April 18, 2008

Slowly but steadily this southern Kentucky community’s downtown square is becoming vibrant again with new businesses joining existing ones in historic buildings. Plans for some upstairs apartments are also in the works.

So when the Allen County office of the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service decided to move from the courthouse into its own building, the board looked only a few blocks away.

The extension office did a homecoming of sorts, returning to the old Hobdy implement building that was its first home in the county. A small section of the second floor once housed the office, but today Cooperative Extension uses the entire renovated building for offices and community education programs.

The Heart of Scottsville, a Main Street community, spearheaded the revitalization efforts. The Main Street program is a national effort with more than 2,000 U.S. communities participating.

Scottsville’s plans to spruce up the downtown began in the 1990s, said Roe Elam, director of the Heart of Scottsville. The first planned project, streetscape improvement, took nearly eight years before it bore any fruit. Supported by various grants in 2002, the work began. Project coordinators also realized it was about more than aesthetics, so in 2004, the Heart of Scottsville joined the Main Street program.

“It’s a bigger initiative,” he said. “It’s about the local economy. It’s about historic preservation. It’s about the downtown merchants. We have really been focusing on four components. There’s the design element which includes the streetscape and includes improving the façade and interior building improvements. It includes an economic development piece, trying to recruit new businesses and improve the businesses we have and create a welcoming environment for our residents and visitors. There’s the organizational piece – having a vibrant board, an executive director, maintaining the financial piece of running an organization. The final component is promotion. Getting people to come downtown, marketing our businesses and events.”

Since the revitalization effort began, Elam said they have tracked the number of new businesses in the downtown area and are netting about 10 new businesses a year.

“The story of the Cooperative Extension Service moving into this downtown building is exactly what we are trying to promote,” he said. “Not only does their mission dovetail with what the Heart of Scottsville is trying to do, it’s taking the agricultural sense of community and locating it right in the heart of the community. The building really is a manifestation of their mission, which is taking a historic building that means a lot to the community and making it new again, which is exactly what the Cooperative Extension Service is all about and what the Main Street program is all about.”

It has residual benefits, he said, with people wanting others to emulate what they have done. Also, the office is a destination, bringing traffic into the downtown and benefiting other businesses.

Without the downtown revitalization projects, the extension office likely would never have considered a downtown location, said Janet Johnson, Allen County extension agent for family and consumer sciences.

“When we saw what was happening in the historic district we saw we could be a part of that,” she said. “We’d been in the courthouse for 30 almost 40 years, and it became apparent to us, if we were going to make this investment into the community, then maybe we needed to do that where we would have the most impact with multiple missions. When this building became open to purchase, it was a place to begin looking. We could remain in the downtown area, continue to be one of the service agencies that have been associated with the downtown for years, and we could tap into parking areas maintained by the city to maximize space,” Johnson said.

The National Register of Historic Places lists several buildings in the town, including the 1915 Hobdy building, which sits just off the square on Main Street. This building, like a few others, is too large for most businesses and faced possible demolition. But its large open spaces, once used to repair farm implements, gave the extension service plenty of space to provide services and a community education center.

“It’s restoring and preserving heritage,” Johnson said. “It creates foot traffic in the downtown community. With the activities we have we can become a draw to downtown businesses.”

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