HARRODSBURG — Kentucky’s oldest settlement is feeling its age and, as such, is preparing to undergo a major makeover. A nip here, a tuck there. A hip replacement. A¿new hairstyle, color, maybe some streaks. A healthier diet. More exercise. Yoga.
The goal is to feel and look young again, to create a community where the future is as vibrant as the past.
“We’re at the beginning of a transition,” Sage Cutler says. “The question is, how do we maintain our historic values but also be a place where people want to live and raise a family? How can we be historic without being old?”
Cutler is the interim director of the Wilderness Trace Family YMCA, which is at the heart — physically and spiritually — of the city’s Model Block program. The aim is to transform the block where the Y sits in middle of town, currently rundown and mostly abandoned, into the focal point of a new and improved Harrodsburg.
On the drawing board for Phase 1 of the Model Block is a major renovation of the Y that includes a fitness center and air conditioning; a farmer’s market with a stage for entertainment; a cultural heritage museum; and greenspace that will serve as the hub of walking trails throughout the city. Phase 2 includes construction of an indoor pool and playground area.
“We wanted to form a block that would be nice gateway to the community. You drive into Harrodsburg (on U.S. 127) now and it’s not attractive, it doesn’t do much for you. We want something that says, ‘Hey, this is a nice town.’”
It’s an ambitious project that will take several years and considerable fundraising to complete. But the project got off the ground in a big way last month when Gov. Steve Beshear dropped by with a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant check for improvements at the Y that will help pave the way for future fundraising efforts.
“Anytime you get the seed money, it makes it so much easier than starting from scratch,” says Pete Chiericozzi, leader of Mercer County’s Community Advancement Partnership, of CAP, a group of about 40 people representing governmental and community agencies that meets regulary to brainstorm ways to move the county forward.
The Model Block program was dreamed up by CAP and the YMCA, and has gained the backing of city and county government, the Tourism Commission and other agencies as it has moved forward. It was this kind of community-wide support that helped land the CDBG money, Cutler said.
“The CDBG people liked the idea that it is about more than just ourselves, how we were working to make the community a better place, not just the Y,”¿he says.
After last month’s check presentation, Beshear toured the YMCA with Cutler and then looked at the mock-ups of Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the Model Block.
“Let’s keep talking as we go along,” Beshear told Cutler that day. “We’ll see if we can help you down the road.”
The $500,000 grant is less than half of the $1.2 million needed just to refurbish the YMCA. A¿fundraising campaign to raise an additional $700,000 will begin in the fall, Cutler says. It is hoped that the new and improved Y will be open for business by the beginning of 2014, he says.
Phase 2 of the model block, which includes the new swimming pool, will cost an estimated $4.5 million and take another three to five years to complete, depending on fundraising, Cutler says.
While the Y will spearhead fundraising for the improvements to its facilities, CAP will be running a separate campaign to finance the purchase of other properties on the block bordered by College, Broad, Fort and Lexington streets and located next to Old Fort Harrod State Park.
The city recently purchased the house next to the YMCA building on College Street, which will be torn down to make room for parking and handicapped accessability. There are four other houses, two of which are occupied, and the historic former Centennial Baptist Church, on the block. Negotiations to purchase the remaining properties are in progress, Chiericozzi says, and demolition work on some of the houses should begin before the end of the year.
Bringing in the church to serve as cultural heritage center may prove difficult. Centennial member Alvis Johnson, a former Mercer County magistrate and Harrodsburg High School football coach, has pushed for the 105-year-old church to be included in the Model Block program as a showcase for African American history but says another church, New Life Christian, has been holding services there and is seriously interested in buying the building from Centennial, which moved to a new facility on Burley Street.
The church building on the corner of Lexington and Fort streets, which burned down in 1957 and was rebuilt, has been offered to Model Block for $500,000 but the group rejected it, Johnson explains.
“It would be a great thing for the community, if it comes to be, but I don’t know that it’s going to happen,” Johnson says. “While we would take great pride in having an African-American cultural center there, we would take great pride in assisting another church as well.”
Despite such obstacles, Chiericozzi and Cutler remain confident that the money can be raised to see the Model Block through to completion. The Y conducted a feasibility study earlier this year to gauge community interest and got “favorable results,” Cutler says.
“There’s a lot of community support for what we’re doing now,” he adds. “We anticipate we will get some help from our philanthropic folks and our corporate citizens.”
Chiericozzi said that recent multi-million investments by Wausau Paper, Corning and Hitachi in their Mercer County operations indicate those industries are prepared to up their contributions to causes that will make the community a more attractive place for their employees to live.
“Each of these companies has resources available and has made the commitment that they’re going to be in this community for a long time,” he says.
As the Model Block moves off the drawing board and people see it taking shape, it is hoped that it will spur similar projects across Harrodsburg and around the county.
“It’s one of those things the whole community becomes involved in,” Chiericozzi says. “Hopefully, we get people saying, ‘Why can’t we do this in Burgin? Why can’t we do this in Salvisa?’”
Cutler says that after years of talking about the project, the $500,000 grant will soon turn those works into actions.
“It’s for real now,” he says, “and we’re taking steps to move it forward.”