Thousands will gather in downtown Lexington the next few days to run, parade, listen to music, feed their faces or get them painted, watch fireworks and people.
Despite gaping holes, neglected buildings, a Vine Street and Midland Avenue corridor that’s about as inviting as a DMZ and a dearth of welcoming public spaces, for decades the Fourth of July Festival has been a hallmark of our collective life.
Imagine what that life could be like if Lexington’s park-poor downtown had a welcoming space for people to gather.
That’s the imagining behind a public-private partnership to transform a 10-acre dead zone behind Rupp Arena and the convention center into Town Branch Park and link it with a 2-mile green pathway along Vine and Midland.
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But getting from concept to completion will be hard. The greenway is publicly funded , however, the plan is to raise $30 million privately to build the 10-acre Town Branch Park. Programming, maintenance and management will be funded through revenue from space rental, concessions, sponsorships and gifts — a model that has worked in other cities.
Mayor Jim Gray said it is “unprecedented” to see so much giving for a public project in Lexington last week when the Town Branch Fund Advisory Board announced that $5 million has been pledged to the project, with a goal to reach $22 million in commitments within three years.
While Gray, who is one of the donors (although the public hasn’t been told how much each has pledged, unfortunately) no doubt meant his remark as a celebration, it is also an indication of the challenge.
To raise that kind of money in Lexington, other elected and civic leaders must join Gray in selling this as a project that, if done right, can enhance and define the entire community for generations.
The park and greenway will link the Town Branch and Legacy trails, creating a continuous cycling and pedestrian path over more than 20 miles, from the Kentucky Horse Park to the north to Masterson Station Park to the west, and all the neighborhoods along the way. That’s exactly the type of quality-of-life amenity that gives a city an edge in recruiting high-quality employers and affluent retirees.
There is abundant data showing that parks improve property values and increase local government revenues. While the economic benefits are critical, this new park can also help Lexington/Fayette County preserve what makes it unique.
Creating more vital urban parkland is essential to preserving our precious farmland. If we are to do that and continue to grow, Lexington must have more dense urban development, and with it more green space for those urban dwellers.
The park will include a huge lawn/amphitheater, space for fields and games, trails, and a variety of play areas. Town Branch, the long-buried stream that runs through downtown, will also surface in the park.
It can enhance the neighborliness visitors often remark on in Lexington by adding a great place where everyone can come to watch their kids play, get exercise, attend a concert, or just be outdoors.
Beginning with the well-designed Ashland Park, Lexington has enjoyed a wealth of gracious suburban residential neighborhoods surrounding a downtown that cleared out after dark.
In recent years, downtown has come to life. Jefferson, Short and Limestone streets, National Avenue and the Distillery District are lively destinations.
The 21C Museum Hotel opened on Main Street and next door the Old Courthouse will soon reopen. Even the long-dormant CentrePointe appears close to completing an underground garage, which hopefully will lead to development above ground.
With Town Branch Park added to this mix, downtown, and the entire community will be much, much greater than the sum of the parts. This generation of civic leaders must step up to the challenge to make it a reality for generations to come.