Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Versailles bypass plan continues to stir controversy; manager says he expects route choice in next 2 months

By Kelly Brightmore
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

With the time for a decision drawing nearer, Woodford County residents are raising much debate over a proposed bypass around the west side of Versailles. A majority of resident feedback has been negative, calling the bypass a waste of money and a threat to the peace and safety of Midway and even to the county's agricultural economy.

The proposed road, officially named the Northwest Versailles Mobility Corridor, would extend Falling Springs Boulevard around the west side of Versailles to U.S. 60 northwest of town. The current state road plan says the project would cost $39 million, including $2 million for design, $5 million for buying rights of way, $2 million for utilities relocation, and $30 million for actual construction.

Many county residents fear the project will cost them more than just their share of the dollar amount.  In a letter to the Lexington Herald-Leader, Woodford County resident Dan Rosenburg called the bypass a “waste” and said it would “destroy valuable agricultural land that is the basis of Woodford County’s economy.” Versailles resident James Nicholson likened the pricey attempt to alleviate traffic to killing “a fly with a sledge hammer” in his letter to The Woodford Sun.

Midway residents have an added worry. Because the bypass would lead directly or indirectly to US 62, Midway Road, their concern is about added traffic to the downtown area. Drivers using the bypass for quick access to Interstate 64 could clog up traffic on the narrow road with poor shoulders.

Until recently, Midway residents were under the belief that the weight limit for Midway Road would be lowered from 80,000 to 62,000 pounds under a new order of the state Transportation Cabinet. A lower weight limit means fewer trucks and less danger.  It turns out, according to the Sun, that the order does not in fact lower the weight limit due to it being a federal highway within 15 miles of an interstate. Midway residents were convinced the order was a done deal and many, including Mayor Grayson Vandegrift, saw it as an act to appease those fighting the bypass.

At the project’s citizens advisory committee Nov. 19, Arrell Thompson, consultant for the Burgess & Niple engineering firm, announced that 75 percent of public comments received about the bypass said the road shouldn’t be built.

The public comments were on an online survey and a paper submitted at a meeting in Versailles in October. The numbers were almost the reverse from a similar survey taken in 2010 by the county Planning Commission and Economic Development Authority. In that survey, nearly 73 percent of respondents wanted the bypass completed and 60 percent believed downtown Versailles traffic was a problem.

The three alternate routes chosen by the project managers would all go west of the Osram Sylvania plant then tie into U.S. 60. The most supported alternative route, Alternative B, would connect to U.S. 60 near its current intersection with U.S. 62. The others would end at Midway Road and farther up U.S. 60.

Rob Sprague, project engineer for the state Department of Highways, said at the citizen advisory committee meeting that he believes there is a silent majority in favor of the project.

Sprague told the Messenger recently, “We should be able to recommend an alignment within the next couple of months and we should know the funding schedule in April,” after the legislature revises the state road plan.

Versailles Mayor Brian Traugott is another leading proponent of the new road. In a letter to the Sun, he said the bypass would relieve a large amount of traffic from downtown Versailles and “would make downtown a more attractive area to visit.” He also addressed the concern over Midway Road, suggesting a lower speed limit, wider shoulders or reconstructing the road would address safety concerns.

Some opponents have said no study has supported construction of the road, but one letter writer cited the results of study issued in May 1999 by the Wilbur Smith Associates Consulting Engineers and Planners, which recommend the construction of a four-lane connector highway between U.S. 60 and U.S. 62 in order to relieve traffic in Versailles.

Woodford County residents and officials are not the only ones who have spoken out about the controversial project. The controversy has even spread as far as Lexington. There have been multiple letters about the bypass in the Herald-Leader and even an editorial. Herald-Leader cartoonist Joel Pett addressed the controversy in his Nov. 28 cartoon, which depicted the road as a connector between money and politics. The family of former state Rep. Joe Barrows owns property on the alternate route closest to Versailles.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Mayor says Midway Station tax-increment financing plan will have to exclude payroll taxes

By Adrian Rudd
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

Midway Mayor Grayson Vandegrift told the city council Monday night that he would ask for an amendment to the ordinance that would finance redevelopment of Midway Station through the increased tax revenue from the development.

