A rendering of the old Fayette County Courthouse.
Lexington, KY - When one door closes, another often opens. That seems to happen a lot in life and it may be happening right now, in Lexington, Kentucky.
The recent closing of the old Fayette County Courthouse following the discovery of hazardous lead paint may have the effect of actually opening the doors of this iconic downtown structure to a new future: as the crowning catalyst of a vibrant new downtown entertainment district that began taking shape during the Newberry administration as the city prepared to host the World Equestrian Games and has now continued, despite a terrible recession, under the leadership of Mayor Jim Gray.
For recent arrivals in town, the 114 year old structure’s function as a courthouse ended in 2001 when new courthouses opened across from the Central Library on Main and Limestone. In a settlement of a lawsuit, the city agreed to invest at least $1 million in support of a Lexington History Museum in the old courthouse. Additional small, volunteer-run museums have since located in the building, all now barred to the public.
If ever there stood directly under our noses the chance to demonstrate Lexington’s capacity to facilitate a meaningful, affordable and cost-effective public-private partnership in the interest of economic development, this has to be it.
Here, in the heart of our city, is an existing asset with solid “bones” that presents a capital improvement opportunity uniquely embracing our city’s past, its present and its future. And it is one that, unlike the proposed Rupp Arena Arts and Entertainment District, would not present enormous, if not insurmountable financing challenges, certainly well into the hundreds of millions, at a time when the city has little or no bonding capacity remaining at its disposal and no known billionaire philanthropist suitors or corporate sponsors evident in the wings.
The Courthouse Square Foundation, established by former Mayor Pam Miller in 2000 now estimates a complete renovation of the Old Courthouse would cost approximately $18 million ($12 million for the restoration project, and $6 million to endow the History Museum and building operations and maintenance as well as the cost of temporary relocation of the History Museum during restoration.) In the meantime, the city must continue to maintain the building at a cost of thousands of tax dollars - even as it now sits darkened, its doors barred to the public.
As it happens, the Courthouse Square Foundation, formed to advance the case for restoration and now chaired by commercial real estate broker Frank Mattone, has been working quietly in recent months to develop a fresh restoration campaign.
In a soon-to-be-released brochure, the Foundation states that its goal is to “Restore the historic old Fayette County Courthouse to its original plan with new electrical, plumbing and mechanical systems, including reopening the atrium to the top of the dome, installing a new ‘steamboat’ style stairway similar to the original, returning the 1900 Courtroom to two stories, redesigning the second, third and fourth floors for the Lexington History Museum and other museums, and configuring the ground floor for a café and other tenant uses to attract the public into the building and provide revenue for building operations.”
If you’ve been in downtown Lexington lately, you’ve probably noticed that Short Street and the Cheapside area really have sprung to life with all kinds of eateries and nightlife.
New, interesting, locally-owned and operated restaurants now line Short Street. The Fifth Third Bank Pavilion in Cheapside Park is the frequent scene of a variety of events ranging from popular weekly Thursday Nite Live parties to the booming Saturday Farmers Market.
On Upper Street, a new nightspot, The Henry Clay Public House has opened just a few steps from the corner of Upper and Main, site of the planned 21c boutique hotel.
The streets surrounding the old courthouse are, to say the least, animated these days, the nights energized like they haven’t been in years. And there in the middle of it all, sits this fairly massive, four-story, domed fortress of a structure now doing nothing at all to earn its keep.
In our view, the proposed restoration of this community property presents real “bang for buck,” with near immediate results and obvious, lasting utility. It represents something of significance to every Fayette County resident; something that in fact, can actually be accomplished relatively soon.
Who pays for it? According to the Foundation brochure, “The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, as the owner of the old Courthouse, should bear primary responsibility for the project. However, as a practical matter, a blending of governmental funding, public and private contributions and grants will be required. The Project has been identified as a beneficiary of the TIF financing component of the CentrePointe project which could supply a major source of funds.”
Much of this proposal depends on whether the Webbs' CentrePointe project ever actually materializes. And that is yet to be seen.
But there are additional options, as recently noted by Lexington Herald-Leader columnist Tom Eblen. “Converting some of the building to commercial space could make the building eligible for new market tax credits. Combined with historic preservation tax credits, this could go a long way toward offsetting renovation costs. Rent payments could go toward utilities and maintenance. A non-profit organization or limited-liability corporation could be created to manage the city-owned building,” Eblen suggested.
This unified call for restoring the old courthouse couldn't come from a more diverse group of powerful leadership personalities. The Foundation’s board of advisors includes all former mayors and vice mayors who have served since the city and county merged (think about that particular group sitting around a conference table, agreeing on anything), several retired (or senior status) circuit judges who held court in the Old Courthouse, as well as the current and immediate past circuit court clerks. In addition to chairman Mattone, its board of trustees includes State Senator Kathy Stein and Lexington attorney Steve Amato. Its president and general counsel is Foster Ockerman, Jr., a founding member of the history museum board of trustees.
These individuals, representing a broad spectrum of local constituencies, may have had their differences about various civic policies over the years, but all agree that this project is a "must do" for Lexington.
It’s reasonable to fear and resist committing additional tax dollars to just about anything. All sorts of legitimate priorities breathe down our necks: the yawning and as yet unchecked unfunded liability of the city’s police and firefighter pension fund, is foremost among many difficult fiscal issues causing sleepless nights at city hall, these days.
Yet, we now find ourselves with our historic courthouse shuttered and looming as an impediment to the completion of a long-hoped-for downtown entertainment district, a constant physical reminder that our city’s most fundamental civic progress is held hostage to an unrelated fiscal crisis that by most accounts never should have occurred in the first place.
Yes, making good on promises made to our first responders is an absolute imperative. So is doing everything within our power to create the economic climate that supports city government obligations and operations - to give our entrepreneurs a fighting chance to feed the tax base.
We have a need for street life, authentic local character and energy in our downtown because a city’s downtown can define the whole, for better or worse. An active downtown keeps things interesting to us and to our children, and attractive not only to visitors, but to prospective employers who understand the many benefits of locating in a lively community. And we need all of those that we can persuade to establish an office or operations in our town.
With so much street life and commerce now bustling literally all around it, the old courthouse all but begs for another round of service to the community.
We have this thing. It’s there, dominating the center of downtown and it’s ours to either use or neglect. Think of the implications of those two options.
Keep them in mind and when you can spare a little time, go down to the old courthouse, get out of your car and take a stroll all around the block, and see for yourself.
We look forward to your comments. And please take a moment to respond to our poll on this matter.
Are you in favor of investing public funds to renovate the old Fayette County Courthouse?