The 21c public/private partnership
By Danny Mayer
In April, marital partners Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, founding owners of Louisville-based boutique hotel franchise 21c, held a press conference under the pavilion at Cheapside Park to announce their $36 million purchase and renovation plans for Lexington’s 15-story First National Building, the city’s first skyscraper. Along with a pair of smaller adjoining buildings, Wilson told a crowd of local leaders gathered for the occasion, the iconic downtown structure would become the fourth 21c Museum Hotels franchise location. “This is a combination hotel and a real art museum. It is not art for decoration,” Wilson said. “The 21c Museum is the only museum in the country dedicated to collecting and exhibiting contemporary art by living artists.”
Local talk of the renovation has tracked city leader and 21c talking points, which have focused on aesthetics and downtown revitalization. But whatever its aesthetic value or ability to inspire a new urban “confidence,” 21c’s economic foundation comes straight out of the past two decades: a public/private partnership in finance in which the public assumes collateral and risk and the private owners reap the returns. Of the $36.5 million needed to purchase, renovate and open 21c as a boutique hotel with an attached modern public art museum, over 60 percent of it ($22.5 million) will come from tapping public funds at the city, state and federal levels, much of it through programs geared toward low- and moderate-income citizens.
If you want to see the democratic/economic policies pillaging the nation and globe writ devastatingly small, look no further than 21c. Here’s three themes that should be familiar to you.