Bourbon Industry

The year in business: Bourbon thrived, but much of the state's economy just treaded water

The opening of the Cheesecake Factory at Fayette Mall in October has been a sensation. About 100 diners lined up for opening day.
The opening of the Cheesecake Factory at Fayette Mall in October has been a sensation. About 100 diners lined up for opening day. Lexington Herald-Leader

Kentucky bourbon had a record-setting year in 2014, but was rare bright spot in the state's economy.

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce said Kentucky's 2014 economy lagged behind that of the nation. Despite that, Toyota got ready to add Lexus production to its behemoth Scott County operation; Lexmark continued its evolution as a company that combines services with hardware to provide business solutions and Lexington got a Cheesecake Factory that warmed the sweet tooth of Central Kentuckians like the opening of no other restaurant this year.

Here's a look at what happened in business locally in 2014:

Bourbon's building boom continues

In 2013, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail's mainstream distilleries welcomed a record 571,701 visitors with an additional 61,898 visits to at least one "craft" or small distillery. Two major distilleries, Sazerac-owned Buffalo Trace and Barton 1792, are not Kentucky Distillers Association members, but also welcome tourists, with 113,536 visits between them during 2013. Numbers for 2014, which will be released in January, are sure to increase with the addition of new visitors center at Wild Turkey in Lawrenceburg and a renovated one at Woodford Reserve.

Brown-Forman also announced the $30 million Old Forester distillery and visitors center on Main Street in Louisville. In December, Jim Beam also announced plans for visitors center in Louisville.

In Loretto, Maker's Mark announced a $67 million expansion to meet booming demand for the Kentucky bourbon known for its iconic red wax top. The distillery will add a third still — an exact replica of its existing mirror-finish copper stills — to its historic still house in Loretto, increasing capacity by 50 percent, and build new warehouses to age the bourbon.

Bulleit Bourbon broke ground on its $115 million home distillery on 300 acres in Shelby County. The Bulleit Distilling Co. is scheduled to be operational by late 2016. And parent Diageo also opened a new tourist experience opened in Louisville for Bulleit at the old Stitzel-Weller Distillery.

Meanwhile, Japanese beer and whiskey giant Suntory bought Beam, maker of Jim Beam and Maker's Mark, for $16 billion.

Fruit of the Loom closes its Jamestown plant

Clothing company Fruit of the Loom announced in April that it will permanently close its plant in Jamestown and lay off all 600 employees by the end of 2014. The Jamestown plant was the last Fruit of the Loom plant in a state where the company had once been a manufacturing titan second only to General Electric.

The company, owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway but headquartered in Bowling Green, said the move was "part of the company's ongoing efforts to align its global supply chain" and will allow the company to better use its existing investments to provide products cheaper and faster.

State of the Kentucky economy: poor

Kentucky's job growth mirrored that of the United States since the last recession, according to a study released in may by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. However, employment and earnings in the state continue to lag behind those of other states and the national average. The study found that only 56 percent of Kentucky working-age adults are employed, the lowest rate among any of Kentucky's border states except West Virginia. The state would have to add 100,000 jobs to move up to the national average.

Toyota plant gets ready for Lexus

In January, Toyota broke ground on a $531 million, 307,310-square-foot plant to produce the gasoline-powered Lexus ES 350 luxury sedan, now built on the Japanese island of Kyushu. The Kyushu plant will continue to produce the gas-electric hybrid version of the car.

TMMK is gearing up to begin producing 50,000 Lexus sedans a year beginning in late 2015. This marks the first time that Lexus will produce cars in the United States.

TMMK already produces Camrys, Avalons and Venzas.

Toyota shutting down Erlanger headquarters

Toyota announced in April that it is shutting down its engineering and manufacturing headquarters in Erlanger, affecting about 1,550 workers. Toyota said that it would move about 300 production engineering positions at its Erlanger campus in Kenton County to its manufacturing plant in Georgetown.

About 250 direct procurement jobs in Erlanger move to the Toyota Technical Center in York Township, Mich., near Ann Arbor, and about 1,000 administrative positions in Erlanger go to Plano, Texas.

Bluegrass Station troubles

In June, defense contractor Lockheed Martin began laying off about 110 employees from a facility that works on helicopters and equipment for Special Forces. In October, 130 members of an aerospace workers union walked out on strike against a move to cut their pay by 30 percent. The strike was still going on at the end of the year with no end in sight.

Hemp makes a comeback

The first legal hemp harvest in Kentucky in 70 years was held in September at the University of Kentucky test plot at Spindletop Farm. The 13 varieties sown last spring at UK are being evaluated for fiber and seed production.

In December, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture said it was taking applications for 2015's industrial hemp pilot projects.

"When the day comes that commercial hemp production is open to all producers and processors in Kentucky, we want to be ready," Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said.

Kentucky agriculture also a record

Farmers were heading for a record $6 billion in cash receipts for 2014, with beef prices at record levels. But plummeting grain prices and the ending of tobacco buyout payments to farmers means that income in 2015 is expected to drop by 5 percent, according to UK agriculture economists.

