After facing barriers to developing land and buildings in Frankfort, developers, by way of the Kentucky Capital Development Corp., are trying to bring awareness to the issues and seek possible solutions.
Local elected and appointed officials respond, some with their own concerns and others urging further discussion.
What the letter says
KCDC sent the letter last month to Frankfort City Commissioners and Franklin County Fiscal Court members. Complaints over the course of years are enclosed, as well as proposed solutions from the developers. The letter was signed by KCDC board Chair Danny Willis. He said he hopes the letter just makes officials aware of issues in the community and ways to solve them.
“As you know, every community wrestles with the tension between preservation and evolution, and tries to navigate the balance between saving and repurposing great old buildings and not deterring new development,” the letter begins. “However, when historic preservation deters homebuilding and economic development it can worsen a city’s shortage of homes, leave properties undeveloped and drive rents up which pushes out low-income residents.”
Terri Bradshaw, the president of KCDC, said the developers represented in the letter meet regularly with the economic development and have millions invested in Frankfort and Franklin County. She said the intention of the letter was to put the developer’s concerns out in the open and bring it to the people who could change the situation— elected officials.
“I hope this is the beginning of the conversation,” she said.
Franklin County’s real estate market showed a demand for more houses earlier this year, however the county is issuing fewer permits for single family dwellings compared to its neighbors. According to data compiled by KCDC, Franklin County gave 360 single family dwelling permits from 2012 to 2018, 133 less than Anderson County, 385 less than Woodford County, 1,276 less than Shelby County and 2,795 less than Scott County issued in the same time frame.
In 2019, Franklin County issued 69 residential permits, down from 70 in 2018 and up from 52 in 2017, according to information from KCDC. The county also issued 11 commercial permits, 17 farmstead permits and nine mobile home permits in 2019.
In the KCDC letter, developers say that they are not building due to unequal enforcement of rules, slow processes to become approved for licenses and permits and higher costs than neighboring cities and counties. In the future, they may consider other places to invest.
“Who pays when a capricious preservation ruling prohibits the development of downtown property into business or residences? Not the developers. They just move on to another community who is happy to have their investment. The ones who suffer are the citizens who would have lived in those houses and the local governments that would have benefited from the increased jobs and property taxes,” the letter says. “When historic preservation cuts into home production and economic development, the people who are hurt most are the ones with the least housing and job security.”
Danny Strong and Nick Solon are business partners who manage Frankfort’s UrbanWoods Apartments and other properties throughout Central Kentucky. The pair mainly work in their Lexington office, but Strong and his family live in Frankfort and Solon is from Richmond.
They started investing in Frankfort in 2018 after encouragement from Bradshaw and then-city manager Cindy Steinhauser.
Strong said that he feels barriers against the development come from the top of Frankfort’s government and believes that after the mayor and city commissioner elections happen later this year, some of the issues noted in the letter will be resolved.
Solon said Frankfort “has a stigma that it's difficult to do business” within the city. Some examples both he and Strong gave included opposition from local officials, red tape on steps to open a business and some retaliation for speaking out. They suggested looking at other surrounding communities that are growing, such as Lexington, to adopt versions of their policies and implement them in Frankfort to promote growth. Auditing Frankfort’s current rules and regulations is also needed, they said.
As the way things are now, both Strong and Solon said that they are not recommending Frankfort to other investors. They noted that Frankfort does have some attractive qualities to businesses: it is in a river valley, safe and it has a small town feel while being close to urban centers.
Joe and John Dunn, a father and son pair from Louisville, came to Frankfort after seeing the McClure Building empty and boarded up in 2009. At that point, they had a few projects under their belts, including the revitalization of a historic Louisville building into an apartment complex. In Frankfort, they would later buy the Market Squares Apartment building across from the McClure, and Joe and his wife, Sally, bought the Old Good Shepherd Catholic Church and School. The church was sold to Beth Carter, owner of B’s Bakery, last year. The Dunns still manage the school, the McClure and the Market Square.
In their 11 years in business in Frankfort, they have experienced some obstacles. In the KCDC letter, Joe’s name doesn’t appear, but someone recalled the time he went to the Architectural Review Board and proposed installing bathrooms for the Old Good Shepherd Catholic Church. The building, which was about 165 years old at the time, had a space for an opening to add a small wing for bathrooms in the neighboring plot.
The letter recounts that ARB “sarcastically asked him why he didn’t just put port-a-potties out front.” Joe said that it wasn’t a sarcastic question.
A court case involving the Dunns is also mentioned in the letter. When proposing to install windows in the back of the Market Square Apartments that were the same type as other windows in different nearby buildings, the Dunns said ARB denied the motion. After counting over 700 windows of the same type in other buildings and going to court for four years, the Dunns won the case.
However, this isn’t to say that Frankfort is not moving in the right direction, Joe said. He said business has been good since the family began working in Frankfort. The McClure has been at 100% occupancy several times, the apartments are at 100% and the school is on track to reach 100% occupancy.
“This will make our 11th year here,” John said.” And compared to 11 years ago when we were here, this is the most I’ve seen going on and it’s very positive from what we’ve seen.”
Local officials respond
The letter from KCDC was sent to Frankfort and Franklin County governments, beginning some discussion on where to go from here.
