the Patterson Ballroom of the Hyatt Regency.
About CentrePointe, the mayor said it was no secret he had opposed the design and size of the proposed 25-story building. But he said his administration will work with developers "to help create a project on this unique and historic site" that affirms the city's 235-year history while demonstrating creativity and imagination.
His remarks brought applause from the audience.
Dudley Webb, who was in the audience, said afterward he was willing to "explore ways to do this project better. To the extent the design can be improved, we are open-minded on that.
"They reached out. We reached out. Let's see where this goes," he said. "We are all approaching this with open minds."
Opponents of CentrePointe said they were encouraged by the turn of events.
"I have a lot of confidence in Mayor Gray's ability to inspire people," said Linda Carroll, board president of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation. "I think he's a world-class thinker about architecture and design, and he will bring that to the table."
Gray spoke frankly about the city's financial situation, saying city government spends more than it collects, and expenses must be cut.
"If city government were a business, we would be in real trouble," he said. Perhaps not broke, "but bad trouble."
Last year's budget included some cuts, he said, "but, basically, government crossed its fingers and predicted the economy would be better by now."
The city now faces a $25 million shortfall in the upcoming fiscal year, officials have said.
Gray said he has appointed a task force of experts in public financing to advise the city on a long-term financial plan.
Gray especially honed in on "runaway" costs in the police and firemen's pension fund, saying benefits and pension costs are compromising the community's ability to invest in its future.
"Take a deep breath with me," Gray said. "If we don't adjust benefits for future employees, we will find ourselves struggling, laying off employees and closing facilities."
State Rep. Bill Farmer, R-Lexington, said later Gray and public safety officers will need to present state lawmakers, who control details of the pension program, with a compromise plan.
"Somebody from the city is going to have to come to Frankfort and say this is what we want. And they must be accompanied by members of the police and fire department shaking their heads, yes," Farmer said. "If they don't have police and fire buy-in on this, they are going to have a problem."
Also at the forefront of challenges facing Gray will be creating jobs and putting a focus on economic innovation.
To make the city a magnet for jobs and private investment, it must continue to expand and improve its "quality-of-life infrastructure," such as recreational trails, downtown improvements, funding for the arts and protecting the rural countryside, he said.
Gray also said he wants the city to take another look at plans for a downtown water feature that would connect the Civic Center and CentrePointe, both of which sit atop the original banks of Town Branch Creek.
And he called for implementing a two-way street plan for downtown, saying city leaders had "jammered and jabbered about it" long enough.
Reaction to the speech was positive from several Urban County Council members.
"He hit on things that I've been talking about for a long time," said Councilman Chuck Ellinger II. "We've got to promote the quality of life to attract and keep people here. I was inspired. I look forward to working with the mayor."
At-large council member Steve Kay called the speech "terrific, the right combination of sobering news and a vision for the future. This is stuff we can do."