A well-known restaurateur, the Breeders’ Cup, a bourbon bar and the Fayette County visitors and convention bureau are in talks to lease space at the former Fayette County Courthouse in downtown Lexington, city officials announced Tuesday.
Work on the $30 million overhaul of the courthouse on Main Street is to begin this summer, with the goal of having the building open in spring 2018, said Holly Wiedemann, one of the project managers.
Visit Lex, the city’s convention and tourism bureau, will have office space and a welcome area for visitors. Ouita Michel, chef and owner of Holly Hill Inn in Midway and several other area restaurants, is in talks to put a restaurant— which would include outdoor seating space — on the side of the courthouse that faces Cheapside Pavilion, sometimes referred to as the Fifth Third Bank Pavilion. A bourbon bar is in discussion to lease space on the ground floor that faces Upper Street and the 21c Museum Hotel.
The Breeders’ Cup and the convention and visitors bureau will have office space in the building. The top floor will be event space with capacity of almost 300 people, Wiedemann said. A private company will be responsible for renting that space, Wiedemann said. She said the Breeders’ Cup board has not yet approved the long-term lease but is expected to soon. There also has been interest from event-management companies for the fourth-floor space, she said.
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“This is not going to require a constant infusion of cash from the city,” Wiedemann said. “It will be self-sufficient.”
The city released the names of the interested tenants at a council work session Tuesday.
Michel said Tuesday she plans to put a second Windy Corner Market and restaurant in the courthouse. Wiedemann and Michel worked on the existing Windy Corner Market on Bryan Station Road in northeast Fayette County. Like the original, the courthouse version will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, beer and wine, including Graham Beck wines and an extensive lineup of Kentucky Proud food products.
“It’s going to be beautiful,” Michel said. “Holly is great about blending the old and the new.”
Jenifer Wuorenmaa, a city administrator who is managing parts of the project, said a Windy Corner Market — which is known for its locally sourced but affordable food — was an ideal tenant for the center of downtown.
“We wanted it to be affordable and accessible to all price points,” Wuorenmaa said. “We also wanted the building to still have life after 5 p.m.”
Councilwoman Jennifer Mossotti, who specializes in commercial real estate, pressed the city for more details about the overall operating expenses for the building once it is completed. Mossotti said she doesn’t want taxpayers to have to continue to pay operating costs after the building is open.
Wuorenmaa said the tenants will be charged market rents, and the leases will probably be long-term. Wiedemann didn’t release detailed financial information because negotiations are continuing with some of the tenants.
City officials said they will also have a reserve fund and a capital fund to help cover costs.
The designs include recreating a two-tier stairwell on the ground floor and opening up the long-covered dome at the top of the courthouse. The dome has been covered since the 1960s, after a renovation of the building. It was the county’s fourth courthouse. The Richardsonian Romanesque building opened in 1900 and was used as a courthouse until the current courthouse complex on North Limestone opened in the early 2000s. The building housed museums until 2012, when it was shuttered after the city found asbestos and other hazardous material.
“This was one of the first buildings in the county with electricity in it,” Wiedemann said. “It had twinkle lights in the dome. We will bring back those twinkle lights.”
The city has received initial approval for federal and state tax historic credits and is waiting for final approval for some of those tax credits. Federal and state tax credits can be used for as much as $6 million of the expected $30 million cost. There is $22 million in the current-year budget for the overhaul. The city announced Tuesday that Stephen Hillenmeyer Landscape services will donate the landscaping for the project. Hillenmeyer is celebrating its 175th anniversary in Lexington.
A meeting is scheduled for June 1 with businesses near the courthouse to talk about the plans and a possible construction schedule. Environmental remediation will begin in June, with construction on the exterior to start in July and August. January 2017 is the tentative start date for construction on the interior. In January 2018, the majority of the work is to be completed on the interior and construction will be scheduled to begin for the restaurant and bar, with the goal of having the space usable in spring or summer 2018, Wiedemann said.
The council will take a final vote Thursday on issuing $12 million of the $22 million to get construction started.