Renovation of the old Excepticon buildings on Trent Boulevard has been postponed because of neighborhood opposition to a residential work training program for ex-felons.
A cloud of unfounded rumor and speculation has hampered the project, said Lenny Stoltz II, executive director of the Blue Grass Area Development District.
"There has been so much exaggeration and misinformation about the intent of the project," Stoltz said on Friday. "At this point we're halting construction to give tempers a time to calm down."
Charles Payne, president of the River Park Neighborhood Association and an outspoken opponent, said neighbors have not been able to "get a straight answer" from Stoltz on who will be housed in the facility, how many will live there or the intent of the work training program.
"The Blue Grass Development District hasn't been fully transparent and above board," Payne said. "There is a tremendous amount of confusion. Everybody is upset."
Several hundred signatures were collected on a petition to block the development district from moving forward with a living facility for ex-offenders.
Opponents expressed their concerns to the Urban County Council at its April 12 meeting. The Council then passed a resolution expressing its concern.
In January, the development district bought the 6.5 acre property, including several buildings, at 1393 Trent Boulevard for $600,000 from the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington.
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The proposed program is sponsored by the development district in partnership with the Bluegrass Workforce Investment Board and several faith-based organizations.
Many participants will be non-violent ex-offenders — men jailed mainly for not paying child support, Stoltz said.
"If a person falls behind in child support, and if they're unemployed, they can be sent to jail as a class-D felon," Stoltz said. "Others will be people who are long-term unemployed, who don't have a stable place to live. They might be sleeping on a couch in a friend's apartment or sleeping in their car."
Having a stable place to live "is a significant issue in keeping people employed and on the job," he said.
The facility will not be a half-way house, Stoltz said.
"We are not looking to work with hardened criminals," he said. "We will not have sex offenders or people with anger management issues."
The program will take a holistic approach in helping men get back on their feet. Participants will receive job training, instruction on resume writing and classes in money management.
"A lot of these men with felony convictions were plumbers, electricians, aluminum siding workers and mechanics before they went to jail," Stoltz said. "We are most interested in entrepreneurial training, teaching them to write a business plan so they can start their own business."
Spiritual needs will be addressed and mechanisms for coping with anger and depression taught. Those without a high school diploma will work on their GEDs.
To be accepted, each man must be accepted as a partner by one of the faith-based groups. "That is one of the ground rules. A church will decide which individual it wants to work with," Stoltz said.
The program will start with no more than 12 men, he said. In three to five years, that number could grow to a maximum of 40.
The buildings on the site can accommodate 120 individuals, but Stoltz said the program would "absolutely never" grow that large.
Payne said he and other neighbors first heard about the development district buying the property when a neighbor stopped to talk with a construction worker at the site.
"Neighbors have a legitimate complaint about not getting a lot of information from us on the details of the program," Stoltz said. "That is because many of the details have not been finalized."
The development district did not realize the run-down condition of the property until they had bought it, Stoltz said. Copper had been stripped out and vagrants had camped in the rooms.
"Debris was so deep in some rooms it was impossible to walk through," he said. "We had to deal with the property first. Meanwhile, we didn't see the opposition coming."
Stoltz has met with the River Park Neighborhood Association to answer questions and a steering committee will be organized in the fall to work out details of programming.
"We've told the neighborhood associations all along they would be part of that committee," he said.