“I don’t recognize that ARB. Some are exaggerated mischaracterizations. Others are without foundation all together, said Patti Cross, the chair of the ARB, about some of the assertions in the letter.
If the mission and role of ARB is to change, she said, the City Commission has the final say, after the Zoning Update Committee and Frankfort-Franklin County Planning and Zoning Commission. She feels that ARB is diverse in viewpoints and backgrounds.
“We act in good faith as a board. We try to walk that balance between what is required, what is asked and what the community wants,” Cross said. “It's not an easy balance to make.”
Franklin County Judge-Executive Huston Wells said he took the letter as a way to understand what issues affect the community and how government can better assist efforts to improve the community by bringing in jobs, businesses, homes and more residents. He said he has already approached the Franklin County Planning and Zoning staff about ways to improve.
“I think for us to be better, we need to hear what issues are out there,” Wells said.
He hopes everyone can come to the table and discuss the issues and solutions given in the letter, as developers, KCDC and elected officials have in the past.
Mayor Bill May said that he is willing to listen to anyone and in the past, he has held meetings with developers and tried to work with them to make “good, quality development.” May said staff was already in the process of addressing some of the issues that appeared in the letter. He recalled that other problems noted may involve other agencies besides the city or be misunderstandings.
“I want to find real solutions for any kind of problem we have and I would be more than happy to meet with any developers that have concerns that may have happened in the past,” May said.
City Commissioner Scott Tippett said while some red tape probably does need to be cut, as pointed out in the KCDC letter, public input is needed in any possible future policy changes. He said that the city and county governments should create some kind of taskforce to address the developers’ concerns and proposed solutions with a wide range of public feedback to bring recommendations to the voting bodies.
“If there are things that can move quickly, we should move those things up and move on them. If there are things that require study and more review, then we need to take that into consideration too,” Tippett said. “Yes, in my heart, I hear their cries. I understand their frustration, I get it, but again this is a democratic process.”
Comissioner Eric Whisman said that he had concerns about the processes of the city and concerns about city staff being able to keep up with the activity that is happening in downtown and surrounding it. He also had concerns about the nature of the letter, adding that he saw a draft of it last February and it was only sent last month during an election season.
“We’ve got to treat everyone fairly and hold everyone to the process,” he said.
He said the community needs to have an environment to grow while also protecting places that make the community unique and give Frank for its identity.
“I agree with their letter. I think we need to be more friendly to businesses,” said Sixth District Magistrate Lambert Moore. He noted the letter’s comments on inspectors and added that inspectors should work with business owners to fix infractions.
All of the solutions proposed in the letter are worth looking into, Moore said. While he wasn’t sure what should be done yet, something should be done, he said.
“My experiences as Magistrate in the Fifth District have convinced me that local developers in the past have ignored problems not immediately noticeable in order to have plans approved by the county,” said Squire Marti Booth in a submitted column to The State Journal. She gave historical examples of narrow subdivision roads, abandoned sewer plants and water drainage issues.
Booth said that some issues have improved since, and thanked Franklin County Planning and Zoning for helping with those problems. She said that the county needs more inspectors, as scheduling issues were noted in the KCDC letter.
“The point of the letter is barriers to development in Downtown Frankfort, and that is covered by the city of Frankfort,” said Sherry Sebastian, the first district magistrate. “That’s not something that’s under the purview of Fiscal Court.”
“Most of what has been pointed out in the letter pertained to city government,” Fourth District Magistrate Scotty Tracy said in an email. “I can not speak for Judge Wells, he is the direct supervisor for all county staff.”
Michael Mueller, the third district magistrate, said that he was confused about the letter being in his court packet before a meeting, though it was not listed on the agenda and the court did not discuss it as a group.
“At the end of the day, I think everybody can agree that it is geared towards the city, so that was another reason why I was confused that we got it,” Mueller said.
As for what the county can do, he said that the process can be reviewed and see if anything can be improved to encourage county growth.
City Commissioner John Sower did not recall seeing the letter but said he would review it.
“I think the commission should be open to listen to their complaints and see if we can make some adjustments or find some common ground between the competing interests,” Sower said.
City staff submitted a statement to The State Journal in reference to the letter. The statement said the city “is at a critical juncture with growing reinvestment occurring downtown and in other parts of the City and Franklin County” and said that it is essential that representatives of the community, both in government and agencies like KCDC “work together to ensure that we are viewed as a unified force to represent our community positively to attract and retain investors, visitors and residents.”
“The City of Frankfort works diligently to paint a picture of a business-friendly community and trusts that our partnering organizations represent our community the same way,” the statement said. “In its efforts to present our community in this light the City is committed to engaging in constructive dialogue with our partner agencies and development community. City staff is dedicated to maintaining an opportunity for open lines of communication between the City, development community and our partner agencies. To the degree that opportunities may exist for improving our local development processes and requirements we welcome constructive suggestions from anyone involved in this process. We are disappointed that this letter comes across as a negative portrayal of the investment and development environment in Frankfort and Franklin County and suggests that the City is not receptive to the concerns of our local development community. We also regret that these concerns were not submitted to the appropriate City staff in an effort to engage in constructive communication that could have clarified the stated issues. Moving forward, the City hopes this letter will serve as the catalyst to begin a frank discussion that will allow us to again present ourselves positively as a unified force to promote our economic growth.”