Should Frankfort put immediate priority on federal funding to upgrade a neighborhood, or to advance a speculative business venture? A majority of city commissioners apparently prefer the latter. If they cast votes as expected, the city will support plans by John and Martha Gray to seek a Community Development Block Grant for blight removal at their Old Y building on Bridge Street in hopes of lifting the shadow of condemnation and facilitating eventual restoration of the property as a boutique hotel.
Commissioners Michael Turner, Katie Hedden and Sellus Wilder voiced support for the idea. But Mayor Gippy Graham said he’d rather apply for federal aid to assist Bellepoint, across the Kentucky River from the Capital Plaza complex. Bellepoint is an aging neighborhood of modest means. The Plaza was built in a 1960s urban renewal project.
The Old Y, circa 1910, has languished in the four decades since YMCA moved into the Plaza. The Grays bought the rundown property in 2007 for a nominal $1 and they hope once it’s stabilized they can sell a developer on the feasibility of establishing a downtown inn attractive to travelers who want something different from conventional chain lodging – even though the building currently has no parking.
This concept departs from the sort of development Frankfort normally sees, but boutique hotels are trendy in bigger American cities. The Lexington Herald-Leader reported Wednesday that Steve Wilson and his wife, Laura Lee Brown, plan a $38 million project to convert the old First National Bank building, along with two adjacent buildings in downtown Lexington, into a 21c Museum Hotel, combining specialty hotel features with an art gallery. Like Frankfort’s Old Y, the property has no on-site parking.
The problem with the Old Y, aside from a location that’s inconvenient to people who depend on automotive transportation, is its decrepit condition. Blight is with us always in Frankfort. While some of the city’s historic properties are veritable showplaces of painstaking preservation, others teeter on the verge of collapse. In some cases, government has come to the rescue. City intervention led to the restoration of the Gooch House, a once-stately old residence at Second Street and Capital Avenue, as a tourist center.
In other instances the city has presided over its own urban decay. That happened with the St. Clair Street parking garage, closed because of disuse and structural deterioration and recently sold to a private investor for $51,500 on condition that he bring it up to code and reopen it for parking. The new owner has not announced how he plans to fund the project but some have previously suggested tax-increment financing, which reduces tax rates for a specified period on the expectation of enhanced business later.
John Gray says he doesn’t need any help from the city beyond the mayor’s signature on the grant application. However, applying would prevent local government from requesting another block grant for Bellepoint until the Old Y grant runs its course. The Grays plan to borrow money to start work without delay if their application is approved. It’s estimated the blight removal would take about four months. Then they’d face the next hurdle of persuading someone to tackle the detailed restoration work.
There’s no certainty that either the Old Y or Bellepoint would win funding. Many communities want help combating blight and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development decides which merit assistance. We might be tempted to help the neighborhood first, but city commissioners have different ideas, and they set the policies.