A Walk Down Main Street
Five years ago if you took a stroll down Main Street in Greenville, Kentucky on a Saturday night you would have likely walked on deteriorated sidewalks, peered into vacant storefronts with dilapidated façades, and felt enveloped by silence and darkness. Like many other small towns throughout the United States, Greenville’s downtown had slowly deteriorated as development and investments were directed elsewhere.
However, thanks to a forward-thinking mayor, a proactive tourist commission, an involved local community, and a supportive area development district, that same walk down Main Street today looks and feels very different. In this town of 4,300, as many as 8,000 people have been known to fill the streets of Greenville on a weekend night in the summertime to enjoy live outdoor music, find something to eat at a variety of food stands set up by local establishments, and enjoy each other’s company. Previously vacant buildings are now abuzz with activity, many now home to new retail stores and restaurants. A mature woodland area off the downtown area has been preserved as a 12-acre nature park, complete with trails, bridges, and a manmade waterfall. Sidewalks have been built and repaired, historic-looking street lights now shine down on the streets below, planters and trash receptacles have been installed, and engraved brick pavers line new curbs. Residents in the region no longer think of Greenville merely as a lazy county seat with a historic courthouse, but rather as an economic and entertainment focal point in Muhlenberg County.
This positive change in Greenville was neither an accident nor left to chance; rather, it was the result of a small community with a vision for how to build on its local assets and infrastructure, seek innovative financing, and cultivate partnerships in a challenging economic environment. This southwestern Kentucky town’s revival can serve as a model for other small communities throughout the country working to revive their historic downtowns and Main Streets.
Progressive Leadership and Active Partnerships
In 2006 at the urging of many of Greenville’s citizens, Eddie DeArmond ran for city mayor. A retired state policeman, DeArmond won the race and took office in 2007 where he set in motion a major effort to redevelop the downtown business district and the surrounding areas. “The mayor had a vision to make a difference in Greenville and leave the town better than when he found it,” says Ben Van Hooser, the city administrator tapped by DeArmond for the position. “The downtown and other parts of the community had been deteriorating. We wanted to breathe new life into the city.”
Soon after taking office, Mayor DeArmond and City Administrator Van Hooser began a vigorous push to seek funding opportunities for streetscape and façade improvements along three blocks of Greenville’s Main Street. With the support of City Council, they tackled the project by embracing the Mayor’s bold motto which is printed on a banner hanging in City Hall: “Don’t tell me why we can’t do it. Just tell me how!” Looking for support, Van Hooser reached out to Jason Vincent at the Pennyrile Area Development District (PADD), western Kentucky’s regional planning and development organization that serves nine counties and 33 cities. Vincent, at the time a grant writer and today PADD’s assistant director, was excited about the prospect of collaborating with Van Hooser and Mayor DeArmond, whom Vincent regarded as a “progressive mayor who recognized the downtown area as the lifeblood of the community and had idea after idea about how things could be improved.”
PADD has worked with the city in seeking funding opportunities, preparing grant applications, and assisting with procurement activities. “PADD helped guide and direct us in our efforts, particularly in how to make our grant applications stand out to someone who would be looking at a few hundred or so of them,” says Van Hooser. Over the past five years, over $1.6 million has been raised to fund local redevelopment, streetscape, and recreational improvements. This money came from grants such as Kentucky’s Transportation Enhancement Program, the Safe Routes to School Program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, revenue raised by the local Tourism Commission, and even donations from hometown residents.
Façades, Festivals, and Footpaths
Since redevelopment began, nine new businesses have located to the downtown area – many into previously vacant buildings – creating new jobs and instilling a sense of community pride. These businesses include two new restaurants, two gift shops, a women’s apparel store, and a costume/accessories shop.
