The new Downtown Lexington Management District begins operation Monday, and the first sign will be cleanup activities by part-time “ambassadors” dressed in khaki pants and bright purple shirts. Why purple?
“You’ve never seen anything like trying to get 15 people to agree on a color,” said James Frazier, an attorney who chairs the new district’s 15-member governing board as well as the Lexington Parking Authority.
Tennessee orange was out; so was Cardinal red and Carolina blue. Ambassadors wearing Wildcat blue would have blended into the crowd. “We just grabbed purple and that was it,” Frazier said. “It’ll pop!”
The purple shirts aren’t the only thing that needs to pop. The new district, which will use a tax surcharge to fund special maintenance and services for the central business district, has five years to prove its worth or go away.
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The district organization plans to use $415,000 generated during the first year of an extra 10-cent tax on each $100 of assessed property value in the district to enhance maintenance and improvement of public spaces beyond what city government does.
A staff of about eight ambassadors will be on duty each day and evening to do everything from cleaning up litter and assisting visitors to dealing with panhandlers.
The district has created a website — Dlex.town — and has scheduled a public forum for 6 p.m. Sept. 21 in the Urban County Council chambers. The district also is looking for volunteers for a non-voting advisory board.
“We’re seeking ideas for what people think we should be doing to make downtown better for everyone,” said Frazier, adding that the key will be providing services for which neither the city nor property owners are now responsible.
The district’s 15-member board includes a variety of private-sector representatives from the area, as well as Vice Mayor Steve Kay and Jake Gibbs, the 3rd District Council member. To manage the effort, the board has hired Louisville-based Block by Block, which already manages successful districts in Louisville and Cincinnati.
The Urban County Council approved creation of the special taxing district in May 2015 for an area bounded by Midland Avenue, High Street, Newtown Pike and parts of Second Street. Approval came after the Downtown Lexington Corp. gathered petition signatures from 51 percent of property owners representing 62.5 percent of the district’s assessed value.
That was substantially more than the 33 percent of owners representing 51 percent of assessed value that state law requires. A previous effort in 2013 failed. The district’s authorization must be renewed every five years to make sure property owners still think its services are worth the extra tax assessment.
Frazier said ambassadors and Block by Block’s on-site manager will spend most of their first week or two picking up litter, scrubbing off graffiti and pressure-washing sidewalks. Next spring, look for more plantings and flowers downtown.
A first step will be getting the trash and recycling bins at Cheapside Park out of sight in a screened area leased from a nearby private parking lot. Eventually, the district hopes to locate trash compactors for downtown restaurants and merchants, likely in city parking garages, to get more Herbies and Rosies off the street.
The district plans to organize pop-up shops and vendors and provide up to $20,000 in matching funds for property owners wishing to install outdoor public art. Ambassadors will staff Thursday Night Live and some other events to help visitors with everything from directions to escorts to parking garages.
“Our idea is to try to bring more vibrancy to the downtown core,” Frazier said. “The activity you see on Thursday nights, it would be great to have every day. That’s going to be our challenge.”
Frazier said the ambassadors will work closely with police and the city’s new Office for Homelessness Prevention and Intervention when there are problems with panhandlers, but he doesn’t see any significant safety issues to be addressed thanks to years of good policing.
One financial challenge the district faces is the large amount of non-taxed downtown property owned by government and non-profits. Once the management district starts showing its value, Frazier said, the board plans to ask them for contributions.
“These districts have been very successful in other cities, and hopefully it will be a positive here,” said Steve Grossman, a stockbroker and president of the Triangle Foundation, which developed Triangle and Thoroughbred parks downtown. “If it’s not, it’s not going to last very long.”