As he spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony Monday for Bluegrass Community and Technical College's new campus, P.G. Peeples tried not to get emotional.
Peeples is the longtime chief executive of Lexington's Urban League and the new Board of Regents chairman for the college's parent organization, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.
He explained that in 1964, he was the teenage son of a black coal miner in Harlan County, and he was determined to become one of the first in his family to earn a college degree. He began at the only college he could afford, the only one near his home: Southeast Community College.
Peeples finished his degree at the University of Kentucky. Then, in 1969, he began his Urban League career in the predominantly black neighborhood just west of BCTC's new campus, which for nearly two centuries has been Eastern State Hospital.
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"This is an exciting day," Peeples said. The new campus will bring affordable higher education closer to that neighborhood, he said, "and it will be an economic driver for the north side of Lexington — a section of town that has been historically neglected."
The groundbreaking crowd included Gov. Steve Beshear, more than a dozen legislators, four Urban County Council members and Lexington's current and previous mayors. They were there to celebrate an ingenious state land swap engineered three years ago by state Rep. Jimmie Lee of Elizabethtown.
Lee came up with the idea while trying to figure out a way to build a new home for Eastern State. Built in 1816 as only the nation's second public mental hospital, the antiquated complex has needed replacing for decades. Lee worked with the governor, legislators, UK officials and former Mayor Jim Newberry to make the swap happen.
Eastern State is moving a few miles north on Newtown Pike to UK's Coldstream Research Campus, which has struggled to find tenants. BCTC is moving from the southern edge of UK's campus, giving the university expansion space. In its new home, BCTC will be a busy anchor that could revitalize a huge swath of north Lexington between Broadway and Georgetown Streets.
The new state mental hospital under construction at Coldstream is to be finished by December 2012. The first of what BCTC hopes will be at least 15 state-financed buildings is to open in spring 2013.
"This campus will be a beacon for a brighter future for many Kentucky families," Beshear said, noting the need to educate and retrain workers for a rapidly changing economy.
The neighborhoods and shabby industrial areas around the old, fenced-off Eastern State property are buzzing with speculators because of the expected demand for new commercial and residential development around the campus. The area is a logical path of growth for the restaurant district emerging along Jefferson Street.
"I think this campus will revitalize and add a great deal of energy to this part of town," Vice Mayor Linda Gorton said. "Think of the thousands of people who will be coming and going from here every day. It's another piece of the puzzle of this whole end of town sort of being renovated."
BCTC President Augusta Julian recognized three years ago how important the new campus would be to Lexington. She hired top-notch talent, both locally and nationally, to design the campus and begin engaging local stakeholders in planning how it would affect the surrounding area.
As those plans start to materialize, much remains to be done. City and state transportation planners are working on several issues, including returning Fourth Street to two-way traffic and planning a connection to the Legacy Trail for bicycle commuters.
The state Heritage Council is trying to secure funding or create public- private partnerships to restore two historic Eastern State buildings. The city needs to get moving on rezoning nearby industrial property so privately financed mixed-use development can begin.
"We are absolutely thrilled about the future implications this is going to have on the community," said Seth Brewer, president of Northside Neighborhood Association, which covers historic residential areas east and south of the new campus. "It really could be huge."