The tax-increment-financing ordinance, approved by the council last December and the Woodford County Fiscal Court in August, authorizes 80 percent of the new property and payroll taxes generated at Midway Station to go towards the estimated $31 million needed to redevelop its public infrastructure. With this new amendment, the ordinance would apply only to property taxes and not occupational taxes, or payroll taxes.

According to Vandegrift, the property meets all but one state requirement for a full-scale TIF, that the property is “blighted.” The property, with streets, curbs and utilities, has sat almost entirely vacant for 20 years but doesn’t meet the usual definition of blight, Vandegrift said in an interview after the council meeting. He said state officials told him they would probably not approve the plan as proposed.

“This is no skin off our back, really,” Vandegrift said. “We want to work with the developer but now the bookkeeping aspect will be so much simpler for us, because we’re going to be the ones managing all these funds coming through and disbursing them back out.” The city collects payroll taxes quarterly, property taxes annually.

The new approach may also help Dennis Anderson, the prospective developer. He would start getting reimbursed for the estimated $31 million in public facilities once he has invested $10 million, significantly less than the $20 million he would have to invest under the current TIF plan.

Vandegrift said he didn’t know how the different TIF plan, which would generate less money for reimbursement, would affect Anderson’s private financing.

The council also heard discussion on the deal between the state and American Howa Kentucky Inc., a Japanese company that will make textiles for automobiles at Midway Station.

“The state has worked out the incentives directly with the company,” John Soper, chairman of the Woodford County Economic Development Authority, told the council. “We won’t be coming back to you for the portion of the payroll tax, which is a big benefit to the city.” Some industrial incentive packages also involve local payroll taxes.

Since the plant will be built on the former Roach property that adjoins Midway Station, not on the original industrial park, it essentially means Midway taxpayers will not be funding the construction of the factory.

Soper said he anticipates a closing on the property between EDA and American Howa Kentucky to come in mid- to late January, and construction to begin no later than mid-February. Soper says the company will be the program’s first industrial client and the third U.S. plant for AHK.

“I think it is in our best interest to work with EDA and create jobs in Midway,” said Vandegrift, who expects the creation of AHK to ultimately bring other factories and about 250 well-paying jobs to Midway. Also, Soper said, “We think this will lead to more commercial things in Midway Station.”

Other business: The council voted to amend its agreement with a former Kentucky State University professor who is fish farming at the old sewage-treatment plant, to allow him to use the main building and to sell fish there from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays, with 5 percent of the "gross profits" to be paid as rent in addition to the current $50 a month.

Council Member Libby Warfield said the fish farmer should clean up some scrap metal at the property, and Vandegrift said he would get that done.

Vandegrift said he would not sign an easement for Columbia Gas of Kentucky to build a new regulator station on the south edge of town until the company fixes a poor paving job at the intersection of North Winter Street and Northside Drive, in front of Midway Grocery.

Council Member Dan Roller reported that the Blighted Property Committee met with county Planning and Zoning Administrator Pattie Wilson and the new building inspector, and will be sending letters in the next 30 to 45 days to property owners who need to repair or demolish structures.

Council Member Bruce Southworth reported that the Sidewalk Committee met without making much progress and decided that individual members should develop their own ideas and get together again after the first of the year. He said deciding new policies and procedures for fixing sidewalks "is going to be an arduous process."

The council agreed to cancel its Dec. 21 meeting, making its next meeting Jan. 4.

Officials 'actively pursuing' hotel for Midway, they say

By Andrea Richard
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

The Woodford County Economic Development Authority is “actively pursing” a hotel in Midway, Mayor Grayson Vandegrift told the Midway Messenger in a telephone interview Monday.

The mayor’s comment comes a month after the Oct. 29 announcement that the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority approved tax incentives for American Howa Kentucky Inc., an auto-parts factory that makes interior parts for the Toyota Camry, to build a plant at Midway Station.

Midway and Woodford County officials are optimistic that the development of the 100,000 square-feet building will bring about the possibility of the city’s first hotel.

“It’s a big goal” of the Woodford EDA to bring guest accommodations to Midway, Vandegrift said.

While it’s likely a hotel or motel would locate first in Versailles, the mayor said he doesn’t think such a property would diminish the prospect of a hotel in Midway, since it is on Interstate 64 and Versailles is not. Vandegrift said he is “confident that once a feasibility study is done, it will bring a hotel to the area.”

Just how soon residents and visitors can expect a hotel? The mayor said it’s “hard to say.”

