Lexington developer Donald Webb, who changed the face of downtown, dies at 74

ctruman@herald-leader.comJuly 19, 2013 

Donald Webb, the Lexington developer who with his brother Dudley changed the face of downtown, died Friday at Baptist Health Lexington.

He was 74.

His son, Woodford Webb, said Mr. Webb died of complications from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, in which lung tissue becomes scarred over time.

Woodford Webb, president of the Webb Companies, said in a statement that his father was someone who "loved Lexington and wanted the best for this community. He was particularly proud of Victorian Square and The Woodlands projects, two of which he was instrumental in bringing to fruition."

A release from the Webb Companies said that projects developed by Donald and Dudley Webb "literally changed the face of downtown Lexington with their office towers, specialty centers and condominiums."

Mayor Jim Gray said: "In the 1980s, when many developers had eyes only for the suburbs, Don believed passionately in the potential of downtown."

Beginning in that decade, Donald Webb, an attorney originally from Whitesburg, was considered one of Lexington's most influential citizens. Both he and Dudley were graduates of Georgetown College and the University of Kentucky law school.

A 1987 profile in Building Design & Construction magazine described the Webbs' success in mythic terms: "When you put it down on paper, the story of the Webb brothers of Lexington, Ky., reads like a contemporary Horatio Alger real estate success tale. It's the kind of story that warms your heart, puts a smile on your face and makes you say, 'Only in America.'"

Donald and Dudley Webb in 1971 formed their own Lexington law firm and in 1972 a real estate investment and development firm that would become the Webb Companies.

They reshaped Lexington's skyline with 14 buildings that include the city's tallest, the 30-story Lexington Financial Center.

The brothers' projects outside of downtown included Corporate Center and other office parks, warehouses and distribution and shopping centers, including The Mall at Lexington Green, Tates Creek Centre and Palomar Center.

After Donald Webb retired and Dudley Webb became chairman of the Webb Companies, Woodford Webb became the company president.

A 2008 Herald-Leader article said that the Webbs built 5.5 million square feet of structures in Fayette County that were then assessed at $250 million.

But the Webbs also were central figures in the dissolution of Kentucky Central Life Insurance Co. in the 1990s.

The state insurance commissioner filed suit in 1994 against the Webbs to collect $108.9 million in loans they had received from Kentucky Central. The issue churned through the courts for years before out-of-court settlements were reached in 2005, with Donald Webb settling his part of the lawsuit for $2.85 million and Dudley Webb for $4 million.

Donald Webb was one of the founders of the Lexington Surgery Center, an early free-standing outpatient surgery center that later became the flagship of Surgical Care Affiliates and was acquired by Health South.

Mr. Webb also served on numerous civic boards, among them the Kentucky Economic Development Corp., the Central Kentucky Blood Center, the Kentucky Horse Park Commission and Fund for the Arts. He was the primary founder of the Lexington Trolley Company and the Downtown Lexington Corp. He also served as chairman of the Greater Lexington Chamber of Commerce and as chairman of the Fayette County Democratic party.

Entrepreneur Jim Host said the Webbs were instrumental in bringing the 1985 men's basketball Final Four to Lexington, when the NCAA was going to pass over Lexington's bid because it had too few hotel rooms.

"The Webb brothers, said, 'We'll build a hotel.' And they did. And it was the Radisson. Nobody understands the amount of risk they have taken, the amount of capital they contributed to make this a better place," Host said.

"Don was a very instrumental part in making Lexington become a better place, and I am deeply saddened by his passing."

The Radisson hotel is now the Hilton.

P.G. Peeples, head of Lexington's Urban League, said that he knew Donald Webb both as a businessman and as a parent: Their sons started elementary school together.

"We both migrated here from Eastern Kentucky — me from Harlan County, him from Whitesburg. That was a bond we had," Peeples said. "I was always proud of Don and Dudley for what they accomplished coming from very humble beginnings and rising to the level of one of the largest development firms in the United States during their heyday."

"Their projects have made a tremendous impact on the city," Peeples said. "They were pioneers in urban development."

Donald Webb is survived by his wife, Julie; his son and daughter-in-law, Donald Woodford Webb Jr. and Kelli Greer Webb; two grandchildren, Donald Woodford Webb III and Greer Gabrielle Webb; his mother, Elizabeth Combs Webb; a brother, two sisters, and seven nieces and nephews.

Visitation will be held at Calvary Baptist Church, 150 East High Street, from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Tuesday, with funeral services beginning at 11 a.m.

Memorial contributions may be made to Galilean Home Ministries, P.O. Box 880, Liberty KY 42539; Hospice of the Bluegrass, 2312 Alexandria Drive, Lexington, KY 40504; and VNA Hospice, 1110 35th Lane, Vero Beach FL 32960.

Kerr Brothers Funeral Home, 463 East Main Street, is in charge of arrangements.

Cheryl Truman: (859)231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.