Some expansion is necessary for local economy
The Sun recently spoke with Versailles Mayor Brian Traugott and Woodford Economic Development Authority (EDA) Chairman John Soper about growth and development in Versailles. Soper, who retired from his banking job at the end of 2015, is unpaid for his work as EDA chair but has a $5,300-a-month contract with the city of Versailles to "provide economic development services." John Soper and Brian Traugott may be the most vocal pro-growth advocates in Woodford County, and both said recent decisions to expand the city's urban service boundary (USB) and annex hundreds of acres of land will be good for the city. One overlooked aspect to the 700-plus new jobs expected in the near future at More Than A Bakery, Yokohama, American Howa Kentucky and Lakeshore Learning Materials (the latter two at Midway Station) will be better paying jobs elsewhere, they said. "People want higher minimum wages. Well, this will do it, because there's going to be competition for employees, so I think it's a win-win," Soper said. Traugott didn't deny that many of those jobs will, at least at first, be filled by non-Woodford Countians, but said, "Their payroll taxes spend the same, I can tell you that." Critics of decisions by Traugott, the Versailles City Council and Versailles-Midway-Woodford County Planning Commission to expand the USB and set the stage for new development say there's plenty of room inside the USB for new homes and businesses. Traugott disagrees, often carrying a sheet with him showing how much of the 1,377 acres his critics cite is composed of small parcels, farms, or land not for sale. When Kroger moved from the Lexington Road Plaza across the street in July of 2015 to what once was farmland, it left the old Kroger empty and hurt at least some of the business left behind. Asked if that didn't prove at least one argument of their critics, Soper demurred. "I think that's reality. I think it's what happens when private capital decides where private capital wants to go, and Brixmor (the owner of Lexington Road Plaza) is one of the top real estate investment trusts in the country. They'll figure it out. They'll readapt that store, they'll bring some tenants in," Soper said. The most controversial topic in the growth and development arena is what should become of the 336-acre Edgewood Farm property (see map), the subject of a lawsuit in Woodford Circuit Court. The Planning Commission expanded the city's USB and the city annexed the property to make way for a mixed-use development that could include an industrial park and a new home for Bluegrass Community Hospital (BGCH). The Sept. 15 issue of The Sun featured a strongly worded letter to the editor from Soper in which he used terms like "landed gentry" and "feudal lords" to describe opponents of the Edgewood development. Soper said he has strong personal feelings on the subject, in part because he'd signed off on a bank loan to Woodford Memorial Hospital, which failed in 2000. (Bluegrass Community Hospital reopened the next year under new ownership.) "That was my loan. I had it. I made it. I suffered through it. And I went through the tabletop exercise of closing down a hospital and saw the human impact it was going to have on moving critically ill patients, moving people in long-term beds. And . it scared me to death," Soper said. "So if I overreact in my rhetoric, it's because I've seen what this community will look like without a hospital and I don't want to ever see it again." Soper said Lifepoint Health (the owner of of BGCH) will spend $35 million on the new hospital - if the company believes it will get the return on its investment for a new hospital that would be visible from Lexington Road. "Poor people in this community don't have a choice to go to Lexington for their medical care. . I want to give them better choices. So I see Edgewood and the ability to attract that hospital as something that changes the community and puts it on a foundation that we need for the next hundred years," Soper said Traugott points to his public opposition to the rezoning of 241 acres of the old Backer property on Lexington Road, which was annexed by the city in late 2014, as proof that he's not for every sort of growth. Traugott said he was concerned about new stoplights and the impact on the school system of the 490 homes planned for what is known as "Backer 1." (A similar rezoning of the much smaller "Backer 2" property was denied by the Planning Commission and the Versailles City Council.) Soper and Traugott praise CRM Companies, the company that wants to develop Edgewood, and Soper has repeatedly spoken of an "ag-industrial complex" possible there on land donated to the EDA by the new owners. Asked whether annexations, expanded USBs and development put the city at risk of becoming another small town in Central Kentucky growing on the edges but with a fading downtown, Traugott said no. Before becoming a city council member and mayor, he served on the Planning Commission, and said he's been answering such questions for a decade. ". Becoming (one of those cities) envisions a scenario where we just keep going. Edgewood goes and we're off to the races. That's not what's happening here. This is a decades-long commitment to Versailles. I think it meets a lot of needs over 20, 30 years, and there'll be a correction well after I'm out of here," Traugott said. Done properly, they say, adding good jobs, houses and a new hospital will make Versailles a better place to live with more activities for young people now inclined to move elsewhere after high school. "We're not unequivocally pro-growth. If you said, 'I'm for developing Farm X,' you're not just going to get a nod from me, as evidenced by the Backer property. To me, it depends on what's going there, how's it going to be done," Traugott said. "And I wouldn't support (Edgewood) if we didn't have a good developer, if we didn't have a good plan that was a net benefit to the city. When people say, 'pro-growth, anti-growth,' I'm not an ideologue like some people. There are some things I would oppose. This is not one of them."