A new art station in downtown Hazard to stimulate economic development

Not so long ago, downtown Hazard was one of many bustling towns nestled in the coal-rich hills of eastern Kentucky, with a main street full of businesses that drew crowds every weekend.

Ask any Hazard resident of a certain age, and they’ll tell you about the clothing stores, movie theaters, restaurants, and arcade that brought people out of the screams and into town for the decades when well-paying jobs were much easier to find. pass.

Those days are over by anyone’s standards, but Perry County and City of Hazard officials are stepping up to attract new business and restore a level of vibrancy that many residents say is badly needed.

“Unless you’re going to court or you need a lawyer, you’re not going downtown,” said Angel Bowling, an employee of Shenanigans, a restaurant in downtown Hazard.

Among their strategies are stricter zoning standards, substantial incentive packages for businesses paying rent, and a landmark 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 Hazard City.

Richards works for both the town of Hazard and Perry County – officials said his dual role is symbolic in itself, in an area where county governments and their largest cities often butt heads. 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 complete, the building will house indoor classes and studios, and its large outdoor patio will provide a venue for parties and other community events during the evenings.

A group called the Appalachian Arts Alliance bought the building six years ago, but left it empty. Last year, after a “Jesus moment”, Richards said, the group’s new board decided to go ahead with renovations. He secured $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 it will be a catalyst for other downtown development projects and generate excitement among residents who may be eager to see downtown re-emerge as a more vibrant part of the community.

“When one thing starts happening, a lot of things start happening, and you become optimistic again,” Richards said.

She hopes the crowds the ArtStation draws will create demand for other businesses, like stores and restaurants, and that the city’s efforts to clean up some of the other vacant storefronts will provide space for them to rent or buy.

Perry County Executive Judge Scott Alexander said the city and county had both worked to better enforce zoning standards and considered incentive programs to provide space rent-free if tenants agreed to keep the building for a number of months or years.

Vacant and weakened buildings create “horror not only for our people, but also for the people we are trying to invite,” Alexander said.

“As we invite the outside world in, we need to clean up,” he said.

Richards said a new administration of Perry County government sees downtown revitalization as a more pressing concern. As well as a new executive judge in 2018, a new city commissioner for the town of Hazard ran largely on the idea of ​​economic development.

Luke Glaser came to Hazard in 2013 for a job at Teach For America and, rather than leaving for law school, said he stayed and ran for office because “we were at the dawn of something really special”.

Rather than bring back the danger of decades ago, Glaser said he wants to work with community members to find out what people want from a downtown Eastern Kentucky in 2020.

The city isn’t necessarily pushing for 100% occupancy of its buildings, Glaser said, but wants the downtown to be inviting as people walk through and have spaces for them to gather for events.

The ArtStation is a good first step, he said.

“The mayor always says, ‘We need a win, we need to get our first win,’ and that’s it,” Glaser said of ArtStation. “I want it to be the gathering space for the community, which doesn’t really exist right now.”

This story was originally published December 24, 2019 11:22 a.m.

Will Wright is a corps member of Report for America, a national service project made possible in eastern Kentucky with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Based in Pikeville, Wright joined the Herald-Leader in January 2018 and reports on Eastern Kentucky.
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