21C Museum Hotels closes on historic downtown building

bfortune@herald-leader.comSeptember 28, 2012 

The deed is done.

The historic First National Building on West Main Street was sold Thursday to 21C Museum Hotels for $3.1 million, another step toward bringing a boutique hotel and contemporary art museum to downtown.

"We're really excited. It's a great building," Craig Greenberg, president of 21C Museum Hotels, said Friday. "We're excited to re-energize the building and participate in the great revitalization in downtown Lexington."

On Thursday, the Planning Commission gave unanimous approval to 21C's tax increment financing (TIF) plan, certifying it was in compliance with the city's 2012 Comprehensive Plan. This step was required by state law before the hotel could apply for TIF funding.

Louisville philanthropists and art collectors Steve Wilson and his wife, Laura Lee Brown, who launched the first 21C hotel in Louisville in 2006, announced in April they had signed an agreement to buy the 15-story building from owners Ben Buckley and his son Biff, owners of Buckley & Company Insurance agency. The couple also bought an adjoining three-story building condominium office building at 145 West Main.

Greenberg said Friday that architects are engaged in the design phase of the $38 million project to convert the 100-year-old bank building into an 80-room hotel with a restaurant, bar, meeting rooms, ballroom and an art museum.

The 21C is putting its financing package together, much of which will be private, but city and state help will be needed, Greenberg said.

The hotel company will ask the city to help arrange a $6 million federal loan through a program that supports projects creating jobs for low-and moderate-income workers. The company anticipates the hotel will create 150 permanent jobs and construction jobs.

The company also will ask the city for a $2 million urban development loan designed for projects like the 21C. The city has used these grants to support other downtown rehabilitation projects, including Victorian Square.

Greenberg will be at the Urban County Council work session Oct. 9 to update the council on 21C's plans and to request support for the urban development loan.

In addition, the hotel is applying for state historic tax credits and new market tax credits.

"We are moving as fast as we can, and we want to start construction as soon as we can. But there are still a lot of pieces to put into place, particularly as it relates to support that we need to make the project a reality," Greenberg said. Public incentives "need to become a reality before we can finalize or start anything."

When talking about the 21C, Steve Wilson emphasizes that his hotel is a combination of a hotel and a real art museum.

"It is not art for decoration," he said in an April interview. He said the 21C Museum is the only museum in the country "dedicated to collecting and exhibiting contemporary art by living artists."

The museum is to be open free of charge, 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

A 21C Museum Hotel will open in November in Cincinnati in the historic Metropole Hotel building; a third opens in Bentonville, Ark., in January.

For Lexington, sale of the First National Building marked the third event in a red-letter week for downtown.

On Tuesday, the Downtown Development Authority issued a request for a firm to do a conceptual design to bring Town Branch Creek to the surface for the first time in more than 100 years. Town Branch flows through downtown in an underground tunnel.

On Wednesday, Alltech's Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. began crafting its first batch of Town Branch Bourbon in a new distillery at 401 Cross Street.

The distillery is the first bourbon distillery to be built in Lexington in more than 100 years.

Jeff Fugate, president of the Downtown Development Authority, said what tied the three events together for him was not only geography, but history.

"All these point to the fact Lexington has an authentic, honest history. As we look to the future, we are hanging it on our past," he said.

"At times that past has been water. At times it's been bourbon and now our historic building stock. This is a testament to the rich, historic fabric and the legacy we have in Lexington which provides a guidepost for the future."

Beverly Fortune: (859) 231-3251. Twitter: @BFortune2010

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