Blanton: The history of revitalizing downtown Winchester

Published 12:45 pm Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The mission of revitalizing Downtown Winchester seems insurmountable. However, the Main Street Winchester program (formerly known as Winchester First) has achieved success, assisted with and completed many heralded projects and leveraged a great deal of private investment (in the midst of four recessions). Building on past accomplishments, the future looks even brighter. Imagine a bustling downtown Winchester with a variety of housing, shopping, restaurants, and entertainment venues. We all need to strive and make that vision a reality.

Supporting revitalization efforts, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s (NTHP) Main Street program (Main Street America) has for 40 years assisted in the preservation of historic downtowns in 46 states and over 1,400 cities and towns. The goal of the NTHP program is to promote downtown as a viable option for living, working and shopping while renewing interest in preserving the buildings and culture. In 1977 the first cities selected as demonstration projects were Hot Springs, South Dakota, Galesburg, Illinois, and Madison, Indiana.   The commonality of their successes formed the four point approach (Organization, Design, Promotion, and Economic Vitality) still used today by Main Street communities.

In 1979 the NTHP expanded the demonstration program   to Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas. Kentucky’s Historic Preservation Officer David Morgan saw the benefit of the program and in 1979 initiated the nation’s first statewide Main Street program modeled after the NTHP program. In 1980 Kentucky Main Street (KYMS) was launched with five communities: Bowling Green, Maysville, Frankfort, Georgetown and Winchester by offering a 50/50 matching grant to fund salaries of a Main Street manager.

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Winchester’s new city planner Keith Logsdon was aware of the KYMS program and through downtown businessmen and financial institutions raised the matching funds. In the spring of 1980 Winchester’s first Main Street director was hired. Eric Eisemann, an Illinois native with a master degree in historic preservation from Western Kentucky University, began the revitalization of downtown.

Task number one was to document and prepare a National Register nomination for the downtown district. Task number two was the removal of the overhead electrical wires on Main Street. Task number three was the re-establishment of the original ornamental five-globe lights. During his two year tenure, task one and two were accomplished and task three was initiated. Eugene Doren, another Illinois native with an architecture degree from UK, took the position and completed task three. The five globe street lights were officially  turned on at the beginning of the 1983 Christmas parade, before what many believe to be the largest crowd ever (the Christmas parade of 2015 may have equaled that).

These responsibilities along with the four-point approach took a great deal of time, money and effort in an era when many other public and private initiatives were in direct competition. Raising funds, doing research, dealing with property owners and government regulations required the manager to wear many hats and develop multiple strategies. Doren’s tenure ended in 1984 and closed that era Winchester’s participation in the KYMS program as it began to transition at the state and federal levels.

In 1996 Winchester began participating in KYMS again when Brenda Goode, as part of the Tourism Commission and then the city, guided the program. Under Kimberly Clay, her successor, Winchester participated in Gov. Paul Patton’s Renaissance Kentucky program. Lara Early Thornberry, a hometown girl followed,  then Tim Janes and the current director, Rachel Alexander. Rachel, like the first Main Street Director has a master degree in historic preservation.

Over the last 20 years, Downtown Winchester and Winchester First have reaped the benefits of KYMS and the National Main Street Center (NMSC). 2015-16 is the pinnacle for Main Street Winchester. MSW was accredited by the NMSC as a Main Street America program. New and promising events like the Rock the Block series and Build a Better Block (Remain North) were huge successes. Funding came together for a downtown master plan (unheard of for a community the size of Winchester). The master plan is nearing completion and implementation is about to begin.

 Now is the time to reinvigorate our community pride and spirit. Support downtown and participate in the revitalization process. Become a cheerleader for a successful downtown, for without a thriving downtown what will Winchester become?