Arts and entertainment is in the soil of the CentrePointe block, even as deep as it has been dug.
A generation ago in the Lexington theater scene, it was home to Levas’ restaurant where Theatre Down Under and the first incarnation of Actors Guild of Lexington used to perform. Then, in its final constructed iteration, it was home to The Dame, the storied music venue that hosted a who’s who of artists in the 2000s. Even after the buildings, including the one housing The Dame, were destroyed in 2008 to make way for a still-not-built high rise, the empty field hosted festivals, events and performances, becoming a Lexington gathering place, until it became CentrePit.
Once again, we are at a point where there are no current plans, near as anyone can tell, to move forward on building in the spot, which leaves everyone who cares about the City of Lexington — particularly downtown — room to think out loud about could happen there.
Arts and entertainment had never been a significant topic of discussion about the block. Most of the plans and speculation centered on a hotel, luxury condominiums and retail and restaurants – not that there has been a screaming need for any of those things.
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As the initial CentrePointe plans were introduced, Herald-Leader reports said downtown hotels were running well below capacity. Other luxury condominium developments hit rough waters in the ensuing years, and downtown retail has struggled. Restaurants … well, we have a very active restaurant scene, in and out of downtown.
I’m not a businessman, but I always found it hard to discern what the planned CentrePointe developments were supposed to add to downtown. The space seemed to contribute as much to the city’s life as an empty field as it would in any of the proposed structured forms.
But this week, Facebook user Juanjo Galicia, a graphic artist who is one of the organizers of the the Festival Latino de Lexington and Friday Latino Live events, floated a CentrePointe idea for the Lexington City Amphitheatre with the words, “This is what we need in Lexington Downtown.”
In a note to me, he wrote, “This whole idea of the amphitheater is not new, many big cities have one. This is not a ‘small town’ anymore. We are a city, we need to think as a city people, we need these kind of venues, we can have free concerts, we can have festivals, we can bring vendors and we don't even have to charge the people. Could you image all the business around the area? That's the revenue we need. We don't need closed business, we need to revive the area. At the end of the day I want to be proud of my city and its people.”
He’s onto something.
Galicia’s idea does not replicate something we already have. It makes more permanent something — namely an outdoor stage — that is frequently thrown up for events on the courthouse square and other downtown spaces, often successful events and festivals. It could help solidify downtown as a gathering space for major events. It could give downtown Lexington a real gathering-place park.
It is an idea.
Some responders have taken the concept literally and addressed it narrowly.
How about taking it as a conversation starter? What role could arts and entertainment play in the development of this space?
Lexington is a town with a very odd assortment of venues from the very large (Rupp Arena) to almost insufficiently small (the Lexington Opera House, as lovely as it is) to the narrowly defined (UK’s Singletary Center). There is not a permanent amphitheater with the exception of the MoonDance at Midnight Pass in the Beaumont neighborhood, which under city management has proven to be popular.
Our fair city also doesn’t have a real state-of-the-art performing arts center with a substantial theater of about 2,000 to 2,500 seats, really a standard issue facility for cities of our size. There was supposed to be one, but it turned into court houses; and a settlement of a lawsuit over those changed plans became the Downtown Arts Center, which has had its issues. (The DAC’s main space, a black box theater, holds 150 to 200, and went through an extremely slow period before the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government took over management late in 2014. It definitely has its uses, but is far from what was originally proposed.)
For decades, city officials have written off a performing arts center, saying it would be under-utilized and impractical. I remain unconvinced. Cities such as Paducah, Owensboro, Bowling Green and Richmond, all significantly smaller cities with smaller metropolitan areas than Lexington, Kentucky’s second-largest city, have these types of theaters — some a shade under 2,000 seats — as sources of civic pride and activity.
Could this block be the place to finally do that? It’s another idea.
This isn’t to advocate any specific plan. And really, any ideas have to come with the caveat that as of this moment, the land is privately owned, and many people who know more about this stuff than I, say it would be prohibitively expensive for the city to buy it.
Then again, who says an A&E venue has to be a public project?
MoonDance, while city managed, was privately built by developers Tim and Andy Haymaker, who wanted to add to the quality of life in a community they built. Lexington has something of a record of this sort of thing. When Lexington city leaders declined to build a stadium for a minor league baseball team, a private group lead by Alan Stein built what is now Whitaker Bank Ballpark, giving the city a major gathering place for baseball and other attractions. There’s no reason a private entity with the resources couldn’t build an amphitheater or a theater or some other development of that type.
Regardless of how it goes, drawing on Galicia’s idea, it makes sense to make arts, entertainment, recreation and culture part of the conversation about what could become of what currently is a directionless, empty hole in the center of our city.