Jeff Ruby meeting with CentrePointe investor; city awaits report on project

Restaurateur Jeff Ruby is meeting with CentrePointe investor, he said. The project, which began in 2008, has left a large hole in downtown Lexington. Ruby planned to put a steakhouse there. Photo by Charles Bertram Staff
Restaurateur Jeff Ruby is meeting with CentrePointe investor, he said. The project, which began in 2008, has left a large hole in downtown Lexington. Ruby planned to put a steakhouse there. Photo by Charles Bertram Staff Herald-Leader

Restaurateur Jeff Ruby says he will be meeting with CentrePointe investor Matt Collins on Saturday in Cincinnati and hopes to get an update on the downtown Lexington development.

After Ruby expressed frustration with the lack of progress with the project earlier this week on Twitter and in an interview with the Herald-Leader, Ruby said he heard from U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, who called to ask what he can do to get the project going.

“He said ‘I just wanted to know if there’s anything I can do to help you on a federal level,’” Ruby said of the congressman who ended his presidential bid Wednesday to focus on his Senate campaign.

Paul’s office did not immediately return a call for comment on what that aid might entail.

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray is challenging the Republican senator in the November general election. In comments earlier this week, Ruby blamed Gray for the stalled CentrePointe, where Ruby had planned to put a steakhouse.

“You got the largest sinkhole in America sitting in downtown Lexington ... you got the Rupp fiasco and now you got the mayor running for Congress.” Ruby said earlier this week. “I come from New Jersey. In Jersey, he wouldn’t be running for Congress; he’d be running for cover.”

Gray was vice mayor when The Webb Cos. and partners in 2008 announced plans for a $250 million high-rise hotel, condominium, retail and office project. From the beginning, Gray expressed concerns about the project, which quickly razed a full city block, including some of the oldest buildings in Lexington.

And as mayor, Gray also demanded that the CentrePointe developers sign an agreement to restore the site if no work occurred for 60 days. In April, the city ordered developer the Webb Companies, which has managed the project since 2008, to fill in the three-story hole after no work had occurred on the site. The Webb Companies denied the city’s allegation. In August, new developers Bridgeton Holdings of New York and Tim Collins of Lexington, announced they were taking over the project.

The city has granted the current developers a series of extensions on the April fill-in order. On Friday, the group was granted its final 30-day extension.

Stantec, a major tenant for the CentrePointe office tower, pulled out because the Webb Companies were not able to build the office tower. Without a major tenant, Bridgeton Holdings and Collins proposed doing away with the office tower and building a new City Hall on the site instead.

The city hired consultant Jones Lang LaSalle to do a market analysis to determine the most cost-effective way to develop a new government center and determine the market rate for commercial leases in the Lexington area. That $198,500 report could be discussed by the Urban County Council as early as next week.

Some on the council have pressed for those discussions to be made public, but the city’s lawyers have said that doing so would give the current developers in unfair advantage in any potential negotiations.

There is a provision in the open meetings law that allows a public body to discuss in closed session — not in public — the sale or leasing of property. The Jones Lang LaSalle report would likely fall into this exception.

“I think we need to be transparent to the citizens,” said At-Large Councilman Richard Moloney at a council work session on Tuesday. Taxpayer money paid for the report, Moloney said.

Chief Administrative Officer Sally Hamilton said city lawyers would review a draft of the report to determine if it can be discussed during a public meeting. Hamilton said the city lawyers had originally advised the report should be discussed behind closed doors.

Susan Straub, a spokeswoman for the city, said the city could not say when the report would be presented to the council and if those discussions would be made public.

City officials have said that the initial offer by the developers was too high. No one has said what that offer was. Several council members said that they would not put a new City Hall on the site unless it was a wise use of taxpayer dollars.

Representatives for Collins and Bridgeton Holdings have declined to comment on the negotiations with the city.

On Friday, Ruby said that he had not been aware of the back story but said that he thinks the city’s involvement could be crucial to whether the development moves forward. He apologized on Twitter.

Ruby said that he hopes Gray can overcome his initial opposition to embrace the project and make it happen.

Gray said in a statement Friday he is not opposed to the development.

“Of course I want the hole on Main Street filled,” Gray said. “I want it filled with a project that is appropriate for a block in the heart of our city.”

Ruby said that he loves Lexington and has already heard from other potential sites for his restaurant, which he vowed to bring to fruition. As planned, the Lexington Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse would be at least 8,500 square feet including a dance floor, with more space outside for dining and for a cigar lounge.

“What we have on the drawing board the people of Lexington are going to love,” Ruby said. “It includes a tribute to Keeneland and to UK basketball. I put my heart and soul into this thing.”

He said that his comments on Twitter and in Tuesday’s story were intended to prod the city into action on what he considers an “unsightly disaster” and expressed surprise at negative reaction.

“I want to make clear how much I love the people of Lexington,” Ruby said, pointing out that his Louisville steakhouse was just named as the best steakhouse in Kentucky by Zagat’s, a restaurant ratings guide.

“What I’m trying to give Lexington is the other (one),” he said. “And this one is going to have things Louisville doesn’t have, like outdoor dining and drinks. I just wanted to do that, and I guess I got a little hard on Gray, but I wanted to motivate him.”

Beth Musgrave: 859-231-3205, @HLCityhall

Janet Patton: 859-231-3264, @janetpattonhl

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