Mayor Jim Gray said Tuesday that he will include money to save the old Fayette County Courthouse on Main Street and for a new urban park in his upcoming budget.
"In the campaign, I heard from many of you and from council members, 'Please mayor, fix the old courthouse.' And you are right. Taking care of history says a lot about a place," Gray said during his fifth state of the city address before the Lexington Forum at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
The city has spent more than $500,000 to fix immediate hazards to the building, which was shuttered in 2012 because of environmental concerns.
Gray said he will include money in his proposed budget — due in April — to repair the structure that sits in the center of downtown.
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Money for the first phase of Town Branch Commons, an urban park that will follow Town Branch Creek, also will be included in the budget proposal, Gray told the crowd.
After his roughly 25-minute speech, Gray declined to say how much money he planned to include for each project. An environmental and cultural assessment of the former courthouse is expected to be completed in a few weeks. Gray said city officials plan to have public meetings about the contents of that report, which will also contain proposals for future uses for the courthouse and possible private partnerships.
"The specific ways of funding these projects have not yet been determined," Gray said when asked whether he planned to borrow or issue bonds for the projects or use general fund money. "What I am committed to is ensuring that Lexington stays competitive. These projects add to the quality of life, and they respect our history."
One project absent from Tuesday's speech was a more than $300 million renovation of Rupp Arena and attached convention center. Gray, who pushed hard for state funding for the project last year, ultimately mothballed the plans last summer after the city and the University of Kentucky — Rupp's main tenant — could not come to an agreement on the scope of the project.
"When the time is right, the plan is ready," Gray said after Tuesday's speech.
He did not rule out going to the legislature — which returns Feb. 4 — to ask for state money to renovate Rupp Arena and the convention center.
"We are still working on our legislative agenda," he said.
Gray also mentioned the necessity of increasing Internet speeds in Lexington, an initiative he announced last year. The city will soon ask for requests for qualifications for private providers to determine interest in a private-public partnership. Gray said after his speech that the city is examining options for the initiative, so it's not clear whether he will put money for the project in his budget proposal.
But increasing Internet speeds is key to keeping and retaining jobs in Lexington. "We must have it to compete," Gray said during his speech.
During the first part of his speech, he also focused on major achievements of his past four years. He won re-election in a landslide in November, becoming the first mayor in 16 years to win a second term.
Some of those highlights include changing employee health insurance to generate a savings of as much as $12.1 million a year and a police and fire pension reform deal that has shaved millions of dollars in the city's future pension obligations.
But perhaps the largest applause Gray garnered from the crowd of business, civic and other leaders was when he discussed the city's plummeting unemployment rates.
"Over the past four years, we have created jobs," Gray said. "The unemployment rate in January 2011 was 8.8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The most recent numbers show it at 4.4 percent, a 50 percent drop."
In addition to Town Branch, Gray said, the city needs to improve its parks and is working toward developing an overall master parks plan.
Vice Mayor Steve Kay said he was encouraged that Gray included the parks in his annual speech.
Kay said council members have been frustrated in recent years during budget discussions about the lack of a master plan for parks. It's difficult for the council to assess what to allocate without an overall plan, he said.
"I'm glad that he put so much emphasis on parks generally, not just on Town Branch," Kay said. "It's the one area of our society in terms of quality of life that is not comparable to other parts of our city."
Kay said he thinks there is support on the council for Town Branch and the old courthouse, but that support might depend on how those two possibly big-ticket items will work in the overall budget. The current general fund budget is $313 million.
"As always, it's how they fit with the rest of the budget," Kay said. "You have to know what your overall resources are and what are the competing interests."
Council member Kevin Stinnett agreed with Kay that council will have to hear more about the details before pledging support for certain projects.
"We need to hear more about the Town Branch Commons," Stinnett said. "We aren't sure what phase of the project that he's talking about."
Stinnett said he, too, was encouraged that Gray spent so much time on infrastructure. "I think it was his best speech yet," Stinnett said.
Council member Jennifer Mossotti said she was also pleased that Gray spent time on parks and emphasizing the city's relationship with UK. That relationship became strained after the deal with Rupp went sour last year.
But Mossotti said there are also other key infrastructure needs that Gray did not specifically address. "I know that roads are a big issue in my district," Mossotti said.
During his speech, Gray did mention roads in a list of infrastructure priorities but gave no specifics on how the city would address road projects in the coming year.