Craig Turner is hardly a household name in Lexington. But the 64-year-old developer and entrepreneur is gaining a higher profile as the key figure behind two projects that would bookend and reshape downtown development.
As chair of the Lexington Center Corp. board, Turner cut the deal with state officials to move forward on a long-planned $241 million expansion of the city’s convention center and renovation of Rupp Arena. Messer Construction will begin the work soon, with completion scheduled for November 2021.
Meanwhile, Turner’s CRM Companies has an option to buy the Herald-Leader building and convert it into city hall. Turner would renovate and expand the 39-year-old facility at Main Street and Midland Avenue, add a parking garage and lease the property to the city, which would own it after 35 years.
City officials have been talking for more than a decade about finding a new city hall because of the high maintenance and operating costs of the century-old Lafayette Hotel building, which became a “temporary” government center 35 years ago. Amid pushback from a competing developer, some council members are questioning the plan. A public hearing is scheduled Aug. 14 at 5 p.m. in council chambers.
Turner also is chair of the Eastern Kentucky University board of regents, which has generated controversy by cutting some programs and making other changes to cope with continued cutbacks in state funding.
Turner and his wife, Madonna, also have become philanthropists. She is now chair of the Bluegrass Community Foundation. In 2016, he co-founded the Lexington Police Foundation, which raises private money to support the Lexington Police Department and its community outreach activities.
“I like the challenge of doing something, making something happen,” Turner said. “It’s all about change, and how you embrace it. When there’s an issue, you’ve got to come up with a solution.”
Turner was born and raised in Michigan by parents from Floyd County who moved north after World War II and had careers as school principals. He came to EKU in 1971 on a basketball scholarship, but a motorcycle injury quickly ended his athletic career. At EKU, Turner met fellow student Madonna Spradlin from Pikeville. They have been married 43 years and have two grown daughters and five grandchildren.
While finishing a bachelor’s degree in political science, Turner became interested in business and got an internship with the state Commerce Cabinet. He was hired after graduation and headed Kentucky’s industrial development efforts for more than four years under Govs. John Y. Brown Jr. and Martha Layne Collins.
In 1985, Turner left state government to go into business, had a “very short stint with the Webb Companies” and became a partner in a development company that became Graves/Turner. Among other things, the company developed French Quarter Square at Richmond and Todds roads in the late 1980s. The company made headlines in 1991 when its bid to build a $9 million dormitory at Northern Kentucky University was disqualified because Graves/Turner had obtained a competitor’s bid.
Turner went out on his own in 1996, forming CRM Companies — “CR” for Craig and “M” for Madonna. The company got its start working with Johnson Controls to build Trim Masters plants to supply Toyota.
Now, the company mostly develops and manages commercial properties, but its other businesses range from fast-food restaurants to the management of neighborhood associations, including Firebrook, Griffin Gate and Boone’s Trace.
Turner said he is a big-picture guy, while his business partner, CRM President Wayne Wellman, is more detail-oriented. “I think my attribute is vision, coming up with solutions, identifying good people,” Turner said.
Privately held CRM owns ALoft hotels in Louisville and Westerville, Ohio, and an AmericInn in Colorado. It previously owned the Gratz Park Inn in Lexington and two other local hotels it developed. It has built several office and commercial buildings around the region, including a state office building in Frankfort that opened in 2017. In another public-private partnership, it is developing a new state office building where the Capital Plaza Tower was imploded in March.
Turner said he is a “relationship” person, which explains the variety of his business ventures. He got into the restaurant business — CRM now has 28 franchise locations of Raising Canes chicken and MOD Pizza — because of a friendship he made with Raising Canes’ founder while developing an office building in Louisiana.
Relationships also define his political activities. A registered Republican, Turner has donated mostly to Democrats. He has been a big supporter of Mayor Jim Gray.
“We have to have an atmosphere of change, and we have to have an atmosphere of doing business different than we’ve done it before,” he said of Lexington. “These past eight years, that’s been a pretty strong message, and we’ve got to make sure that we continue it.”
Turner backed Gov. Ernie Fletcher, a Republican and friend. He also has worked well with Gov. Matt Bevin, even though he backed his opponent, Democrat Jack Conway.
Turner said Lexington’s non-partisan city government is a big strength, because it allows people to focus more on issues than politics. He said he hasn’t decided whether to back Linda Gorton or Ronnie Bastin in the mayor’s race.
Turner said he has grown more interested in service and philanthropy in recent years, but has long been devoted to EKU. Fletcher first appointed him to the board of regents in 2006. He chaired the search committee that hired President Michael Benson in 2013 and later that year became the regents’ chair.
Some faculty have grumbled about Turner’s business orientation, and the fact that they were shut out of some discussions about how the university should deal with state funding cuts. The attorney general ruled that the board violated the state open meetings law in March when it privately discussed potential layoffs.
But two faculty leaders said they think Turner is, for the most part, doing a good job in a tough situation. “I’ve been impressed with his leadership,” said faculty regent Richard Day, an education professor. “He’s been a straight-shooter as far as I’m concerned.”
Matthew Winslow, a psychology professor who chairs EKU’s Faculty Senate, said regents have “has made some decisions I don’t necessarily agree with (but) … I think his heart is in the right place. He’s concerned about Eastern’s long-term success.”
Three years ago, the Turners donated money to build Turner Gate, a campus landmark. It has tall limestone columns and the words “Knowledge, Wisdom, Purpose, Passion,” symbolizing what students come to the university for and should leave with.
“He has a great ability to be able to navigate through a lot of different perspectives and get the ball across the finish line,” said Holly Wiedemann, an affordable housing developer who serves with Turner on both the Lexington Center and EKU boards.
Turner admits that, as a bottom line-oriented businessman, he can become impatient with bureaucracy and lengthy process. He said he is accustomed to making tough decisions and focuses on results.
“I’m the one to talk about the elephant in the room,” he said. “One of the valuable things I’ve learned in life is it doesn’t make any difference who created the problem, you have to be a solution. If you’re not a solution, then you’re just taking up space.”