Kentucky Main Street Town Celebrates 25th Anniversary

Henderson Kentucky Street Fest

In the early months of 1986, things weren't looking good for downtown Henderson, Kentucky. The JJ Newberry five-and-dime store, a beloved downtown anchor, closed in January of that year. In April, Norris Hardware—"the great-granddaddy of Henderson buisnesses," in the words of the local newspaper, The Gleaner—announced it would leave downtown after 116 years. Historic Wolf's Restaurant and Tavern sat empty as well.

Meanwhile, plans were unveiled for a new shopping center on U.S. 41-North that would house a larger Wal-Mart and other retailers that were certain to siphon dollars from the central business district. Further, the economy was in the tank, with Henderson County's unemployment rate hitting 17.3 percent, and there were layoffs and strikes at some of the area's biggest manufacturers: Firestone Steel, Kusan Plastics, Alcan Aluminum, Alcoa.

In the midst of these worries a glimmer of hope appeared—an article in a Kentucky League of Cities newsletter announcing the availability of grants to help towns try to resurrect their central business districts by using the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Main Street Four Point Approach®. Henderson could be eligible for $10,000 [from the Kentucky Heritage Council] to help hire a manager and cover expenses.

At the time, Melodie Shrader ... was working as a volunteer on the Henderson Audobon Area Chamber of Commerce's downtown committee. She undertook two tasks. The first was to unify the store owners. "We had to have buy-in from all the downtown merchants," Shrader recalled. The second was to write a grant application and secure $10,000 in matching funds from the city. City Manager Russell Sights was open to the idea, provided merchants put up some $5,000 themselves.

In the fall of 1986, the chamber secured the grant from the Kentucky Heritage Council, matching funds from the city and $6,000 from the merchants. The Downtown Henderson Project was born under the umbrella of the chamber. It would come to be known as the DHP.

The first step—getting organized—had occurred. "The good thing is, (the independent merchants) were coming together as an organized group," Shrader said. "That first board meeting—I can remember it like it was yesterday—they were in attendance and they were excited about being there. It was like a celebration."

The DHP's first manager remained in the position only seven months.... In August 1987, the chamber hired a new manager who would come to embody downtown Henderson: a young Illinois native named Julie Turnipseed who had worked mostly in part-time positions and as a volunteer. What she lacked in experience, Turnipseed made up for with enthusiasm, and the chamber noted early success: 19 businesses opened downtown in 1987 and many merchants reported that their Christmas shopping season that year was their best ever.

By Turnipseed's second Christmas season in the post, the DHP had organized an ambitious game plan for luring shoppers downtown: offering free parking; recruiting County High cheerleaders and Colonettes to decorate store windows; extending store hours to 9 p.m. on a Friday in November; promoting the Christmas Parade and Operation Community Pride's Christmas in the Park; and advertising that stores would be open seven days a week through much of December, including staying open until 7 p.m. on weeknights.

Turnipseed learned and began preaching the mantra of the Main Street strategy of organizing the downtown community, promoting downtown's assets, working toward economic restructuring, and incorporating good design standards.

The Main Street strategy reversed a common strategy of countless downtowns. Rather than remodeling the façades of old buildings to look like sleek shopping center stores, the Main Street approach encouraged communities and property owners to preserve the period character of downtown buildings. Main Street managers and their consultants preached a philosophy of embracing downtown's historic nature: its brick buildings, its wide streets, its parks, its ancient and fading old billboards painted on the sides of buildings—and its merchants.

The DHP—through its staff, board of directors, and members—has recorded both victories and setbacks....It had success in promoting upstairs apartment living—the vacancy rate for downtown residences is virtually nil. But it has found the recruitment of restaurants (especially those that would be open at night) and stores an unending challenge.

A few businesses have proven themselves to be unwavering anchors in the downtown. But others have come and gone. In 1994, the DHP reported that 10 new businesses opened downtown ... while seven expanded and six closed. In the six years from 1988 through 1994, the DHP recorded the opening of 110 new businesses and the expansions of 22 more, representing a combined investment of $8.6 million.

