A couple of centuries' worth of semi-regular flooding prompted Frankfort to treat the Kentucky River that twists through its downtown as an inconvenient ditch with water.
The city literally ”turned its back on the river,“ said Joy Jeffries, executive director of the Frankfort/Franklin County Tourist and Convention Commission. It's hidden behind flood walls, while most buildings face away from the water.
But now — 216 years after Frankfort touted its riverfront (along with offering the state $3,000 in gold and a bunch of nails, glass and hinges) in its bid to be Kentucky's capital — officials are finally turning their attention to harnessing the river's aesthetic potential.
Last week, Gov. Steve Beshear's administration announced a $150,000 grant from the state's land acquisition account to pay for a development study conducted by the CBA consulting firm.
So far, those overseeing the project have tried to leave the riverbanks a blank canvas on which the consultants can paint.
”We have intentionally not allowed ourselves to brainstorm what we want to do,“ said Jeffries, 62, who moved from Louisiana five years ago.
Sure, the temptation has been there.
The tourism commission posted an 8-foot-long map of the city and the 4-mile stretch of river, which cuts through Frankfort from just north of the Buffalo Trace Distillery to the Gov. Julian Carroll Bridge on Ky. 421 just south of the Capitol building.
”Not once have we allowed ourselves to take Post-It notes to it and start dreaming,“ Jeffries said. ”Every time we've been tempted, we've slapped our hands and said "No.' “
But plenty of others around the capital have pondered the possibilities, suggesting everything from parks to restaurants to concert venues.
”I think an extension of our convention center across the boulevard onto the riverfront is an idea that we can consider,“ said Carroll, the former Democratic governor and current state senator from Frankfort. ”There are several things we can do on the riverfront, if nothing more than developing parks with picnic tables.“
Teresa Barton, a former Franklin County judge-executive, said boating access is a must, including recreational and paddle-boating.
Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, said any riverfront development should highlight the city's past, especially with the Kentucky History Center two blocks from the river.
”And an amphitheater would be great, particularly on the north side of Frankfort down where we have the farmers' market across from the (Capital Plaza),“ he said. ”It would be nice to have concerts down there on the weekends. It's important to the economy of Frankfort. “
Graham credited the governor and first lady Jane Beshear with recognizing the river's potential and the need to move on the project.
”Ms. Beshear talked about how other communities along the Kentucky and the Ohio rivers have used the river as a point to sell their community,“ Graham said. ”With this being the capital city, we should have done this a long time ago.“
But much of Frankfort officials' dealings with the river over the years have been just trying to keep it in its place during heavy rains.
Jeffries said engineering methods have evolved so that flood prevention and development can go hand in hand. And the consulting firm, CBA, has teamed up with Stantec Engineering, which is working on the system of locks and dams along the Kentucky River.
Carroll and Graham secured money in 2005 for a riverfront study. But the work was delayed by some miscommunication with what was then the Commerce Cabinet, and the hiring of a Richmond-based consultant who died before the study was completed.
”Maybe it's good it took us four years to get to this point,“ said Jeffries. ”A lot of work has been done in the meantime. Our walk-bike community received two grants ... to connect the dots with our trails.“
Combined, all this should start a 20-year process of building up a riverfront that's been almost invisible, she said.
”And if we do it smart,“ Jeffries added, ”we do not have to make the river our enemy anymore.“