Herald-Leader Editorial

Right move on loan for hotel/museum; it aids in preserving building, adding jobs

June 10, 2014 

The Urban County Council did the right thing Thursday night when it made good on a 2-year-old promise and authorized, in a 10-3 vote, a loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the 21c Museum Hotel downtown.

The loan — not a grant — is a small but crucial piece of the financing plan that makes it possible for private investors to carry out a $43 million project to rehabilitate a nationally significant historic building into a one-of-a-kind destination hotel that includes a modern art museum.

The hotel also will mean more than 100 jobs, paying at least $10 an hour, within walking distance of some of Lexington's most economically depressed neighborhoods.

The objections fell into two categories: HUD money is better spent building affordable housing than luxury hotels, and the museum's art might damage the moral character of our community.

The answer to the first is simple and clear to anyone who listened to the testimony or took the time to explore HUD's own description of its Section 108 loan program.

It's purpose is to encourage "physical and economic revitalization projects." The HUD website goes on to say, "Such public investment is often needed to inspire private economic activity, providing the initial resources or simply the confidence that private firms and individuals may need to invest in distressed areas."

If, as Councilman Chris Ford said, this wasn't what HUD was intended to do when established decades ago (although the agency's title includes "urban development"), that argument should be made in Washington, not used to block a worthy project in Lexington.

In fact, Ford praised the loan proposal in 2012, saying he hoped it would be a springboard for similar economic development efforts.

As to the second point, there is no more slippery slope than government censorship of artistic expression.

A local minister showed photos of work representing naked children by sculptor Judy Fox at the 21c in Louisville. From there, other citizens leapt to "pornography," "rape," "incest" and "selling the soul of our children."

Councilmen George Myers and Kevin Stinnett jumped aboard.

Myers, who in 2012 called 21c "a great project for our city," declared that these images didn't fit here, and Stinnett tried to extract a promise from the president of 21c that the hotel/museum would not display images of naked children.

That odd request, if extended to other institutions, would take a toll on the Art Museum at the University of Kentucky, virtually every school and public library, most churches, and that licentious statue of nymphs in Gratz Park, to name just a few.

Stinnett, who now represents the 6th District but is running for an at-large seat on the council, seemed flummoxed as a vote approached.

Citing concern about a threat to children, he first said he couldn't support 21c. Other council members then pointed out the impossibility of an elected body censoring art and made the case for the economic importance of the project and the more crucial importance of the city keeping its promises.

Stinnett then returned to the microphone and made a speech that seemed to indicate that he favored the project, saying, "Lexington always honors its promises." When the council finally was polled, he voted no, although by then it was clear that a majority favored it.

It was a long, strange night at the council, but our community can be thankful that reason, and the First Amendment, prevailed.

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