Both of the highest offices in Frankfort and Franklin County said they see city and county governments merging in the near future.
Frankfort Mayor Layne Wilkerson and Franklin County Judge-Executive Huston Wells indicated support for the measure when responding to the question “what do you want our community to look like in five-10 years.”
Their remarks on a potential merger came as endnotes to both officials’ much longer speeches, which centered mostly on economic development.
Wells said he saw the two governments working together as “one unit.” Wilkerson mentioned the potential better services they could provide and the expense.
“I can see 10 years from now we have a unified government so that we can have a singular focus that will not only improve our services for residents of the entire county, but also reduce the costs,” Wilkerson said.
The question of whether or not to merge city and county governments has twice been put to voters, in 1988 and 2004. The public rejected the measure by a 2-1 margin in 1988 and by 3-1 when a new version was presented in 2004.
Only Magistrate Lambert Moore expressed direct opposition to a city-county merger.
Other officials touched on the possibility of certain resources or services — like waste management and park systems — being merged.
However, a majority of Friday’s meeting featured all local elected officials talking about their vision for the area and potential ideas for economic development.
No mention was made of the Kentucky Capital Development Corporation (KCDC) or Downtown Frankfort Inc., two entities funded by both the city and county that recently received big cuts to their budgets.
Friday’s joint meeting was first publicly floated by Magistrate Michael Mueller in May as an opportunity for the city and county to discuss KCDC and any other organizations that both the city and county fund.
The meeting was moderated by Tad Long of the Kentucky League of Cities.
The first half of the meeting was consumed by the politicians’ answers to the question of what they wanted to see in the next five to 10 years.
For the most part, everyone agreed on topics that have long been expressed as desirable by people in their positions: increased tourism, better quality of life for residents, more and better jobs, a thriving downtown, and preserving the natural environment.
Wilkerson said he wanted Frankfort to be known as having “the most innovative, creative and inclusive population in the state."
He and Wells agreed that downtown and the city’s core should be a focus for economic development, with both mentioning tourism as playing a role in that.
“I think we should focus on our core over the next 10 years and really focus on the density downtown,” Wilkerson said. “We have much more room to grow for new residents, and if we're looking at 10 years from now, we can have more options for housing for all income levels and all ages. If we bring the tourists and we have more people living here with discretionary income, we can support more specialty shops, more retail, more bars, more restaurants, more breweries, more micro distilleries — what have you.”
Wells mentioned the long-vacant Parcels B and C in downtown, with the prospect of expanding the hotel presence there as well the creation of a conference or convention center.
He also said he wanted to see growth at Kentucky State University, hoping for a “doubling” in size of the more than 2,300-student school.
Magistrate Sherry Sebastian also referenced KSU as a focal point for the area’s development, pointing out its world-renowned aquaculture program. She also called back to a series of columns she penned for The State Journal on the topic at hand.
Sebastian and several others also mentioned wanting to focus on “infill” development, which focuses on developing vacant or under-utilized land within an existing urban area as opposed to growing the footprint of the community.
“I see development in the next 10 years that shows we’re stewards of our land and property,” Commissioner Leesa Unger said. “I think (infill) is very important and should be a focus of our city. Targeting empty lots empty buildings, finding businesses that are unique, and that can fit in those spaces is going to be really important moving forward.”
Magistrate J.W. Blackburn noted, as he has previously, that too many of Frankfort’s youth don’t move back to the community that raised them.
“We have our best and brightest here in Franklin County leave,” Blackburn said. “They leave to find jobs and opportunities that they don’t have here.”
He said he hopes the upcoming comprehensive plan update can help change that.
Mueller echoed Blackburn's point about the community's youth leaving town, and added that he believes Frankfort could become an “outdoor Mecca."
“One thing that we've missed a lot of is the parks, the river, Elkhorn Creek,” Mueller said. “Being able to somehow connect those for biking, hiking, kayaks, boats — I think we could potentially be an outdoor Mecca, and it wouldn't really be that hard to do.”
He also mentioned the possibility of the county doing much more at Lakeview Park — with a potential new indoor facility on the table — as reason for excitement.
Commissioner Katrisha Waldridge pointed out that on most of the topics at hand, there was general agreement. The issue, she said, was how the community reached those lofty goals and what it chose to prioritize.
Most officials gave a nod toward one of Frankfort’s most famous commodities: bourbon.
Commissioner Kyle Thompson, who also spoke of merging certain resources between the city and county, said that he thinks bourbon tourism will play a key role in the development of Parcels B and C.
“The only way we get Parcels B and C to work is to significantly increase the presence of the tourism corridor down Wilkinson Boulevard,” Thompson said. “I think what we have to do is we have to embrace our local distilleries. Frankfort is the birthplace of the modern bourbon industry.”
Magistrate Scotty Tracy, like several others, also wondered how the community will get visitors from Buffalo Trace to spend more money in town. The magistrate, who has served on the fiscal court for seven years, also criticized what he called a lack of vision for economic development in the area.
“Unfortunately, I feel like we do not have a clear-cut vision on who we are or who we want to be as a community,” Tracy said. “... How has your community changed for the better over the last 20 years? What is our economic development strategy? It always comes back to ‘no plan and no vision.’”
He called back to the demolition of the Frankfort Convention Center, with no plan for its replacement at the time, as an example of there being no strategy.
Tracy, along with Thompson, also pointed toward recent U.S. census statistics showing that Franklin County lagged behind the neighboring Anderson, Woodford, Scott and Shelby counties in terms of population growth. Thompson also cited lower percentages of residents in the workforce, household median income and individual income statistics.
Some disagreed with Tracy and Thompson’s criticism: Magistrate Marti Booth and Commissioner Kelly May spoke highly of what’s been done up to this point. May pointed to the city’s downtown master plan.
“Things have been said about a lack of vision or no vision, and I just want to go on the record and disagree with that,” May said. “Our city, we have a master plan to work off of. I think the vision’s there… The way I view it is we’ve done the research and the data, so let’s focus on ways to make that better.”
Booth said that she thinks the area has done a good job of progressing as a community thus far, and said she was an advocate for "smart growth."
“I used to think those were cuss words: economic development,” Booth said. “We're going to have more traffic, more waste, more dirty places — that's what I felt. But if we manage it, and we can because we are the elected officials, I think that it is good for us.”
Along those lines, she said she did not want to see new suburban developments in the county, and said she was generally against “sprawl.”
Magistrate Lambert Moore, like several others, mentioned the need for a convention center-type space, though he added that he was not keen on taking on much debt. The rest of his answer focused on the county’s infrastructure needs.
“If we get all this economic development, which we need very badly, and get tourism going, we don’t have the roads for it,” Moore said. “I-64 is the most deficient it’s been in Franklin County in its whole existence. If we don’t get six lanes in Franklin County and across the river, growth is going to be hard here.”
A majority of both elected bodies expressed a desire to continue the conversation, and generally agreed to direct their staff to put the possibility of creating a working group of elected officials to discuss the issues spoken of on Friday on their next agendas.
“We are ready,” Thompson said. “I think if the magistrates were questioned tonight, they’d say the same thing. We’ve paid for all the plans, we’ve seen all the plans and we’re ready to do it. I shudder at the thought of doing another joint meeting. I say we put it together and make it happen and roll from there."
The Franklin County Fiscal Court’s next meeting will be on Friday. The Frankfort City Commission will hold its next meeting Monday.