The future of Lexington’s city hall has been a topic of discussion for many years. It’s been talked about off and on, but never gotten on a council docket for action. That could change this summer. But, it remains a difficult issue on which to get consensus.
The city hall talk turned much more serious this year when the call went out for proposals from developers. Four were given consideration and an independent committee recommended a city hall move, through a lease arrangement, to the Herald-Leader building at the corner of Midland Avenue and Main Street.
Finance and Administration Commissioner Bill Omara used a graph and an overhead presentation to detail deferred maintenance costs and escalating utility expenses to stay in a renovated building on Main Street. “The challenge for staying on the current campus buildings are they’re old and they have a lot of deferred maintenance. Even after fixing those items that have been identified, it’s an inefficient building and has higher utility costs and higher operating costs than going to a refurbished new building,” said Omara.
A move to the longtime home of the Lexington newspaper is prompting some questions about logistics and infrastructure. Council Member Fred Brown wonders about traffic flow around that location. “That intersection that this particular proposal is going to be on is already pretty well compact. This is just going to add to that problem for Main Street and Midland. I think it will even impact our whole Town Branch system that we’re putting in,” noted Brown.
One of the most outspoken council members was Richard Moloney. In addition to the cost of a 35 year lease which would total about $175 million, the veteran councilman also wonders about what the current city hall properties would bring. “I’m not going to vote for this until I’ve got a guarantee that somebody is buying all these buildings before I even go look at something else,” said Moloney.
After much discussion among council members, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray asked for some time to weigh in on the issue. Gray says the current city hall structure, which has been the home of urban county government for four decades, has been, quote, “hemorrhaging public taxpayer money” in operational costs. “This is a real challenging project and it needs to be as removed from political influence or the perception of political influence as it can be,” explained Gray.
Gray believes using an independent advisory committee worked to that end.
Council member Bill Farmer offered high marks for Mayor Gray and his efforts to move the city forward during his time in office. And he would like to see a decision made in the next few months. “I’m a great student and advocate for the council in its digestive process in making decisions. And not all that digestion has happened today. Is this something I would kick down the road to the next administration. No, I wouldn’t,” said Farmer.
On hand for today’s extensive council conversation about moving city hall to a new location was developer Craig Turner, whose city hall proposal is before council for consideration. Following the meeting Turner expressed optimism that the Herald Leader building will one day be Lexington’s city hall. “I truly believe that the location, the means of how you use the building that has a legacy to itself in its location is unsurpassed. I think it is the place for city hall to be. I think that when all the dusts settles, everybody will be comfortable with that decision that was made,” said Turner.
Vice Mayor Steve Kay announced during Tuesday’s work session that the city hall item will be taken in mid-August following the summer recess. He said there will be an opportunity for public comment and then he will ask the council to act on the recommendation.