“Companies want to do their homework,” Vandegrift said.

Nevertheless, Woodford EDA Chairman John Soper is confident that Midway’s acquiring American Howa Kentucky “is the next big step” for the city to land a hotel.

“People come in to industries to sell them things, to promote things, … so us landing this company is the next big step, hopefully, to help us land a hotel which we desperately want,” Soper said at the EDA meeting in Midway on Friday. 

A Subway restaurant opened recently in Green Gables.
Soper said a hotel operator looked at the 2-acre lot next to McDonald’s -- the development formally known as Green Gables -- earlier this year. Soper said after Friday’s meeting that a feasibility study was conducted and the operator decided that it was not the right time to build. He said he presumes that the independent developer did not visit Midway because of the way a similar feasibility study was conducted in Versailles.

“When you look at the demographics on the computer, this may not look like the ideal market,” Soper said. “I want to try to get the people in Midway, that hotel group, to come back and look at it. That’s what the people who looked at Versailles, they came here and looked at it, and spent two days here. We took them down to Woodford Reserve, we took them to KCTCS (Kentucky Community and Technical College System), they understood the Bourbon Trail, they made their decision to go forward, because there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t necessarily show up on an Internet search that is really here.”

According to Soper, the prospective hotel operator looked at the property before American Howa Kentucky’s decision to build a plant in Midway was announced. Soper said one of the things a hotel developer looks for is the ability for the property to stay full from Monday through Thursday.
“Industry provides that,” Soper said. “I think it was the missing piece.”

Soper said the Shell convenience store, McDonald’s and Subway, located in the Green Gables development at the southeast quadrant of the I-64 interchange, also work in the prospect’s favor. 

“My understanding of what a hotel needs, it needs to locate next to food, which we have out there and we obviously have in downtown Midway, and gasoline, which we now have,” Soper said. “From every account they’re all very successful. So, a hotel wants to locate there because people want that near them.” 

Soper told the Messenger that he’s not sure whether or not the announcement will push the independent developer’s desire to build “up to the front burner,” but hopes that AHK’s plant will bring him “to the forefront.”

Dennis Anderson, owner of the Green Gables development, said that while they are hoping to put a hotel on the site, the prospect would “have to fit with [their] overall design for the property.”

Anderson said he’s “more focused on building communities than dollars per acre.”

“We don’t just sell to anybody,” Anderson said. “We’re patient.”

In addition to his Green Gables development, Anderson is the prospective developer of Midway Station, the largely failed industrial park created in the 1990s.

After many years of little development, and the city and the county still paying off the bond used to buy the property, EDA and the city struck a deal with Anderson to transform most of the property into a residential and commercial development. But that started as the Great Recession began, and Anderson did not exercise his option to buy the property. As the economy improved and industrial prospects surfaced, EDA had the rear 80 acres of the property zoned as industrial.

If residential property does prove to be first on Anderson’s list, the developer said he could see about 15 homes being built in the first phase.

Anderson said a number of options have been discussed: medical, retail, and a possible convenience store. Anderson also said people have expressed interest in residential property as well. 

“You’ll build houses, you’ll build jobs,” he said. “You’ll build houses, you’ll build jobs.”

Coming of factory to Midway Station makes others, and a hotel, more likely, officials say

By Casey Parker-Bell
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Teelcommunications

If you build it, so might others.

Midway Mayor Grayson Vandegrift says the recently announced auto parts plant for Midway Station could bring the city more jobs and businesses, such as more factories and a hotel.

“No one ever wants to be the first one through the door,” Vandegrift said about the challenges of bringing industry to Midway after the Woodford Economic Development Authority met Friday at Midway City Hall. “Once someone sees industry in there, they kind of tend to figure, ‘Well, they did their homework. Must be good land, must be a good prospect here. Maybe we will relocate there too.’”

The person who could be most responsible for bringing new business to Midway is Lexington developer Dennis Anderson. He has an option to purchase Midway Station for commercial and residential development and says he has been in discussions with multiple prospects, including retail, medical and biotech businesses, but they are waiting on approval of the tax-increment financing district for the property.

A TIF district would allow Midway Station’s estimated $31 million in redevelopment costs to be subsidized with tax revenue from the development. Anderson said that Midway Station needs significant changes to its infrastructure before development can begin. “The land is too hilly for large buildings to go on,” he said. “It wasn’t ever graded. They just went and put the roads and the streets and everything in.”

