A parade of citizens urged city officials Tuesday night to approve plans for the Distillery District and the Phoenix Park/Courthouse Development Area that would each use new tax revenues to make significant public improvements to downtown.
Downtown businessman Larry Chiles summed up opinions on the CentrePointe hotel and condo development driving the Phoenix Park plan: "It would be foolish and ludicrous not to utilize these dollars. ... It would be a shame for Lexington not to do both of these projects."
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The council chamber was filled with supporters and opponents who turned out for a public hearing on the two tax increment financing projects. Each hearing was scheduled for one hour, but neither ran its limit.
Reservations were expressed about each project, but the overwhelming sentiment was that the city stood much to gain.
Former vice mayor Isabel Yates said she was "wary and quite apprehensive" of the 35-story CentrePointe project, considering its visual impact on downtown and the huge proposed funding for the project, considering the state of the global economy. Developers of the $200 million complex, Dudley and Woodford Webb, have refused to disclose their funding source.
However, Yates said, she endorsed tax increment financing as a tool for downtown redevelopment, and if the state approved the Phoenix Park project, $16 million would allow restoration of the old Fayette County Courthouse, now the Lexington History Center. "You cannot look a gift horse in the mouth," she said.
Joy Breeding, an employee of Bellini's restaurant on West Main Street, also saw both sides. "Whether or not you support CentrePointe, you have to realize some things are about compromise. People support projects for different reasons," Breeding said.
Bellini's, across the street from the proposed hotel at Main Street and Limestone, supports the Phoenix Park TIF district, Breeding said, because it will generate money for a façade loan program, improved sidewalks downtown, a home for the Farmers Market, parking and public art.
Former state Sen. Joe Graves spoke against Centre Pointe, calling it "an oversized, unneeded, financially risky hotel and condo tower." Graves asked the council to turn thumbs down on the Phoenix Park TIF district.
Van Meter Pettit, president of Town Branch Trail Inc., favored the $190 million Distillery District because of the new incremental tax revenues it would generate to fund two more miles of restoring the creek that runs through the district and building a hiking trail.
Also, Distillery District plans call for building a boutique distillery to reintroduce bourbon making in Fayette County. "That's a pretty big deal," Pettit said.
Developing the arts and entertainment district near the heart of downtown on a long-neglected stretch of Manchester Street would become a tourist destination. "It would be a home run for keeping the population downtown dense and taking development pressure off our farmland," Pettit said.
Architect Clive Pohl called the Distillery District "exemplary urban planning." The project calls for restoring several historic buildings, including two old distilleries. He said it was forward-looking in being pedestrian-friendly and having energy-efficient buildings.
Roland Taylor, who lives in Irishtown, which adjoins the Distillery District, said plans he saw for the Distillery District showed his house at 224 Perry Street converted to green space. He asked whether the city planned to take his house by eminent domain.
Barry McNees, Distillery District developer, told Taylor after the hearing that he had bought all the property needed for the project and he was not buying houses. McNees said the only house he had bought was an abandoned house on Willard Street.
Taylor remained skeptical. He would feel reassured, he said, "if somebody in a position of authority, like the mayor, would say that in front of a camera so it would be documented."