Lexington adding plaza to boost downtown

12/20/2012 12:00 AM

12/20/2012 12:18 PM

Lexington plans to create a plaza with an amphitheater as its latest tool to help revive its struggling downtown.

Town Council is acquiring nearly three acres on the west side of Main and Church streets as the first step in what could be a $15 million project.

Approval of the purchase — a big-city step for the town of 18,000 residents — came Thursday.

The plaza, expected to take a few years to build, will host concerts and other events designed to lure shoppers and new merchants to the area.

“We think this is the missing piece of the puzzle to bring about revitalization,” Mayor Randy Halfacre said.

It will be the third park downtown, a step planners suggested to host events that build interest in the area.

“Activity breeds activity and we plan to keep it as active as we can,” Halfacre said.

Preliminary plans call for the plaza to be large enough to hold up to 1,000 people.

A bit of new parking will be added. But most people who come to events at the site will have to park at Town Hall and county offices up to two blocks away unless extra parking is developed elsewhere, as some retailers want.

Town leaders are dipping into savings to buy the site, the home of a propane distributor surrounded by empty stores, for $945,000.

Transforming it into the plaza and amphitheater probably will require creation of a public-private partnership and earmarking property taxes for 15 years to pay for the improvements, officials said.

It will be connected to the town-owned Palmetto Collegiate Institute and gardens farther south on Church Street, creating a new park of six acres.`

Plans also call for a one-mile walking path downtown through the three parks there.

Some of the half dozen retail buildings on the site being bought could be renovated and then sold or rented while new ones are added roadside, officials said.

That decision heads off protests from historic preservationists who want a few of the buildings saved and updated.

“They understand how important that is,” said Chuck Corley, chairman of the town Historic Preservation Review Board.

The new plaza follows the first set of awards of up to $5,000 apiece for exterior renovations of downtown stores.

Some aspects of the project will be settled on after merchants and residents review it.

“Anything that moves us forward is positive,” said Clyde Smith, owner of Carpet One across Main from the site. “It’s not a grand slam, but it’s a bases-loaded double.”

Tests show pollution on the site being acquired, mainly from auto repair shops once there. It must be cleaned up, officials said.

“What we have discovered is not unexpected,” town administrator Britt Poole said. “We’ll certainly do whatever is required. It is not a major stumbling block.”

Halfacre hopes work on the project can start as soon as mid-2013, but that depends on how soon the propane dealer moves.

“This is a major investment in our downtown,” he said. “It’s an effort to improve the heart of our community.”

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