When his obituary is written one day in his hometown Greensburg Record-Herald, retired Col. William M. Landrum III’s legacy won’t be the fate of a dozen acres of dirt in Downtown Frankfort or the concrete that once stood on it.
Forty-five years of honorable service to country and state isn’t defined by singular actions.
In this community, though, Landrum is and will be known for years to come as the guy who tore down our convention center and gambled on a more prosperous use of the state-owned land on which it sat. Landrum formally placed the bet this week by accepting a Hazard developer’s bid of $1,000 for the former Capital Plaza land known as Parcels B and C — property that city and county leaders see as the catalyst for downtown revitalization.
Landrum called me personally Wednesday afternoon to tell me of his decision — a final, unsurprising gesture of mutual respect before he departs as secretary of the Finance and Administration Cabinet in a couple of weeks to make room for his successor in Gov.-elect Andy Beshear’s administration.
Landrum and I have been respectful combatants since his 2017 announcement that the state-owned convention center would come down along with the adjacent Capital Plaza Tower to make way for a new state office building and surrounding private development that he predicted would be a big boost to local tax coffers.
The State Journal covered aggressively a decision of great magnitude for the community we serve. Our dogged pursuit of bid documents on the public-private partnership that would eventually become the Mayo-Underwood Building landed the colonel and me on opposite sides of a lawsuit. The State Journal prevailed — a brief and somewhat hollow victory given that the General Assembly quickly passed a bill to prevent disclosure of such records going forward. The pursuit earned our newspaper the Kentucky Press Association’s highest honor for investigative reporting. (In this week’s phone call, Landrum, without a hint of sarcasm, congratulated us on the honor.)
Our newspaper’s editorial board, while generally sympathetic to local elected leadership’s belief that the community had more to gain from cooperating with Landrum than antagonizing him, urged caution and demanded transparency every step of the away. We published countless letters and guest columns taking him to task. As recently as two weeks ago on this page, I suggested in a column that Landrum, in the wake of his boss’ reelection defeat, might be wise to defer a final decision on Parcels B and C to the next administration.
Landrum never took the coverage or commentary personally — a rare thick-skinned player in a modern political arena where hyperpartisans look for conspiracies and media bias in every published word. He told me Wednesday that he understood we had a job to do and thanked us for doing it fairly.
Likewise, even amid disagreement with his decisions, I respected Landrum's difficult job, never subscribing to the conspiracy theories of keyboard cowboys who labeled him part of an evil Republican plot to destroy downtown Frankfort — and who smeared local leaders like Bill May and Huston Wells as his co-conspirators or clueless pawns.
In the end, Landrum believed that the successful bidder has the wherewithal to fulfill the Downtown Master Plan’s vision of mixed-use redevelopment of Parcels B and C and, as that development occurs, sorely needed tax revenue for local governments. Landrum felt a particular obligation to Frankfort Independent Schools Superintendent Houston Barber, who leads award-winning public schools with one hand tied behind his back: a huge percentage of tax-exempt property in his district, the seat of state government. Barber has been an unwavering supporter of Landrum’s plan.
I’m not as convinced of its viability. That just one bidder was willing to take on tens of millions of dollars of risk to give it a whirl speaks to the low odds of success. A verdict on such a massive undertaking is likely a decade or more away — during which much progress could have been made on a successful public use of the property.
Amid my skepticism, I always pull for the most optimistic outcome for my town. In the case of Parcels B and C, I hope that time will prove me wrong and Landrum right.
I’ll be the first to drive down to Greensburg, where Landrum returns next month to a quiet country life of farmer and restauranteur, shake his hand and give him his substantial share of the credit for an economically invigorated Frankfort.
Steve Stewart is publisher of The State Journal. His email address is email@example.com.