The Historic East End Community Association has complained to the U.S. Justice Department that black citizens have been denied use of the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Center in Lexington.
Patricia-Devine Muhammad, president of the neighborhood association, told the Urban County Council on Tuesday that black community members were frustrated because they had limited access to the Lyric after working hard to save it.
The Lyric was built in 1948 as a theater and social hub for black residents and black acts during segregation. But it sat empty, abandoned and deteriorating for nearly five decades after closing in 1963. After a $6 million renovation, the Lyric, at Third Street and Elm Tree Lane, reopened in 2010.
The cultural center and theater have been a disappointment, Muhammad said. Fees to rent the theater portion of the center are "excessive," and neither neighborhood nor community groups can afford them. Rental fees range from $150 to $1,650, depending on the space, according to the Lyric's Web site.
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"We envisioned that the talents of our young people, among others, would be polished and showcased on its historic stage," Muhammad said.
In addition, the Lyric's 15-member board does not include an East End resident, Muhammad said. Events are not advertised in ways accessible to neighborhood residents.
"How does anybody know what's going on there except to drive by and see the marquee," she said.
In addition to appearing at the council work session, Muhammad sent letters to Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, Central Kentucky state legislators, Mayor Jim Gray and members of the Urban County Council. She also complained to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a source of grant funding.
Attempts to discuss the issues with the Lyric staff and board chairwoman "have proven fruitless in granting our members access to the public facilities for community programming," Muhammad said in her letter.
Urban County Council member Chris Ford, whose 1st District includes the Lyric and the area around it, introduced a measure Tuesday to change the makeup of three seats on the Lyric board. One would be designated for an East End representative.
Ford said several constituents had contacted him with complaints and frustrations. At his urging, the Lyric board will meet at night instead of during the day "to allow more people to come out and participate," Ford said. The next meeting is at 5:30 p.m. March 22 at the Lyric.
Ford serves on the Lyric board as a representative of the council.
Also, a community meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the theater so the Lyric board can gather ideas from residents on the kind of events they would like to see at the historic theater.
"There has been no intent to lock anybody out," Ford said after the meeting. "But from comments I have heard, people do feel some level of frustration. I do know going forward we have to be more inviting and welcoming."
Board chairwoman Freda Meriweather said she had not heard a lot of criticism. "We do acknowledge people want to see movies, but it's not a community center," she said. "When we are doing movies, we can't rent the facility for other events."
Meriweather said that if the board can purchase a projector, movies could be shown "once a month or once a quarter."
Affordable movies and events in the theater's art gallery would help the community feel involved, said Brannon Dunn, a member of the Historic East End Community Association.
"Their hearts are with it," Dunn said of the theater. "But there's no connection between the Lyric and the community."