Tom Eblen: Let's hope 'reinvented' Victorian Square includes Explorium

The Explorium leases 24,000 square feet in Victorian Square. But last year the downtown complex was sold, and now the future of the children's museum in its current location is in question.
The Explorium leases 24,000 square feet in Victorian Square. But last year the downtown complex was sold, and now the future of the children's museum in its current location is in question. Herald-Leader

Dudley Webb should think twice before letting the Explorium leave Victorian Square, the downtown complex he developed with a lot of city help in 1983, sold in 1994 and repurchased last August.

The children's museum leases 24,000 square feet in Victorian Square for not much more than it paid when the museum opened 22 years ago. Its rent is considerably less than what other tenants pay.

"Nobody is trying to displace them," Webb told reporter Beverly Fortune last week. "But we need an understanding that nobody can be on scholarship anymore. Everything has got to work on a businesslike basis."

The Webb Companies and Jeffrey R. Anderson Real Estate of Cincinnati paid $1.7 million for the 226,000-square-foot complex built behind 19th-century façades on the northwest corner of West Main Street and Broadway. The partners say they plan to spend $10 million to "reinvent" Victorian Square, which has always struggled.

You can't blame Webb for wanting a good return on his investment. Since the Explorium didn't have a long-term lease, Webb has every right to replace it with a better-paying tenant. Still, I hope they can negotiate a price that will allow the Explorium to stay, because it is a great resource for Kentucky children.

Ironically, the children's museum was created in part to draw people downtown and to Victorian Square. While the complex has always had a few interesting shops, galleries, bars and restaurants, it has lacked dynamic anchors to draw crowds and fill up its interior space. The closest it has come to those anchors is the Explorium, deSha's restaurant and Lexington Children's Theatre, which owns its own space.

"Reinventing" Victorian Square won't be easy. But before losing one of its main attractions, Webb should be really sure he has a better anchor tenant signed, sealed and delivered. The last thing he needs is more empty space to fill.

Webb thought he had financing and tenants lined up nearly five years ago when he evicted businesses from a downtown block and demolished 14 buildings for his proposed CentrePointe development. Since then, the block has been an empty field.

'Net zero' school pays off

The numbers are in, and America's most energy-efficient school building has performed even better than expected.

I wrote about Richardsville Elementary near Bowling Green in August 2010 as it was nearing completion. The 77,466-square-foot school was designed to be "net-zero," meaning it would generate as much energy each year as it used.

Warren County has been a national leader in energy-efficient schools, with each new building outperforming the last. This rural, 550-student school was to be the star — the nation's most energy-efficient school.

Most of the school's energy savings come from advanced design and materials, which are not much more expensive than conventional construction. But the key to net-zero was a $2.7 million solar-panel system to generate electricity. On cloudy days, the school can draw power from the Tennessee Valley Authority grid. On sunny days, the excess power generated feeds into TVA's system.

Plans called for the solar-panel system to pay for itself within 14 years. But the payback will be quicker because performance has exceeded expectations, said the architect, Kenny Stanfield of Sherman Carter Barnhart in Louisville.

In the first full year of operation, the school generated 10 percent more electricity than it used, and TVA sent the school district a check for $37,227.

"So not only does the school not have a utility bill, but it's a positive revenue stream," Stanfield said.

Unfortunately, other state utilities don't pay cash, only offering credits, for excess power generation.

That is likely to change as utility economics make it more attractive to buy electricity from small producers than build costly power plants.

Since Richardsville opened, Sherman Carter Barnhart has built four more Kentucky schools that are "net-zero ready," meaning all they need is solar-panel generation systems. Two are in Warren County; the others are in Meade and Anderson counties. Two more are being designed, for Bardstown and Taylorsville.

Solar-panel prices continue to fall every year, making school power generation more attractive. Stanfield said they now cost about half what they did when the Richardsville project was bid.

Fayette County's first venture into this arena is Locust Trace AgriScience Farm. Architect Susan Hill of Lexington firm Tate Hill Jacobs says April-October data showed the school's solar systems generated more power than the school used, but the key test will be how it performs during the cloudy, winter months.

Fayette County Public Schools recently announced long-term construction plans. Energy-efficient technology will be a big part of those new buildings, spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said, but it is too early to know specifics. The district also has an aggressive program to improve energy-efficiency at existing schools.

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