Monday, September 23, 2019

Newly flush Tourism Commission welcomes Midway's Cortney Neikirk, discusses how to hire its own staff

L to R: Cortney Neikirk, Elisha Holt, Maria Bohanan, Neil Vasilakes, Ken Kerkhoff, Aaron Smither and Lee Thomas.
By Dalton Stokes
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

The Woodford County Tourism Commission is looking for its first director, in the wake of a major increase in bed-tax income from the new hotel in Versailles. The seven-member board is vetting 11 candidates, including one who has been meeting with the commission as a virtual member for months.

The commission meeting last Thursday was the last at the Chamber of Commerce office in Versailles and the first for the newly appointed representative of Midway on the commission, Cortney Neikirk. The discussion included the possibility of a mural in Midway like those in Versailles.

Director hiring: With the opening of the first modern hotel in Woodford County, the Holiday Inn Express and Suites, the commission has money to hire its own director rather than contracting with the Chamber. Woodford County imposes a 3 percent tax on overnight stays within the county; until the hotel opened last September, the only tax revenue was from bed-and-breakfast places.

This money generated by this tax increased by $67,005, and the commission has about $101,000 available to spend, according to financial statements at the meeting.
As the commission discussed the process for filling the position, Commissioner Neil Vasilakes said, “There are some rumors going around that we’re not following a process and we have a shoo-in person.”

Chair Maria Bohanan said the commission needs a clear process for this so that no questions can be raised about their choice. “Whatever we do,” she said, “we want it above board.”

One of the candidates for the position is Elisha Holt, who coordinates events for the City of Versailles and the Midway Business Association. She is an “ex officio” member of the commission, and will not participate in the selection, Bohanan said during the meeting.

Asked about that terminology after the meeting, Bohanan said Holt began serving last year, thinking that County Judge-Executive John Coyle had appointed her, but it turned out he had not completed the paperwork before he died, and new Judge-Executive James Kay said Holt could keep serving but has not actually appointed her.

Kay said Monday that he hasn’t appointed Holt because she does not live in Woodford County and is not affiliated with a local hotel or restaurant, which would otherwise qualify her for an appointment.

The commission mostly discussed the criteria matrix that may narrow down the candidates before interviewing. Commissioner Aaron Smither opposed using the matrix, saying they should interview all the candidates and use their better judgement to pick the right person. 

Bohanan’s proposed matrix has five criteria for the job. She proposed that if the candidate meets three of the five criteria, they get an interview. She also said she wants to do the interviews “pageant-style,” using an scoring system in which each member independently rates the candidates.

Bohanan said that would provide a paper trail for both the decision on whom to interview and on who gets picked for the job, in the interest of transparency.

Versailles City Council Member Ken Kerkhoff, another commissioner, voiced the need to expedite the process. He said the person hired ample time to give two weeks’ notice to current employers. Bohanan said that they need someone in place by Nov. 1.

Some commissioners wanted the matrix to be more detailed. After not much agreement on that, the commission agreed to read all 11 applicants’ resumes over the weekend and decide the matrix more later. They set the first interviews for Friday, Sept. 27.

Murals: The commission has commissioned two murals in Versailles, and discussed the potential for a mural in Midway after they. Neikirk said that she could find someone who would be interested in providing a wall and funding, and that she already had someone in mind.

Bohanan said, “Cortney is going to be a valuable resource.”  Neikirk is president of the Midway Business Association and co-owner of 2 Ladies and a Kettle and Midway Sweet Tooth. She replaces Cynthia Bohn of Equus Run Vineyards, who said she lacked the time to serve.

A mural being painted on Lexington Street in downtown Versailles by local artist Steve Sawyer features the names of contributing horse farms on jockey shirts of different designs. Kerkhoff said that the mural was going well and that there were some racing syndicates interested in getting their names on the mural.

He opposed that, noting that the county’s tourism slogan is “Bourbon, wine and bloodlines.” He added, ”You can’t tour a racing syndicate” like you can a horse farm. 

Other Business: The commission made a tentative decision to not buy an ad in the 2020 edition of the Kentucky Travel Guide, partly because the guide will list local accommodations anyway. The commission passed around copies of their ad last from last year and agreed it was lackluster. The ad would cost around $3,600 and it would be a quarter-page ad.