The DHP worked diligently to make holiday shopping a memorable experience, with activities ranging from Victorian theme entertainment to carriage rides, plus investment in new wintertime lamp-post snowflake decorations. But it has yet to persuade organizers of the Christmas parade to reschedule it to either an evening or Sunday event; merchants uniformly say that a parade on a Saturday morning shuts down business on an important day just weeks before Christmas.

[DHP has] also promoted the quality of life in the community through its support of free events such as the W.C. Handy Blues and Barbecue Festival and Bluegrass in the Park.

The DHP had a hand in encouraging the redevelopment of the riverfront (including the recent addition of free Wi-Fi there); urging the city to replace old cobra-style street lights with vintage-looking lamp posts; and promoting the placement downtown of more than a dozen bronze bird statues based on paintings by early Henderson resident John James Audobon. The DHP's  bird statue project, along with a project that erected signs around downtown to direct visitors to businesses and attractions, won the Design/Beautification Award at the Kentucky Main Street Program's first-ever awards ceremony in 2009.

[DHP has undertaken] scores of projects intended to draw people to the city center, steer them into stores and imbue them with good memories of downtown: Easter egg hunts; Breakfast in the Park; flea market sales; mother-daughter scavenger hunts; historic walking tours; minting of a commemorative coin; flower plantings; and the Halloween trick-or-treating, parade, and costume contests.

But while it has developed programs to help property owners improve their buildings—through a low-interest loan pool, free design assistance, a discount historic paint program and more—the DHP hasn't been able to win political support for a historic preservation ordinance.

The DHP has brought reognition to downtown business people's contributions to the community and building investments through its ongoing annual awards program.

Turnipseed left the organization late last year to move closer to her daughter ... in Kansas City; she is now director of Warrensburg Main Street, Inc., in western Missouri. She directed the DHP for 21 of its first 24 years [and was recognized at the 2011 Main Streets Conference in Des Moines for her many and lasting contributions to the Main Street movement.]

"We are a much stronger downtown," George H. Warren, who was president of the Henderson Chamber when the downtown project was launched, said last year as Turnipseed prepared to leave. "Were we able to do everything we wanted to do? No, But we're way ahead of many cities our size."

Shrader, who is now an independent legislative consultant, agrees. "We still had a lot more businesses... then than now," she observed. [But] she doesn't fault the DHP for that. "You just can't control the global economy.... The downtown looks better now than it did. A lot of work has been done on the outside of buildings.... We have had vacancies, but the buildings look good and stay in repair and look like a center of the community—not a place people shy away from."

Beth Strawn, who had been the DHP's events coordinator since 2004, was named the new executive director earlier this year, while Laura Peck now serves as events coordinator.

DHP activities continue, including its first-ever Girls Night Out in Downtown Henderson charity benefit on October 20, in which 14 businesses will remain open until 8 p.m., followed by drink specials and live music. Strawn hopes it stimulates store sales and re-introduces women shoppers to some stores they haven't visited or have avoided during the [town's] water-sewer line project, which is winding down.

After 25 years, challenges remain for downtown Henderson, especially after the closings of longstanding businesses, such as the Homefolks Hardware & Gifts, Matt's News & Gifts, and Henderson Paint & Glass, and the pending relocation of the Dollar General Store out of the core downtown area.

Hope is not lost, however. A group of friends has proposed converting Homefolks into a nightclub and restaurant. Warren Supply has already moved into the Henderson Paint building, although it vacated [another downtown building] to do so.

And veteran commercial real estate developer Dr. Tom Logan is so optimistic about the downtown's viability that he recently purchased the Dollar General building and some adjacent properties with plans to develop apartments upstairs.

As Strawn [says,] "We've got some opportunities ahead of us, and we're going to tackle them."

As for the DHP, she says, "I think the state of our organization is as strong as it's ever been."