By investing in downtown through streetscape improvements and increased pedestrian access, the city has made Greenville an attractive place for entrepreneurs to open new businesses. The city and the Tourism Commission (discussed further below) launched a “Let’s Paint the Town” initiative which joined business owners and volunteer citizens to paint building façades and restore many to their original colors and designs. Around 15 buildings were given a facelift through painting and façade restoration, including one where mid-century hand painted signs were discovered and restored after vinyl siding was removed. Other projects have included renovating the historic theatre’s marquee with neon and running lights, constructing new welcome signs entering the city, and installing outdoor speakers on downtown lights that play non-stop music from Sirius XM radio.
Early in the redevelopment process, DeArmond and Van Hooser met with staff from the Kentucky League of Cities who encouraged the city to implement a restaurant and hotel tax that would fund a Tourism Commission to sponsor downtown events and activities. A full-page ad was placed in the local newspaper with the headline “City of Greenville Seeks Your Support” and explained that the money would be used for festivals, sporting events, theatre productions, welcome signs, and other improvements. The ad urged residents to support the tax, stating that it would “bring ‘life and business’ back to the downtown and will benefit all the citizens of Greenville.” The tax was passed with zero opposition as the community rallied behind it to raise additional revenue. It has brought in around $275,000 a year and has funded a variety of activities and events such as the “Let’s Paint the Town” program, the “Squash and Gobble” fall arts festival, and the popular “Saturdays on the Square” free summer music series which features live bands playing a variety of genres of music Saturday nights on the brick plaza in front of the town’s newly restored courthouse, originally built in 1907.
The changes taking place in Greenville have not only been accomplished using brick, cement, and paint. While other projects were underway, a resident came to the city with the idea of establishing a nature park just two blocks from the downtown area near the elementary and middle schools. When the city reached out to local landowners to acquire their land, three donated their properties to the city on the condition the land would be used for the park, while two others sold it at market value. A combination of local donations from residents and grants from the Recreational Trails program and the Land and Water Conservation Fund have provided the finances to create what is now known as the Brizendine Brothers Nature Park. This 12-acre wooded area consists of a half-mile graveled trail, three footbridges that run over 200 feet, birdfeeders, picnic tables, a four-foot manmade waterfall, and 150-foot running stream. Deer, turkeys, raccoons, squirrels, birds, and other animals have been spotted in the area. The park has attracted visitors not only from Greenville but from throughout the region, providing an economic boost to the city and county.
Despite the success achieved in Greenville, maintaining momentum has not been without its challenges, especially related to the general fund in this tough economy. Additionally, over the past five years Greenville has experienced three federally declared disasters, including a deadly tornado, a debilitating ice storm, and damaging winds from Hurricane Ike. In spite of these challenges, the local leadership and residents of Greenville continue to remain focused and resolute on creating a brighter future.
An Inspiration for Other Small Towns
While every town and city is unique with its own assets and challenges, Mayor DeArmond and City Administrator Van Hooser believe that the success achieved in Greenville can be replicated in other communities that have the vision and willpower to make positive changes. They have shared their city’s story with other leaders, city councils, and citizens throughout Kentucky at best practices seminars and workshops. “Our success is the result of a strong, progressive mayor working with a citizenry that was anxious to see deterioration turned around. That, along with the support of the Tourism Commission and Pennyrile Area Development District, has led to success here in Greenville,” says Van Hooser. Jason Vincent at PADD agrees: “This town did the right things, at the right time, and in the right way. It really came down to strong local leadership that sought community buy-in and support which has made a huge difference.”
This case study was researched and written by Brett Schwartz, NADO Research Fellow. Preliminary research was provided by Parrish Bergquist.
This is part of the NADO Research Foundation’s Vibrant Rural Communities series of case studies, which describes how rural regions and small towns across the country are growing local and regional economies and creating stronger communities. This series shows how communities can leverage a wide range of tools and resources to build on their assets, protect their resources, and make strategic investments that offer long-term benefits.
This project is based in part upon work supported by the Federal Highway Administration under Agreement No. DTFH61-10-C-00047. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of FHWA or the NADO Research Foundation.