Smither asked why the commission’s money isn’t accruing interest. According to the minutes of a previous meeting, it is “spending conservatively until they have a cohesive plan of action put together.” He agreed to look into money-market options and get back to the commission at its next regular meeting, which will be held at the Versailles Municipal Building at 9 a.m. Oct. 17.

The commission plans to establish a still hasn’t decided where to put the visitor center but is weighing two options: at the Gathered Mercantile at Amsden on Nov. 1, Bohanan saidand the Historical Society. The Gathered Mercantile offered to create space for brochures, an office, shared wi-fi and labor for $400 per month. The Historical Society offered space rent-free, but it would not be available for another year.
(The paragraph above has been corrected after publication.)

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Crowd on Winter Street (Photos by Grant Wheeler)
By Kennedy Sabharwal
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

Heat, laughter, funnel cakes, smiles, trinkets, and the sound of trains rolling through the town. So went the scenes and feelings at the 45th annual Midway Fall Festival this weekend. Midway was packed, and traffic was barely moving, due to the apparent record crowd, which officials estimated at 18,000.

“Around 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, the interstate exists were backed up, and we decided since there was not any parking left in town, to suggest to people coming in to visit later in the day or on Sunday,” Mayor Grayson Vandegrift said in an email to the Midway Messenger.

“You can only get in two ways,” said West Sixth Brewery’s events-team manager, Nate Harling. “They had to turn people away because they couldn’t fit in the town and the ATM was out of money. I was like, wow; the festival is doing really well.”
Traffic backed up to the exits on Interstate 64, forcing officials to turn people away. (Photo by Grant Wheeler)
Venturing around the festival may have been hot and draining, but the sense of community and joy that you could feel in the air was amazing.

Nate Harling taps a draft. (Photo by Kennedy Sabharwal)
“I love it because the people are kind,” said Harling. “Midway is nice because this is literally their downtown. It’s nice to have all of these temporary set-ups among your various main-stay, small businesses and everyone is thriving and having a good day together.”

Harling, who lives in Lexington, said West Sixth has been making appearances at events like this for years, but he hadn’t been to the festival since he was 6 years old.

While some walked around buying gifts like soaps, purses, scarves, honey, or even jewelry, some younger attendees had a different idea of how they wanted to spend their day at the festival. Children were able to ride ponies and play fun games to blow off some energy in the hot weather.

Photo by Kennedy Sabharwal
Ruby Battagalia, right, enjoyed a funnel cake before she ventured off to the bouncy house to “have some fun.”

Though many of the festival’s vendors have been setting up their stations in Midway for years, farmer Cindy Smith of Paris said this was her first year not just for vending, but attending. She is primarily a farmer, she loves making beautiful wreaths, so she decided to sign up to be a vendor.

“I started into dry wreaths last year,” she said. “You don’t see them that often anymore. I’ve shipped them all over the country, but I thought it would be nice to sell them locally, too. … Two weeks before the festival, the people in charge emailed me and told me I had a spot.”

Smith, below, only had a couple of days to work on her wreaths. She made 20 large wreaths, and was almost sold out early Sunday afternoon. She said she was “thrilled” with the outcome.
Photo by Kennedy Sabharwal, University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media
Since it was so hot, some of the products were affected by the heat. Sweet Memories Fudge owner Cindy Gipson said she loves the festival and has been selling her fudge for the past four years. It’s hard for her to “display it since it is so hot,” but she now has regular customers who, “come up and say, ‘Hey! Were you here last year?’,” which Gipson says helps to keep business up, even with the weather.

The country group Bourbon Branch was among the entertainment for the festival. The band's debut album “Notches on the Bedpost” was released in the spring of 2018.

