Saturday’s annual Kentucky River Sweep focused attention on what’s wrong with this region’s major waterway. Most would agree the river needed a good cleanup, the ranks of volunteers having diminished in recent years. But there’s also a lot right with the river, provided we have the will and imagination to use it as something other than a sewer and a dumpster.
Rodney Simpson, a member of the Frankfort Boat Club and the local Riverfront Development Committee, alluded to the untapped potential last week in commenting on upcoming repairs to Locks 1 and 3 and, in Frankfort, Lock 4, which he hopes will stimulate more boat traffic coming up the Ohio River to the capital city.
Few know better than boaters the central Kentucky stream that meanders through the center of Frankfort. They get a view we landlubbers only occasionally share, and the responsible ones really care about its daily condition. However, typecasting riverfront development as a pet project for water sports enthusiasts would be a mistake. Even those of us who don’t know bow from stern could enjoy riverside outings if given opportunity and inviting amenities. The problems are accessibility and public attitudes toward a natural feature that’s almost an afterthought anymore. Most roads lead away from the water unless there’s a ramp at the end.
Joy Jeffries, executive director of the Frankfort-Franklin County Tourist Commission, summed up the challenge pretty succinctly in an op-ed commentary: “We want people to see the river from the land and the land from the river. We no longer want to turn our back on the river.” How to make that ideal a reality remains the big question.
Riverfront development is a perennial Frankfort dream. A $150,000 master plan released to the community in 2009 offered a number of intriguing ideas, but it came out at the worst possible time to encourage development with any real hope for success. Innovative investment is pretty risky business until a true recovery takes hold.
On wilder parts of the river, the best development is little or no development. How do you improve on nature? The center of town is already developed, albeit in a manner that ignores the water except as a flood threat. Reconnecting to the aquatic highway navigated by the pioneers will be no small undertaking for this tourism-minded community.
Some might find inspiration in Newport on the Levee, a shopping/entertainment complex on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, anchored by the Newport Aquarium. But Frankfort isn’t Newport, which lies across the Ohio from bustling Cincinnati. Conceptual drawings for business development atop the North Frankfort floodwall were prepared decades ago – and went nowhere. The Kentucky River View Park now occupies much of the land on the wet side of the floodwall.
The master plan suggests an alternative complex of restaurants, retail, offices and residences on the old Frankfort Lumber property near the Capital Avenue bridge – convenient to state Capitol visitors and locals alike. It’s just an idea, for now, but an interesting one. While there’s little immediate impetus for major development, downtown Frankfort should keep the river in mind when business conditions improve.