Eighth-grader Carolyn Romans had one key observation after a school field trip to downtown Lexington: "It's just really a place for adults."
"Mmm, mmm," said a nodding Kristoni "K.K." Cross. "It's mostly just lawyers," said the seventh-grader, barely looking up from the computer where she was creating a playground to be a part of a new design for the CentrePointe site.
Carolyn and K.K. are among about 50 kids in a special summer enrichment program at Winburn Middle School who have taken on the hefty task of coming up with an innovative project for the vacant CentrePointe site in the middle of the city.
Divided into five teams, the kids have not only toured downtown but have researched everything from the prominent architectural styles of old Lexington to the best way to make a hotel environmentally friendly.
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White boards in each room were filled with questions that needed to be answered, calculations that needed to be made. Students were using laptop computers to virtually create their inspirations.
Eighth-grader Dakota Johnson was oblivious to the flutter around her Thursday as she painstakingly mapped out the floor plans, flooring and paint for apartments in what her team is calling Kentucky Plaza. It's an apartment complex renting two- and three-bedroom units — $795 and $895 a month, respectively — that offers amenities such as a gym and restaurants that will generate revenue.
She said she might have discovered a future career in interior design.
"It's real-world, hands-on experience," said summer academy coordinator Michelle Davis. It gives the students a chance to use technology, get involved in the community and dream a little bit. Teachers recommended students for the program.
The projects are very hush-hush, Davis said. The teams are competing "Apprentice-style," she said, referring to Donald Trump's NBC reality TV show. One group will ultimately be crowned the winner. (The prize? Bragging rights.)
On Thursday, three weeks into the program and with the project still in the fine-tuning stage, the kids gave a peek to Vice Mayor Jim Gray and council members Andrea James and Tom Blues. The groups will eventually present their ideas to the full Urban County Council.
Carolyn thinks her group has the winning idea: a multi-use entertainment complex that includes a spa for Mom and Dad, a place for pampering pets and a roller-skating rink.
"I asked everyone around my neighborhood, and they all said they wanted something for kids," Carolyn said.
Davis said the groups not only had to come up with a creative idea, but they had to research and calculate whether their project could be profitable.
"We want to talk about the thing everyone is interested in," said Rayny Palmer, who made his pitch about a themed/green hotel to the council members. "We think we can make about 2 million (dollars) a year," said the seventh-grader. "That's not even renting out all the rooms every day.
"We don't want to be greedy."
During his part of the group's presentation, Francisco Paredes, a sixth-grader, made a point that many jobs would be created during the construction of the project and afterward, when permanent customer-service staff would be hired.
Rayny's group's project is called The First Green, and each student is designing a themed floor. Eighth-grader Moriah Taylor picked a Michael Jackson theme. The decoration for each room would be inspired by a song, and faux smoke would billow up as the elevator opened onto a floor.
Eighth-grader Rainele Jackson's bubble-gum-themed floor was less elaborate but equally inspired by her passion. "I was just really craving gum that day," she said.
Rayny had a question that the vice mayor and council members didn't have a ready answer for: "How come it's been so long and the government hasn't done anything" to use the vacant land at CentrePointe?
Eighth-grader Alex Curran served as the spokeswoman for her group's project, dubbed Centre Stage. The entertainment complex would include an ice skating rink and a reincarnation of the University of Kentucky Basketball Museum, which operated downtown but closed a few years ago. One of the challenges, Alex said, was trying to define the true character of downtown.
Her teacher, Jackie Haynes, said the class spent a lot of time discussing what the ideal purpose of a downtown should be and what should be at its core.
"We've spent a lot of time talking about just that on the council," said James, who praised the creativity of all the students.
Gray also said the students had a lot of innovative ideas.
"Maybe the people at CentrePointe," he said, "could learn a few things from you."