Readers of Condé Nast Traveler magazine recently voted the 21C Museum Hotel in Louisville as the nation's best hotel.
The hotel was in the news last week and was discussed on NBC's Today show this week.
"It sounds like the idea behind this is brilliant," said Today host Matt Lauer, who seemed barely able to hide his surprise that Kentucky could be on the cutting edge of anything.
The 90-room luxury hotel that houses a public, all-hours contemporary art museum really is brilliant, and Today and Condé Nast Traveler are just the most recent examples of the positive buzz it has created for Louisville.
The 21C was the brainchild of Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, who worked with Lexington-based Gray Construction to create the museum/hotel by renovating and connecting four century-old buildings.
The complex is not far from developer Bill Weyland's Glassworks art and office complex and the Louisville Slugger factory and museum. They are all on Louisville's West Main Street, in renovated old buildings that less-imaginative developers would have demolished.
These attractions have sparked a vibrant entertainment district, popular with locals and visitors alike. Last year, the American Planning Association named West Main Street one of the nation's 10 best streets.
Gray Construction's president, Lexington Vice Mayor Jim Gray, worked closely with Brown and Wilson to create 21C — and it wasn't easy. Some of the buildings needed new foundations and steel reinforcement. "There was one day when we almost lost one of them," he said.
But Brown and Wilson never considered tearing down the old buildings, Gray said. And it wasn't just because the $180-a-square-foot cost of renovation was cheaper than new construction.
"They knew that the character of the old buildings was what would inspire and create the energy for the project," Gray said. "Within the frame of the old buildings they were going to create something new and contemporary and inspiring."
Last year, during Lexington's debate over the now-stalled CentrePointe project, Gray often mentioned 21C as an alternative approach to the generic skyscraper that developer Dudley Webb planned. Webb could create something special by saving some of the 14 old buildings he wanted to tear down and weaving them into a quality piece of contemporary architecture.
Webb wasn't interested. The old buildings weren't worth saving, he said, even though renovation would have been cheaper than new construction.
So here we are, more than a year later. The block has been cleared of 180 years of Lexington history. CentrePointe is stalled and probably dead. Louisville has 21C and a lot of national buzz. Lexington has a pasture in the middle of town and a missed opportunity.
But it's not Lexington's only opportunity.
A few blocks away, developer Barry McNees is scraping together money to create the Lexington Distillery District. His vision is to renovate two abandoned bourbon distilleries and other industrial buildings in one of the city's long-neglected neighborhoods. They would become the nucleus for a mixed-use neighborhood reflecting Lexington's heritage and authentic culture.
The Distillery District is struggling amid the credit crunch. Still, the 150-year-old Old Tarr Distillery warehouse has become Buster's, a popular nightclub. Galleries and artists' studios are sprouting nearby.
"You clean that place up and it's a destination," Gray said of the Distillery District. "There's nothing like it in Lexington, and that's what appeals to people."
So here's the question for Mayor Jim Newberry's administration and Lexington's business leadership: Where should this city place its bet? Will a prosperous future look more like what's happening on Louisville's West Main Street, or what's been happening for 30 years on Lexington's West Main Street?