Ralph Tyree is a photographer based in Winchester. He started taking pictures as a hobby, which evolved into a 16-year career. He said he generally tries to do 12 shows a year to showcase his photography. His wide array of work encompasses many states. (Photo by Grant Wheeler)
Justin Stanley is a local entrepreneur who has recently started his company The Green Penguin which specializes in creating an array of different hot sauces. This year marks Stanley’s third year at the festival. The newest addition to his arsenal of sauces is The Penguin’s Fury, a smoky new flavor which mixes garlic and ghost pepper. (Photo by Grant Wheeler)
Jim Nancy, an East Tennessee native, has been making baskets for 18 years. Starting as a hobby, Nancy said “The kids left home and my wife decided we had to do something.” This was Nancy’s third year at the festival. “I love the people here in Midway so I’m going to keep coming back for as long as I can,” he said. (Photo by Grant Wheeler)

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Mayor bans open burning in city due to dry conditions

Midway Mayor Grayson Vandegrift said this morning that he has issued an executive order temporarily banning open burning in the city limits. "The especially wet 2018 followed by this very dry season make conditions worse than usual for potential danger," he aid in an email to the city council and the news media. "Cooking on grills is still permitted, but recreational fire pits and any other burning normally permitted is being temporarily suspended until further notice. Please feel free to let me know if you have any questions."

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Midway Univ. ranked among Top 75 regional universities in South, No. 3 in the region in students' social mobility

This photo was taken for The Lane Report before the university began construction on a new athletic field and fieldhouse.
By Grant Wheeler
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

Midway University is excited about new regional rankings, and dealing with the pains of growth that helped it get recognition.

After opening its doors to a record class of 274 new undergraduates this fall, the university learned that has made U.S. News and World Report’s list of Top 75 Regional Universities in the South, at No. 73. Among such schools, the university is ranked No. 3 in a category new to the rankings: social mobility, which reflects how it helps students with lower incomes.

The rankings are based on several factors, including student retention, graduation rates, class sizes and faculty resources. Social mobility rankings are measured by the graduation rate of students from households with less than $50,000 income who receive federal Pell grants. The private university’s annual tuition and fees are $24,850, according to U.S. News.

“We try to keep our education affordable,” while offering a personalized learning environment to all students, President John Marsden said. “It happens in the classroom with faculty, it’s happening with coaches, it’s happening with student affairs, but it also happens in ways you might not think about such as with the financial aid counselor or the business office staff who work close to families to help them navigate a very complicated process that is paying for one’s education.”

Student athlete Lynsey Doles, president of the Student Government Association, is a junior from Ripley, Tennessee. Doles is a scholarship student who said she was attracted by Midway’s personalized learning environment. “When I made the decision to come to Midway I was looking for something small where I was a name and not just a number,” she said. “Since then I have fallen in love with Midway University.”

The university decided to go co-ed to sustain itself, President John Marsden said, citing “tight budgets, decreased interest in single-sex education, and a national trend in declining enrollments."

Since going co-educational in 2016, the university has enjoyed record breaking enrollment every year, and is ahead of the timetable in its three-year strategic plan, which calls for 650 daytime students on campus by fall 2021.

With a daytime enrollment of 643, “We only have seven more students to go!” said Vice President of Marketing and Communications Ellen Gregory.

The spike in enrollment has been warmly welcomed by faculty, but the rapid growth has posed some new issues, such as accommodating incoming students.

Housing and dining are the pressing issues. Pinkerton Hall, the first building on campus, which dates to 1847, was renovated for housing just in time this summer to meet the growing demand.

“We did not anticipate such rapid growth,” said Marsden. “The university must be willing to act very quickly and adjust with the times. . . . We certainly don’t want any obstacles that will curtail our momentum moving forward.”

Gregory described this year as being a study in time flow, explaining “some things you have to think about internally are things like food service. How many people can you feed when you only have one dining hall?”

Logistics of class schedules, capacity, and smaller issues such as the proximity of waste containers to residence halls, are all operational obstacles the administration is looking to address.

The university is proud of its strong sense of community, and some students say they feel part of the larger community of Midway, the town.

“I do feel a sense of community,” said Logan Conn, a member of the golf team and a transfer student from the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Kentucky. “The school is surrounded by a variety of small shops and restaurants, and given the small class sizes I really get to know my professors in a much more intimate environment.”

The university is adding a baseball field and fieldhouse to serve the needs of its athletic teams. “We’re not building so that students will come – they are already here,” Marsden said. “We’re building so that students will stay.”

