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New Circle cigarette billboard a relic of past

For people driving daily along New Circle Road in north Lexington, it might seem at one particular point as if they're traveling back in time.

That's because as you ride on an overpass between Georgetown and Leestown roads, you're greeted by a billboard advertising Carlton cigarettes, proclaiming a U.S. government test method confirms it has the lowest amount of tar "of all king soft packs."

Sounds like something out of the 1980s, right? That's because it is.

The billboard sits on property owned by Lexington's G.F. Vaughan Tobacco Co. and was covered years ago by an advertisement for a warehousing subsidiary. But that apparently blew off, exposing the cigarette advertising, which, according to Tobacco Documents Online (www.tobaccodocuments.org), is circa late 1980s or early 1990s. Such advertising has been banned for years.

Derek Vaughan, chairman of G.F. Vaughan Tobacco, said he wasn't aware of the billboard and plans to change it, one of a number of changes including property redevelopment that were discussed after what began with a simple call about a billboard.

Vaughan is planning to tear down 21 of the 28 old tobacco warehouses that sit along the 30-plus acres of property that front West Main Street between Price and Forbes roads and stretches back in a narrow shape along railroad tracks to New Circle, where the billboard is visible.

That billboard was once a sign of what went on in the warehouses. "Quiet. Tobacco sleeping," it read, Vaughan recalled. Today, many of the warehouses have fallen into disrepair. The company also has moved to doing more general storage instead of just tobacco storage, though it does handle some of the leaf for which Kentucky is known.

Vaughan said his company plans to disassemble the warehouses so the wood can be recycled. In their place will be nothing for now, he said.

"They were built in the late '30s and '40s," he said. "Because they're so old, they've kind of reached their peak, so to speak, and I feel the property is more valuable with nothing on it and plan to redevelop it."

Vaughan said he's considering everything for the site, "and I'm not settled on anything."

One thing that might not be realistic is residential space. Rob McGoodwin, president of The McGoodwin Co. that developed the nearby Lorillard Lofts, cautioned against more residential development.

"We're still in a fairly long period of absorption of existing units," he said. "To bring on a new project, especially one that doesn't have a class A location like next to UK or one of the hospitals or something like that, I think would be a challenge to get financed in this environment for now."

McGoodwin, who said his Lorillard Lofts have "had a decent reception given the economy," said the nearby train tracks also would detract from a residential development.

McGoodwin and Lexington developer Tim Haymaker said the best use might be some kind of commercial or industrial application. Haymaker said the site would have more potential if it could be rezoned from its current industrial classification to a different type that would give more flexibility for commercial operations.

"What you have to have in a destination like that is a destination," he said. "It can't be an impulse place. In that kind of location, you've got to have something that somebody's looking for and that's one of the few places you can get that kind of goods or services."

In the meantime, at least one thing will be changing on the site. Vaughan said he plans to have the Carlton cigarettes billboard taken down in the coming weeks. He said he's never been contacted by city officials about it and speculated that they, too, just hadn't seen it.

"I didn't know that until I saw where you called," he said. "I hadn't seen that billboard in maybe a year."

Indeed, city spokeswoman Susan Straub said the city's building inspection unit hadn't received any complaints about the billboard.

"This sounds like a maintenance issue, which they do address, and they'll look into it," she said.

Vaughan said he's thinking about offering the spot, though it's sometimes obscured by trees, to The Fayette Alliance, a group that advocates infill redevelopment.

"I'd offer it free of charge," he said.

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