The TIF district was approved by Woodford County in August and is pending state approval. “We have inquiries, but until we understand what we have with the TIF our hands are kind of tied,” Anderson said. Vandegrift announced at Monday's Midway City Council meeting that the TIF ordinance will need to be amended to exclude occupational taxes to win state approval.

Midway Station is a publicly owned tract of land originally intended to be an industrial park. After the development’s inability to attract industry, Midway Station is now zoned mainly for commercial and residential development.

If the TIF district is approved by the state, Anderson said, “It is my intention to exercise the option.” He says he has 120 days to exercise his option after the approval of the TIF district.

Anderson says he wants to build a community in Midway but said, “I never dreamed it would be this long, this difficult and this expensive.” Recently, a Subway opened in Anderson’s Green Gables development, where Anderson says he is saving a spot for a hotel.

“Well, Green Gables we saved one site and anticipated getting a hotel,” Anderson said. “We intend to pursue that line.” Just because Anderson wants a hotel, does not mean he believes it will happen immediately. “How long will it sit and wait trying to get a hotel, you know, I don’t know.”

Vandegrift said the new factory would “absolutely” make the arrival of a hotel more likely. And John Soper, chairman of the Woodford County Economic Development Authority, believes the factory was “the missing piece” to generate interest from a hotel.

Soper said a hotel operator looked at a two-acre lot next to McDonald’s and decided not to move on the property, but that was before the announcement of the factory.

American Howa Kentucky Inc., the company building the auto-parts factory, will become the second largest job provider in Midway, according to Vandegrift. The largest now is Midway University, with about 100 jobs.

“The one thing we really lack in Midway is jobs,” said Vandegrift. He said AHK’s decision to build in Midway could lead to more development in Midway Station. Vandegrift said in the future there might be four or five business in the development’s industrial area: “I mean, maybe that ends up totaling 250 jobs. That would be enormous for Midway.”

Soper agrees with Vandegrift that the factory could spur other developments and said that there are other businesses interested in Midway. “We’re constantly in conversations with other plants that have looked at this,” Soper said. “It is a very long process.” He added it was “premature” to say whether there would be any new developments soon.

Soper said he anticipates AHK will buy the land in January, at the latest. AHK is a Japanese company that manufactures interior automotive products.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Some stores extend hours for holidays; Merchants president thinks they need to do that year-yound

By Andrea Richard
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

As the December holidays fast approach, Midway shoppers are seeing longer business operating hours – something the president of the Midway Merchants Association would like to see continue.

After Thanksgiving, some stores, like the Damselfly Gallery, extend their hours on Friday and Saturday nights. Other shops, like the White Horse Collection, extend their hours based on the flow of traffic.

Stores are decked out for Christmas, but most don't stay open late.
However, shoppers should not get accustomed to the new hours. After the season, the stores will operate on their normal schedule, one that Merchants President Kenny Smith  thinks falls short of the city’s potential.

“Seventy percent of retail is done after 6 o’clock,” Smith told the Merchants at their October meeting, quoting a research study that he found. Yet, “Here at five, the doors are locked and everybody goes home.”

Leslie Penn, owner of the Historic Midway Museum Store, told Smith that his statistic was representative of malls, not small businesses like the ones in Midway. Smith said his statistic is representative of everywhere, and told the merchants that the times his business, Kennydid Gallery, has stayed open, sometimes until 8 p.m., he has had customers ask why all the stores are closed.

“’Cause we’re not a mall,” Penn replied.

“But we are merchants, and we are in the business to make money,” Smith responded.

Early closing hours is not the only problem Midway shoppers face. According to Smith, customers complain about businesses not opening at all on Sundays.

“Invariably people come in on Sunday, lots of people, and say ‘Why is nobody open?’”

Smith said visitors travel from Louisville and Cincinnati on Sundays only to find stores closed.

“If we get a reputation that we’re never open, it doesn’t matter how much advertising we do,” Smith said. ”People aren’t going to come.”

Mondays are also an issue. Don Durs, owner of Old Towne Antiques, said in an interview that he has heard several customers complain about stores being closed on the first normal business day of the week.

“One would think that they would follow Macy’s. They’re open seven days a week,” Durs said. 