U.S. News and World Report’s rankings are available online and are to be printed in October in the Best Colleges 2020 guidebook. Find out more about Midway University at www.Midway.edu

Council advances incentive package for Lakeshore expansion, readies new franchise for cable and internet

Mayor Grayson Vandegrift talks with Helen Rentch, a major supporter of The Homeplace at Midway, in front of the van that the city helped the nursing home and assisted-living facility buy. The rear of the van has donors' logos. The Homeplace brought the van to the City Council meeting. (Photo by Kennedy Sabharwal, University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media)
By Kennedy Sabharwal
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

The Midway City Council approved some incentives for Lakeshore Learning Materials’ expansion, and held first reading on others, at its meeting Monday evening. It also approved a franchise for a new telecommunications company to serve the city.

Lakeshore: One reason Lakeshore chose Midway to house its Eastern U.S. distribution center in 2016 was the incentives offered by the city, Woodford County and the state. Now that the company has decided to build a warehouse and add 100 jobs, the same incentives are at work, with a new one.

One incentive was that the occupational tax on the company payroll would be decreased from 2% to 1.5% for 10 years once the company had reached its goal of employing 262 people. The city will grant a similar decrease once the warehouse has reached 100 employees, make a similar reduction in the occupational tax on the company’s additional net profits for five years.

“I thought it was a fair but reasonable offer to make,” as the city competed with Beaumont, Texas, for the facility, said Mayor Grayson Vandegrift. He said Midway collected only $5,000 a year in net-profits tax until Lakeshore arrived, and the company pays “about six times that.”

The net-profits incentive is in an ordinance, which will require a second reading before passage. The other incentives were in resolutions that the council passed unanimously and without debate.

Another incentive is industrial revenue bonds, which the city will issue to give Lakeshore a lower interest rate for financing construction of the warehouse. “The city’s not pledging its credit,” said Timothy Eifler of Louisville, an attorney for Lakeshore.

Since the city will own the land and lease it back to Lakeshore, it will not be taxed, but part of the agreement is that Lakeshore will pay Woodford County Schools the same amount that it would pay in taxes if it owned the property.
TV and internet service: Though the city of Midway already has a cable television and internet provider, Spectrum, many residents have voiced discontent with it. A proposed ordinance hat got first reading Monday would grant a non-exclusive franchise to MetroNet so it can use city streets and property to build its service.

Vandegrift said second reading and likely passage of the proposed ordinances will be on Oct. 7. In June, when a MetroNet representative spoke to the council, the mayor said "I've been very impressed" with the company and agreed with the representative's statements that the firm has "the best technology available in the world" for internet, television and telephone."

The representative said the company is coming to Midway because it recently got a contract to serve the county schools, and would be seeking a similar non-exclusive franchise from the Woodford County Fiscal Court.

Softball shenanigans: Kim Wilson of Elkton Place, a short street at the south end of the city, asked to buy a small piece of land between her home and the Midway softball field, which is used by Midway University.

“No offense to the Midway softball team, but they’re just outrageously slobs,” by littering and urinating on the wooded tract, Wilson said, adding that she has voiced her concerns to the university, but the issues persist.

University spokeswoman Ellen Gregory told the Messenger in an email, “The comment on those urinating on property was in reference to umpires. . . . When we were first notified of this issue by the property owner, our head of security spoke directly to an umpire, who was an offender. And our softball coach has also spoken to the umpires to correct the improper behavior and will communicate this again to the conference assignor. The university pays for two Portalets at the field during the school year; those were delivered again Aug. 29 for this year. We also have trash cans onsite; our grounds crew mows the area and our security monitors the field daily.”

The presumption at the meeting was that the city owns the land, but Vandegrift said in an email after the meeting that “the bulk of the property” belongs to the owner of an adjacent farm, whom the city will send “a letter notifying her that she will need to maintain the property from here on out.”

Flooding: James and Sandy Reynolds asked for help with the flooding of the basement of a church in the Loft Apartments building they own on Dudley Street, next to the a sloped parking lot for The Brown Barrel & Blind Harry’s..

Vandegrift said the issue needs to be fixed but it is on private property, and “I’m not going to spend taxpayer’s money on what is not a taxpayers’ problem.” Reynolds said he didn’t want that, just advice and approval to take the problem into his own hands.

