From vacant to vibrant in four years, an $8.6 million project is underway on South Broadway and Cedar Street. It started in March 2009, when builder and developer Jeff Morgan purchased the property from Traditional Bank. Formerly the site of Popeye Sign Company and a dry cleaner, the lot at the corner of Broadway and Cedar had sat empty for several years.
“A group came in and bought it and pitched a big condo hotel project,” Morgan said. “They got all the way down to approve a development plan and then the [financial] climate turned and the group went under.”
The land was encumbered with deed restrictions and legal complications, so Morgan, owner of Morgan Properties, brought in his brother, Jason, an attorney with McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie & Kirkland. The siblings approached the Historic South Hill Neighborhood Association. Instead of a mixed-use hotel and retail complex, the Morgan brothers wanted to build separate structures: a restaurant they were going to name Jefferson Davis Inn and 20 townhouse units for single-family residences, called the Village at South Broadway.
“I wanted to add to the South Hill neighborhood, not add a big box that didn't fit very well with the neighborhood,” Jeff Morgan said. Working with architect Todd Ott of CMW, Morgan designed the restaurant’s three-story brick building with limestone pediments to fit in with the historical architecture of the homes on Broadway.
“We weren’t some national company coming in; we were a local family,” Jason Morgan said.
“They got behind us,” he said of the neighborhood association.
“We had a lot of help and support from local government,” he added. “The planning commission signed off on the plan. The people in the building inspection department are great; they have a job to do, and they did it. The police are happy because there are cameras all over the exterior of the building.”
By the fall of 2010, the 8,800-square-foot restaurant was in design mode. Ground was broken on Derby Day 2011 and JDI’s grand opening was March 1, 2013. Next door to the restaurant, the first of 20 brick townhome units are expected to be move-in ready by August, with the second phase to be completed by the spring of 2014.
Jeff Morgan has owned his property management company since 2006. He got started in construction at the age of 12 and, after graduating from college, worked with G.D. Perkins, a general contractor in Lexington, with whom he still partners on projects, including the current Village at South Broadway. In the mid-1990s, Morgan attended Transylvania University (where the Jefferson Davis residence hall was built in 1964). He remembers going to the Jefferson Davis Inn on High Street during the bar’s second incarnation.
“It was this cool place where everybody hung out and had a great time,” he said. “I always thought of it affectionately and fondly. I thought it would be a cool thing to bring it back. It’s a tip of the hat — a tribute.”
The original JDI, a music club, opened in the early 1970s, before the Morgan brothers were born. It closed in 1984, then opened and closed again in the 1990s. While the new JDI on Broadway is not a nightclub, there will be small bands and musical groups performing in the restaurant.
“It was my brother’s dream to bring back the JDI,” Jason Morgan said. Nobody was using the name and it was publicly available from the secretary of state, so attorney Jason Morgan trademarked the name and symbol. The JDI logo, with a shield background, was designed by Lynn Imaging.
Jason Morgan, who has an MBA from the University of Kentucky, went to Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University because “we figured we needed a lawyer in the family,” he said.
Instead of becoming general counsel for his brother’s property management company right away, Jason Morgan got “sidetracked with hurricane litigation,” he said. After hurricanes Charley, Katrina and Rita, he spent almost six years managing litigation cases. In an interesting side note, the tables, chairs and bars in the new JDI came from Connecticut and were almost destroyed by flood water of Hurricane Sandy, but workers were able to elevate the furniture in a warehouse before shipping it to Kentucky.
Just about everything else in the restaurant is local, including artwork from photographer Price Maples and local brews from West Sixth, Kentucky Ale and Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. The restaurant’s menu of Southern gastropub fare, ranging from beer cheese and sweet potato fries to burgers and steaks, was developed by chef Chad Wilhite and retired home economics teacher Karen Morgan, who is Jason and Jeff’s mother and, along with Jason Morgan, co-owner of the restaurant.
As the builder of the project, Jeff Morgan’s goal in bringing back the JDI name was “to promote what JDI stood for,” he said. “Everybody was welcome and had fun.”
Jason Morgan added, “We wanted to bring back the great times and feelings.”