“Don’t sit here and tell me that we don’t open on Monday because there is no business. You’re not open. If you’re not open … how do you know?”

Along with early closing hours, and stores not opening at all, some shoppers find late opening hours to be a problem too.

At 9:45 on Saturday mornings, most businesses are not set to open. When 10:00 rolls around, only a handful of shops have opened their doors. Most open at 11. One boutique does not open until noon.

Cathy Jackson of Boonville, Ind. stopped on East Main Street before visiting relatives in Midway one day last month.

“We got here at 10 thinking most of the stores would be open at 10,” Jackson said. “I just wish we would have known because we were planning our day around coming here first.”

Jackson said she’s not a big shopper, but was “looking forward to going in and out of a bunch of the stores” to see what Midway merchants had to offer. Instead, a lot of shops lost her potential business, she said.

Jackson wasn’t the only disappointed shopper in Midway that day. Sisters-in-law Kristina McDowell and Julia McDowell said they were “trying to figure out what … to do” after finding most shops didn’t open until 11.

Durs’s shop is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day.

“We’ve been opening at 10 o’clock for 26 years,” Durs said. “Whatever [the other shops] want to do, that’s their business.”

But Durs isn’t for later hours. When asked his opinion of Smith’s presentation at the Merchants Association meeting, Durs said, “After 6 o’clock it’s all restaurants.” He said most customers “either come browsing before going in for their reservation, or they go eat. When they get out at 7, or 8 or 9 o’clock, they go home.”

Other Midway business owners like Roz Roney-Dougal, owner of the White Horse Collection, share the belief that quick browsing before or after dinner would not bring their businesses much trade.

Roney-Dougal said her store is open Tuesday through Saturday until 5 p.m. She said if the merchants were to advertise to the horse community, and the city were to get more restaurants, it would be worth staying open. But, as it is, “People do not cross the street when they’re going to dinner to shop.”

When asked about weekend hours, and whether businesses should stay open for out-of-town visitors, Roney-Dougal said “No, because there’s no hotel.”

“If they were staying in Midway, of course. But people who come here after 5, 6 o’clock, are going to dinner, and that’s it.”

However, Smith doesn’t believe that a lack of traffic after 5 p.m. is an excuse for businesses to close early.

Smith says he sees the traffic, since his gallery (which is near restaurants on Main Street) is open seven days a week and stays open as late as 8 on some weekend nights.

“I invariably have people come in who have driven here from Indianapolis, Louisville or Cincinnati, and they’ll ask ‘Why are you the only one open?’ And what do I tell them? Because at 5 o’clock they lock their doors and they go home,” Smith said.

“We have to develop a reputation of being customer-friendly,” he added. “Not everybody can come during the day between 11 to 5, because the people who have the money to spend are working to earn that money.” 

Mary Thoreson, owner of the Damselfly Gallery on the other side of Main Street, said she has tried opening earlier and closing later.

“I’ve opened early, stayed late; opened late, stayed late, and I’ve never thought that I’ve lost much business, closing between 5 and 6. What I have always found is that after that, people are really coming to eat. They may come in and browse and come back later, but they’re not really here to shop. That’s my experience.”

Thoreson said most of the complaints come from businesses not opening at all. “Anybody that comes here is making an effort to come here,” Thoreson said. “It’s a tourist destination. So when they drive here, and people aren’t open, that leads to complaints.”

Thoreson, whose business is open seven days a week, said she believes most businesses are closed on Monday because owners are tired.

“They’re all mom-and-pop stores,” she said. “I think people need a day off.”

Smith said that at age 68, he’s one of the oldest business owners on East Main Street, and he works seven days a week.

“If I get tired, I take a nap, and that’s usually at night after I go home,” he said. “If you’re going to be in business, and you can’t be here, hire somebody.”

Smith said if Midway gets the reputation of “never being open on Sunday or Monday,” customers who come looking to shop will “probably never come back.”

“I have people call me because they’ve been to the website and saw I was a contact person, and they’ll say ‘All right, I’m bringing a group on Monday,’ and I have to be honest and say things won’t be open. Or they’ll call and say I’m bringing a group on Sunday, and there are maybe three of us that are open on Sunday, four at most, and I can’t tell them ‘Sure, everybody will be open,’ because I know they won’t be. That hurts the image of Midway. It hurts my business. It hurts their business.”