Tuesday, Vandegrift emailed the council and news media saying a consulting engineer from the city “looked at the area today and determined the problems they are experiencing are not due to city issues. I encourage the property owners to hire their own engineers to alleviate their flooding issues.”

Other business: Last fall, a wagon selling pumpkins was forced to relocate because it lacked a temporary encroachment permit for the parking space it occupied. Farmers Michael Greathouse and Carissa Arnold asked for a permit to set up at 112 S. Gratz St., saying they would set up the wagon immediately after the Fall Festival until Nov. 1. The council granted the permit.

The city recently aided The Homeplace at Midway by donating $5,000 a 12-passenger van that cost $25,000. The van made an appearance at the meeting, and smiles were shared between council members and Homeplace employees and supporters.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Saturday sunset casts a glow on Weisenberger Mill

Jesse Hurt of New Washington, Ind., used a drone for this photo of the Weisenberger Mill Saturday.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Lakeshore Learning Materials will expand Midway distribution center, add 100 jobs, for a total of 340

By Megan Parsons, Garrett Burton, Kennedy Sabharwal, Grant Wheeler and Dalton Stokes
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

Midway seems to have hit the employment and tax-revenue lottery. Lakeshore Learning Materials, which came to town in 2016, has announced it will expand its distribution center and employ 100 more people. Lakeshore currently employs 240 in the Midway Station industrial park. It is also expected to provide around 150 seasonal jobs.

“This means longer term financial stability for the city,” Mayor Grayson Vandegrift said in an email. “With this expansion, our city will likely see over $1 million in annual occupational tax revenue overall; it was around $300,000 per year in 2015.”

As a result, Vandegrift said, the citizens of Midway can expect more infrastructure improvements and better overall services. “Our residents can expect us to be able to continue improving our water and sewer lines, our roads, our sidewalks, and to be able to continue investing in other quality of life initiatives as well,” he said.

Lakeshore is the largest job provider in Midway history. Vandergrift said that construction will most likely start in the winter and finish up in spring of 2020, costing the company an estimated $27 million. The first center cost it $47.7 million.

Labels on Google map show new Lakeshore Learning property,
which the city recently annexed; the red line is the former city limit.

Road at top goes to new Brown-Forman whiskey warehouses.
The addition will be close to the current distribution center, next to Georgetown Road on property being bought from Homer Freeny Jr., which the city recently annexed and zoned industrial. An adjoining tract could be used for future expansion, Vandegrift said.

The mayor said the company, based in the Los Angeles area, chose to expand eastern distribution center in in Midway rather than open a third center in Beaumont, Texas, a city of about 120,000 east of Houston.

“I believe their existing distribution center and our excellent logistics played a key role,” Vandegrift said. “I was also told by a Lakeshore executive that our relationship with them as a city was a big reason they decided on Midway.” He noted that Midway is within a day’s drive of 70 percent of the U.S. population.

The mayor said he “worried Beaumont could provide a better tax incentive package.” In addition to incentives from the state, he also tentatively offered a five-year abatement of the occupational tax on Lakeshore’s net profits.

“This seems like a very reasonable thing to do since Lakeshore currently contributes five times what was being generated in the entire city before they arrived,” he wrote. “They contribute about $30,000 a year in net-profit tax. But, the company contributes over $200,000 dollars per year in occupational tax revenue already, and in the long run the city comes out far in the black.” Before this offer can be solidified, it must be approved by the City Council.
The rest of the incentive package is the same as the one for Lakeshore's initial plant, to rebate 0.5 percent of their occupational-tax payments for 10 years once their promised job threshold is met.

Asked if Lakeshore will seek local employees to fill the 100 jobs, Vandegrift said, “A lot of their employees come from Midway and Woodford County, but the majority travel from other counties, and I expect that to be even more the case with this new facility.”

As for construction work, since the distribution center was built by Central Kentucky companies, Vandegrift said they are likely to build the new distribution center.

Traffic should not be of concern to Midway residents, according to the mayor. With the current distribution center, traffic has been minimal. During the end of the day shift, there can be more traffic on the Interstate 64 interchange, but much less than in Lexington.

Lakeshore is a developer and retailer of educational materials for early-childhood programs, elementary schools and homes nationwide. The company has 60 retail locations across the country. It recently opened offices in Asia.