Blue Grass Airport history brought to life

A book released in April, Blue Grass Airport: An American Aviation Story, brought to life Lexington's love affair with flying and detailed the city's unique spot in equine flying. New historical markers put up in November on Leestown Road recount the March 1928 visit from Charles Lindbergh that almost ended in disaster when a gust of wind nearly blew his plane — a replica of the Spirit of St. Louis — into trees at the end of the runway.

Keeneland makes news

In June, the Breeders' Cup announced that the world championships of Thoroughbred racing would be held at Keeneland in October 2015 for the first time, sparking online discussion on how thousands of horse racing fans are going to squeeze into the boutique track.

The Lexington track also announced, then scrapped, plans for installing an instant racing parlor. Now, Keeneland will pair with The Red Mile harness track to open a facility in 2015. Meanwhile, Keeneland moved forward with plans to take over the license of Thunder Ridge in Prestonsburg and move the track to Corbin, change it to a quarter horse track and open an instant racing casino there by 2016.

Construction snarled in downtown Lexington

Work began in June on the 21c Museum Hotel in the historic First National Building on Main Street. Plans are for the hotel to open in late 2015.

Along with the digging and blasting at the CentrePointe site, traffic through downtown often was delayed. Work on the CentrePointe project remained in limbo as developer Dudley Webb awaited word on millions in bonds needed to finish the underground parking garage, hotel, office and restaurant block.

Restaurant news: Cheesecake arrives, Ramsey's moves

The Cheesecake Factory at Fayette Mall had a bang-up opening on Oct. 28.

After months of excited chatter among the cheesecake-consuming hordes of Kentuckians, 100 guests were in line when the door opened at 11 a.m. The long-awaited restaurant at the mall on Nicholasville Road also offers curbside pickup with patrons able to place an order and pick it up in one of the designated curbside parking spaces.

Ramsey's spent 25 years in its signature location on East High Street. In February, it unveiled a more spacious new location at 151 West Zandale Drive to add to the Lexington stable of Ramsey's restaurants.

The former Ramsey's space now houses Chatham's, serving Southern comfort food.

Fayette Mall readies new wing replacing Sears

Anchored by the Cheesecake Factory, the new mall wing will include Travinia Italian Kitchen, Janie and Jack children's clothing, Vera Bradley, H&M, Clarks Shoes and Jos. A. Bank Clothiers, Eddie Bauer, New Balance, Chipotle, Island Purveyor Featuring Tommy Bahama and a second Newk's Eatery. The first was opened on Richmond Road in the fall of 2014.

Victorian no more, it's simply "The Square"

Urban Outfitters and Alumni Hall moved in to The Square, a block of buildings at the corner of Main street and Broadway that houses restaurants, bars, stores, galleries and a museum.

Long-time steak restaurant DeSha's was closed to make room for Urban Outfitters. Alumni Hall, The Brass Tap, Pies and Pints and Tony's Steak and Seafood announced plans to move in. Saul Good opened up in the block of buildings along Broadway.

UK HealthCare renovates Dillards at Turfland Mall

In the former Dillard's store at Turfland Mall, UK HealthCare kick-started redevelopment with a $2 million renovation of the 85,000-square-foot site on Harrodsburg Road. Turfland Mall, which opened in 1967, was Lexington's first enclosed mall.

The clinic, which is scheduled to open in 2015, will house UK Family and Community Medicine as well as UK's occupational medicine and environmental health service, its travel medicine clinic, and orthopedics and sports medicine clinic. The project has inspired a bit of a boom in the area with several restaurants opening or under construction.

Layoffs at KentuckyOne's Saint Joseph

KentuckyOne Health, which operates Lexington's St. Joseph Hospital, St. Joseph East and the Women's Hospital at St. Joseph East, laid off 500 employees in February and left another 200 jobs vacant, according to CEO Ruth Brinkley, who announced the bad news in a video on the health care company's website.

The impact on patient care was "minimal," Brinkley said. The company had previously announced a $218 million deficit.

Big Ass Fans becomes Big Ass Solutions

The Lexington company changed its name to acknowledge that it does more than make great big fans.

Lighting has now become a part of their portfolio, announced CEO Carey Smith.

Founded in 1999, the privately held company says it has increased its work force by an average of 36 percent annually from 2009 to 2013. The company said it ended 2013 with 481 employees and hired more employees for the lighting initiative.

Kroger on Euclid Avenue torn down, rebuilt

Lexington's Kroger on Euclid Avenue closed in March for a complete rebuild, leaving UK students and Chevy Chase shoppers wandering from store to store for nine months.

An 86,000-square-foot store, complete with rooftop parking, beer cave and drive-through pharmacy, was erected in its place. To placate neighbors, the store's size was reduced slightly and murals by local artists will grace the sides of the building along Marquis Avenue. The new store is scheduled to open in early January.

The new store also was the death knell for Premiere Home Video, one of the city's last remaining video rental stores, on the corner of Euclid and Ashland. Kroger leased and is renovating the building for a liquor store.