Making over historic buildings in towns

Just about every town in Kentucky that’s looking for creative ways to bring people and businesses back to their downtown districts can identify with a story out of Winchester. The Clark County seat is 20 minutes down the road from Lexington, putting it in the shadow of a large city with hundreds of options for chain stores, restaurants and theaters. In other words, competition for the retail and entertainment dollars is right across the county line.

But Winchester, with a population of 18,500, has some beautiful, historic buildings in a charming downtown setting, and the town’s leaders want locals to see what is possible for some of the vacant buildings there.

That was the idea behind Winchester’s ReMain North project over the weekend. Using empty spaces along one block, about 10 businesses set up temporary shops Friday and Saturday and attracted several hundred people to explore downtown. The weekend tenants included a restaurant, bakery, bike shop, art gallery and a brewery. Most of the businesses are already in Clark County, but a few came over from Lexington to participate.

“I think the best part of this project is pulling people into downtown to work on building a better community,” said Winchester Main Street Executive Director Rachel Alexander.

Winchester’s experience could provide inspiration for similar projects in our region. Hopkinsville, Princeton, Elkton, Guthrie, Trenton and Cadiz all have valuable downtown assets — and all of these towns would like to see every downtown building occupied.

The Winchester project relied on volunteers from about 30 organizations, including high school groups and 4-H clubs, that helped prep the vacant buildings.

It was hard work, Alexander said, but the project was worth it because of the momentum it created for downtown revitalization. Fostering a sense of ownership for downtown among a larger group of residents is the long-term benefit, she said.

Perhaps the easiest part of the project was convincing property owners to make their sites available. No one balked.

A community foundation in Winchester spurred the project when it brought a Texas consultant, Jason Roberts, to speak to local leaders. Roberts helped establish a group called The Better Block after initiating improvements to a run-down neighborhood of Dallas. In a TED Talk, Roberts has described a grass-roots effort that challenged out-dated planning codes that got in the way of new uses for downtown properties in his community.

Alexander said Roberts’ vision was instrumental in Winchester’s enthusiasm for a temporary pop-up business weekend. She’s hopeful the experience will bring new business downtown.

Winchester might have given new life to some old buildings simply by showing what is possible. That’s an example other towns ought to explore.

The Kentucky New Era

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