Fayette County

Town Branch Commons private funding lags

The city of Lexington gave $180,000 to the Blue Grass Community Foundation last year to spearhead up to $50 million in private fundraising for Town Branch Commons, a proposed linear 2.5-mile downtown trail with pocket parks.

Nearly a year later, no money has been raised, foundation officials said this week.

But the $180,000 has been well spent, they say.

Foundation officials have made contact with nearly 50 interested donors, applied for grants from foundations, hired a consulting firm to help it identify potential donors and develop a fundraising plan. The foundation has put together a work group, a forerunner to the nonprofit that will eventually run the park.

Because the project is still in its planning stages, donors wanted to see more assurances the ambitious project was moving forward and would be appropriately managed before giving money, said Allison Lankford, senior vice president and general counsel for the foundation.

“We got a lot of feedback that more needed to be in place before they were ready to commit,” Lankford said. The group set up a work group to develop a memorandum of understanding between the city and a nonprofit foundation that will eventually oversee the day-to-day operations of Town Branch Commons. Lankford said if that memorandum is approved by the Lexington Urban County Council in August, the foundation will launch its major capital campaign in late fall.

The Urban County Council voted to give the $180,000 to the foundation in August 2015. Tucked in the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is an additional $180,000.

Some on council have questioned the cost and if the city is getting the return it was promised — millions of dollars in private money.

Councilwoman Jennifer Mossotti questioned the $180,000 when it was proposed in August.

Mossotti said she understands it takes time to raise private money. She also said she understands the concerns of potential donors — people don’t want to give money until the project is further along. But Mossotti said she herself is concerned that so little has been raised.

“I just wonder why if the support is there, why hasn’t any of this money come to fruition? Is it just the timing? Is it that they aren’t marketing the project correctly?” Mossotti said. “I will wait and see what they say when they come back in the fall.”

When asked if the city felt the $180,000 was well spent, Mayor Jim Gray stressed that Town Branch Commons will take time and multiple funding sources to complete.

“Town Branch Commons is a big project that is going to have a big economic impact on our downtown,” Gray said. “It’s a public/private partnership, and while that’s a responsible approach, it also takes time. The Blue Grass Community Foundation has met with many donors, and continues to work with about 50 people who have shown considerable interest in the project.”

That $180,000 is an addition to the $10 million in bond or borrowed money the city pledged to the project this year. The city has secured more than $7 million in a combination of state and federal transportation funds for infrastructure costs.

The total estimated price tag for the park is $75 million. It is expected to cost $24 million just to build the trail. The plans call for city, state and federal money to pay for building the trail. The additional $50 million in private money will be used to build amenities along the trail that will connect the city’s two main rural trails — the Town Branch and Legacy trails. The commons will run through downtown from Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden to East Third Street to Cox Street near Rupp Arena.

The city is expected to release bids for design and engineering work on a portion of the commons later this summer. Construction will likely begin in spring 2018 on a portion that includes Midland Avenue, city officials said this week.

The bulk of the $50 million will go toward building a Central Park-like green space adjacent to the Lexington Center on Main Street. Lankford said in addition to meeting with potential donors and hiring a consultant to help the foundation identify and raise money for the project, it has also pursued several foundation grants that will help pay for pocket parks throughout the 2.5-mile stretch.

“Part of that $50 million will also go toward an endowment for future operating costs,” Lankford said.

The city has also applied for a discretionary federal grant called a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery or TIGER grant this year. It applied last year but did not receive the $13 million it requested. In addition, the city applied for a $5.6 million low-interest loan from the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority. The city hasn’t heard yet if has been awarded the loan.

Councilman Richard Moloney said he understands it takes time to raise money, but the council was under the impression in August that if it signed off on the $180,000, private money would be raised. Moreover, private money shows the public is behind the project, increasing the city’s chances of securing federal grants, he said.

“It seems like we’re doing all the work,” Moloney said. “With that TIGER grant, we need to show that we have as many partnerships not just with government organizations but with the community as a whole.

“I think it’s an exciting project,” he said. “I support the project. But they have yet to show me that they have raised any private money.”

Lankford said in addition to donors’ wariness about whether the project would become a reality, there were other unknowns that had to be addressed over the past year. For example, the Lexington Convention Center was pursuing money for a renovation and expansion. That project could impact the design of the Town Branch Commons. Both city and state funding for that expansion was secured this year.

“The public is asking for certain assurances that this process is going to work,” Lankford said. “That has taken time to work through.”

But Lankford said the group’s research and outreach so far shows there are potential donors that will give to the project. Many donors will choose to pledge money over time, she said.

“We have the capacity,” Lankford said. “It’s just the timing and getting everything in place.”

Beth Musgrave: 859-231-3205, @HLCityhall