Gray, Newberry exchange barbs about CentrePointe at forum

The "big hole" in the middle of Lexington that was cleared for the stalled CentrePointe project is the result of "failed leadership," Vice Mayor Jim Gray said Wednesday.

His comment came at the beginning of a two-hour mayoral forum at the Lexington Public Library on Main Street, next door to the block where grass now grows.

Mayor Jim Newberry, the implied target of Gray's remark, waited until near the end of the two-hour event before firing back.

He said that on Aug. 7, 2008, Gray announced he planned to launch a task force to look into why the city allowed some of the buildings in the CentrePointe block to be neglected by their owners.

"It's 580 days later, and that hasn't happened," Newberry said.

It was the second meeting for the four people who want to be the city's mayor, and it followed what may become a pattern: Gray says Newberry is to blame for CentrePointe, Newberry said Gray has accomplished nothing, former Mayor Teresa Isaac talks about her accomplishments when she held the office, and technology consultant Skip Horine promises to reduce government and makes allegations about misbehavior by the police.

There were other questions, on topics as varied as ambulance charges, small business fees and jobs for ex-cons.

But it was expected that CentrePointe would be a frequent topic at something called the Smart Growth Mayoral Forum.

Last week, Mayor Charles P. Riley of Charleston, S.C. was at the library, speaking about "building and maintaining a livable city." There was a lot of talk about preserving his city's historic character.

This week, the candidates started out responding to what Riley had to say.

Gray led off, saying that "if Joe Riley had been mayor of Lexington, we would not have a big hole in the center of the city."

Isaac said that to avoid a repeat of CentrePointe, she would put an architect on the Courthouse Area Design Review Board.

"That's a common-sense thing we probably should add," she said.

Later, in response to a question about whether the candidates would be a "hands-on" mayor like Riley, Isaac said she was very hands-on when she held the office but added that "you have to be careful not to send a message that the city doesn't welcome investment."

Newberry showed a map of downtown and talked about several projects, from the restoration of the Lyric Theatre to the new Lexington Farmers Market at Cheapside Park. He did not mention CentrePointe.

Later in the forum, just before criticizing Gray, Newberry defended replacing smaller older buildings with taller new ones.

"If we're going to maintain this notion of an Urban Service Area for another 100 years ... it's vitally important for us to make the urban core as dense we effectively can in order to preserve farmland," Newberry said.

The forum was sponsored by the Gaines Center for the Humanities at the University of Kentucky. Gray is on the center's board, but Colleen Horne, an administrative assistant for the center, said the board has no role in planning programs such as the forum.

Robert Rabel, the center's director, began the forum by noting Gray's position with the center. He said that both Isaac and Newberry had done readings at center events.

The primary election, which will narrow the field to two candidates, is May 18.