Not so long ago, downtown Hazard was one of several bustling towns nestled in the coal-rich hills of eastern Kentucky, with a main street full of businesses drawing crowds every day. weekend.
Ask any resident Hazard of a certain age and they’ll tell you about the clothing stores, cinemas, restaurants, and arcade that have made people scream and come out of town over the decades. where high paying jobs were much easier to find. to come.
Those days are gone by anyone’s standards, but Perry County and Town of Hazard officials are stepping up efforts to attract new businesses and restore a level of dynamism that many residents say is badly needed.
“Unless you go to court or need a lawyer, you’re not going downtown,” said Angel Bowling, an employee of Shenanigans, a downtown Hazard restaurant.
Among their strategies are stricter zoning standards, substantial incentive programs for companies that pay rent and a flagship art studio project that could serve as a symbolic first step towards a more vibrant future for the city.
Spearheading the effort is Bailey Richards, the downtown coordinator for the Town of Hazard.
Richards works for both the Town of Hazard and the County of Perry – officials said his dual role is symbolic in and of itself, in an area where county governments and their larger cities often collide. She has devoted much of her time to renovating a previously vacant downtown building into an art studio and community space slated to open this spring, called ArtStation.
When it’s over the building will host classes and a studio inside, and its large outdoor patio will provide a place for parties and other community events during the evenings.
A group called the Appalachian Arts Alliance bought the building six years ago, but let it sit empty. Last year, after a “moment came to Jesus,” Richards said, the group’s new board of directors decided to go ahead with the renovations. He obtained $ 250,000 in grants and loans from the Appalachian Impact Fund and launched his own fundraising campaign.
The ArtStation will be one of the biggest building renovations in Hazard in years. Richards hopes this will be a catalyst for other downtown development projects and spark excitement among residents who might be eager to see the downtown area reappear as a more vibrant part of the community.
“When one thing starts to happen, a lot of things start to happen and you become optimistic again,” Richards said.
She hopes the crowds the ArtStation draws create demand for other businesses, like shops and restaurants, and that the city’s effort to clean up some of the other vacant storefronts will provide them with space to rent or to buy.
Perry County Executive Judge Scott Alexander said the city and county have both worked to better enforce zoning standards and have considered incentive programs to provide rent-free spaces if tenants agree to maintain the building for a number of months or years.
The vacant and dilapidated buildings create “a horror not only for our people, but also for the people we try to invite,” said Alexander.
“As we invite the outside world to come in, we have to clean up,” he said.
Richards said a new administration in Perry County government saw downtown revitalization as a more pressing concern. In addition to a new executive judge in 2018, a new municipal commissioner for the Town of Hazard ran largely on the idea of economic development.
Luke Glaser came to Hazard in 2013 for a job with Teach For America and, rather than leaving for law school, said he stayed and showed up because “we were at the dawn of something really special ”.
Rather than bring the danger back from decades ago, Glaser said he wanted to work with community members to find out what people expect from a downtown East Kentucky in 2020.
The city isn’t necessarily pushing for 100% occupancy of its buildings, Glaser said, but wants the city center to be welcoming when people pass by and have spaces to congregate for events.
The ArtStation is a good first step, he said.
“The mayor always says, ‘We need a win, we need to have our first win,’ and that’s it,” Glaser said of the ArtStation. “I want this to be the community gathering space, which doesn’t really exist right now.”
This story was originally published December 24, 2019 11:22 a.m.