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Outdoor activities abound in Central Kentucky

Region flush with sports and outdoor attractions for both spectators and participants

By Russ Brown

A popular annual event in Lexington is the Bluegrass 10,000 and Fun Run. The 2021 race offered both in-person and virtual racing. LFUCG photo

(CENTRAL KY. MARKET REVIEW) — After a year of cancellations and adjustments because of the COVID-19 pandemic, sports and recreation activities in Central Kentucky in 2021 are now back to “semi-normal,” which means there is once again no lack of opportunities for both outdoor and indoor enthusiasts in the area.

One exciting announcement for sports fans came in October, when the United Soccer League announced it was adding Lexington Professional Soccer as a USL League One expansion club. Play is set to begin in the 2023 season. The club’s inaugural season will begin at a local collegiate facility, but Lexington Pro Soccer is hoping to build a stadium downtown.

The majority owner of the team is Tower Hill Sports, founded by Bill Shively.

“Since League One’s inception, Lexington is a place we’ve wanted to be because of its celebrated sports history and growing appetite for soccer,” said USL President Jake Edwards.

Lexington Pro Soccer plans to respond to a request for proposals for the High Street Development Project, with the intent to construct a state-of-the-art, soccer-specific stadium at the site. The venue would be able to accommodate festivals, concerts, and other events.

The return of in-person events

The annual Bluegrass State Games were canceled in 2020 for the first time, but they returned in 2021. Kyle Childers, director of marketing for the Bluegrass Sports Commission headquartered in Lexington, called the event “a huge success.”

Normally, The Games would attract 15,000 participants in 30-plus sports, with an estimated $6 million economic impact. This year, the biggest events were high school soccer (170 teams) and high school volleyball (110 teams). Pickleball was the fastest growing, from 115 participants in 2019 to 310 in 2021.

“While we didn’t have enough lead time to get the typical 30 to 40 sports launched for July, the sports we did host saw participation at or above the 2019 level,” Childers said.

A Midsummer Night’s Run had 2,300-plus competitors in the 5K, which represented about 75% of the 2019 entrants, and 150 kids ran in the Fastest Kid in Town races.

“While things aren’t completely back to normal, there is certainly an appetite to get back to in-person competitions,” Childers said. “Hopefully, things will improve for summer of 2022 so that we can host a full schedule of events.”

The Bluegrass State Games is a nonprofit program sponsored privately to promote amateur athletics across the commonwealth. It is the signature event of the Bluegrass Sports Commission, designed to provide Kentuckians of all ages and skill levels an avenue for positive development through sports and physical activity, to promote and develop amateur athletics, and to provide amateur athletes an opportunity to showcase their talent and receive statewide recognition.

The commission released an economic impact study this summer that showed a proposed 130-acre youth sports complex could generate as much as $24 million a year in revenue for Fayette County. The commission announced it was pursuing a capital campaign to build the $25 million complex, which would host tournaments in baseball, softball, soccer and other youth sports. The commission has committed to a seven-figure private capital campaign to pay for part of the cost of the project and will ask the city of Lexington for $18 million.

Meanwhile, another project that will significantly impact recreation in the Lexington area is the ongoing construction for Town Branch Commons, a public-private park and trail system that traces the historic Town Branch Creek through downtown Lexington.

Work has been completed on Newtown Pike and continues on Vine Street and Midland Avenue. Once completed at the end of 2022, the dedicated bike and pedestrian paths through the heart of downtown will connect to the Legacy Trail and Town Branch Trail. That will create a 5.5-mile loop on the north side of downtown, providing access to the growing countywide trails system.

A new playground at Charles Young Park includes Lexington’s first turf slide and globeshaped spinning climber. It is now one of the biggest playgrounds in the city.

Fundraising is nearly complete for Town Branch Park, the signature park of the Town Branch Commons project, which will transform more than 9 acres of parking in the Manchester Street parking lot behind Rupp Arena into an inclusive, dynamic and fun green space.
Town Branch was Lexington’s first water source. The system will include continuous bike and walking paths and a green band through downtown, connect new and existing parks and improve water quality. The trail is funded by a diverse array of federal and state grants that leverage locally raised dollars.

Mayor Linda Gorton said the city is working to reopen the Legacy Trail, Lexington’s longest mixed-use trail and its most popular, as soon as possible.

Work on the entrance and exit from the new Amazon last-mile delivery station at 1180 Newtown Pike closed a section of the trail in mid-July. Then utilities had the trail closed to finish their connections to the new facility, and in anticipation of future work on Newtown Pike.
“We recognize this is inconvenient. Trails, like roads, are affected by the construction work and infrastructure maintenance that takes place near them, or under them,” said Nancy Albright, commissioner of environmental quality and public works.

To keep riders safe, a section of the trail is being relocated where it crosses the Amazon property. The new segment will be further from the road. A culvert is being installed so trail users can pass under one of Amazon’s new driveways to protect riders and pedestrians from Amazon traffic. The developer of the Amazon facility is funding the trail work on its campus.

The trail will be closed again this winter to allow the City’s Division of Water Quality to complete work on sewers.

In another development, the city has received a grant to help build Splash!, a permanent water feature, at Charles Young Park. A Building Better Communities grant for $250,000 has been awarded to Lexington by the American Water Charitable Foundation.

Lexington Parks and Recreation celebrated the return of favorite city traditions after the pandemic cancellations and also added new programs, said Amber Luallen, superintendent of cultural arts and events.

Most programs resumed in March, remaining at reduced capacities with required registration, social distancing and mask requirements until those restrictions were lifted in June. Returning during the summer were Ballet Under the Stars and the Woodland Art Fair. In addition, there were new learning opportunities at Artworks at the Carver School, and equestrian and fitness classes are also back within the Therapeutic Recreation programs.

In the natural areas, McConnell Springs and Raven Run community centers and camps have expanded their hours. Lexington also hosted the fourth annual Nature Hop this fall, a series of events focused on connecting people with green spaces throughout Fayette County.

Raven Run is a unique, 734-acre sanctuary located just outside of Lexington. The park borders the Kentucky River and provides a great place for hiking and wildlife viewing. Seven trails ranging from one-third mile to four miles pass through meadows, woodlands and streams characteristic of the inner Bluegrass.

McConnell Springs Park is a 26-acre “natural pocket” within an industrial area that features two major springs. The National Registered Historic Place once served as the location of a gunpowder factory, a distillery and a dairy farm. Another outdoor area near Lexington is Hisle Farm Park, with equestrian and hiking trails.

One unique area is the ecosystem at Boone Creek Limestone Gorge off I-75 between Lexington and Richmond, where Boone Creek Outdoors operates canopy tours above old-growth hardwoods. The tours consist of six ziplines, three sky bridges, floating stairs, a rappel and more.

Central Kentucky is home to an active bicycling community. Frankfort’s Capitol View Park has a network of approximately seven miles of mountain bike trails, which were built beginning in 1997 by local volunteers. The Bluegrass Cycling Club organizes group rides from March through October every year and also hosts the annual “Horsey Hundred” bicycle tour.

All areas of Kentucky are fortunate to have access to numerous outdoor recreational opportunities, the crown jewel of which is a large and diverse collection of 45 state parks that offer a wide range of activities that include golf, fishing, camping, swimming, boating, hiking and biking.

Those who prefer to be observers in addition to or instead of active participants also have plenty of choices. They include Keeneland, the Lexington Legends minor league baseball team, and University of Kentucky basketball and football, which have returned to full capacity.

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