Among Lexington's newest leaders is Jeff Fugate, who is wrapping up his first several months as head of the city's Downtown Development Authority.
Fugate, who previously worked for the Mountain Association for Community and Economic Development in Berea, succeeded Harold Tate, who retired last year after being the only person to lead the public-private agency since its founding in 2001.
Fugate took time recently to discuss his views of downtown Lexington and priorities as he moves forward. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Question: How would you assess Lexington's current downtown offerings in retail, residential and other categories? What do you feel are downtown's biggest assets and biggest obstacles for growth?
Answer: I like to think about downtown as a series of districts. The Limestone corridor between UK and Transylvania has really come together in the last few years as the "strip" that most college towns have — a funky collection of bars, restaurants, local shops and coffee houses. The Cheapside area plus Short Street is becoming an established restaurant district, as are the lower blocks of Jefferson Street.
In addition to entertainment and eating, we have a decent office market. Approximately 9,000 to 10,000 people work downtown, mostly in the legal, financial and public sectors.
The missing piece is the corporate headquarters that haven't been able to locate downtown. It's on my short list to better understand the barriers and opportunities to that segment of the market.
The other opportunity for downtown is destination retail. Nationally, retailers are beginning to take another look at downtowns. The mistake many downtowns made in the 1970s and 1980s was trying to beat the malls at their own game — lots of surface parking and interior shopping spaces.
Now, what we see are malls trying to look like downtowns in the form of lifestyle centers. With the redevelopment of the Rupp district, we have a huge opportunity to recruit destination retail to a downtown location.
One of the assets is that what people think of as the center of the city is small enough that a handful of good projects can really make a difference. In a lot of cities where they're looking at redevelopment projects, the first task is acquiring all the land. We have the benefit of two large chunks of land in the High Street parking lot and the Cox Street parking lot that are both controlled by the city or a city entity. They present a ready-to-build option, which is what a lot of cities don't have."
Q: What do you feel is a long-term goal for downtown?
A: We need to inventory the development opportunities in downtown. We need to have a more detailed understanding of what the opportunities are.
We have a lot of vision for downtown and Lexington in general, and we have some good baseline plans about how we would expect our town to build out and look.
But an important part of realizing vision is the implementation and understanding of what's there. A big part of what it's going to take to realize the downtown we envision is an understanding of what the market is for different types of products like office, residential, retail, etc.
There's also the physical side. If we determine we need another office tower downtown, where's that going to go?"
Q: Lots of area residents will be downtown during the Fourth of July celebration. What's the best way to encourage return trips to downtown to those visitors?
A: "I think we are making good strides on this front. First and foremost, credit goes to the restaurateurs and entrepreneurs who have taken a chance on providing great places for dinner or a drink.
The Downtown Lexington Corp. has put together well-received downtown programming such as the Fourth of July celebration, Thursday Night Live and the new Fountain Films series.
The city government is about to turn over the city-owned garages to the Lexington Authority, who will invest in better upkeep of the structures, signage, improved lighting and an all-around better experience parking your car downtown.
The renovations to Triangle Park by the Triangle Foundation are first-rate. The Fifth Third Pavilion will see additional amenities in the coming months. LexTran's Colt Trolley has a new route that connects Jefferson Street to Chevy Chase.
Things are moving in the right direction. There is work left to do. Way-finding and signage is a missing piece of downtown, as is re-establishing a retail presence downtown."
Q: What is your view on the often-discussed two-way street proposals for Main and Vine streets?
A: I'm a big fan of data-driven decision making, so the questions one asks matter.
The question of two-way streets needs to be an economic one. Will two-way streets downtown increase commerce and investment downtown? Once upon a time, the thought was that unimpeded traffic into and out of downtown would drive economic development.
Forty years later, we have little data to suggest that was true. We do have the wisdom of national retailers who heavily weigh two-way streets in site location and case-studies of cities that have taken the plunge without heavy regret.
Devils are found in the details, though. In the end, we have a number of engineering questions to answer. But I'm encouraged that the question before the engineers is how to convert rather than should we convert.
Conversion from one-way to two-way is not a panacea, though. Ease and comfort of parking is part of the mix, as is ease and comfort of walking in the downtown."