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River town growth

Carrollton bracing for growth in tourism

I-71 access and grant money for
downtown projects are fueling the excitement

"I’d like to see them clean up the river banks, too."
– Hazel Ray, owner of Cornercopia

By Laural Harper
Contributing Writer

CARROLLTON, Ky. (June 1999) – “If you build it, they will come,” or at least some version of that mantra made famous in the movie “Field of Dreams” describes what Hazel Ray thought would happen when she became a downtown Carrollton business owner back in 1981.
Then reality set in.

Carrollton Downtown

Photo by Laurel Harper

Carrollton merchants and city officials anticipate a boom when the nearby Kentucky Speedway opens next year. The city is positioned well for tourism with General Butler State Resort Park located on the outskirts of town.

“I finally had to realize nothing was going to happen unless we made it happen,” says Ray, who operates the CornerCopia crafts, gift shop and ice cream parlor at the corner of Fifth and Main streets, along with her daughter Jeanette Singer.
So that’s exactly what she and other members of the Carrollton business community are doing. Their efforts will literally change the face of the city in the coming months.
Ray’s initial assessment seemed right on target. The small river community of about 4,000 people lies at the confluence of the Kentucky and Ohio rivers, along scenic U.S. 42 just five miles off I-71. Both Louisville and Cincinnati are only 50 miles away; Indianapolis and Lexington, Ky., are within a 2 1/2-hour drive.
Many writers have used the word “sleepy” to describe towns like this, but Carrollton – though it seems serene on the surface – is anything but. The entire region is thriving, enjoying a strong economy due to several major industries located just east of the city.
“We’ve been very fortunate in this area of Kentucky,” says Harold “Shorty” Tomlinson, president of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce and manager of General Butler State Resort Park. “We have more industry per capita than any other area around and a strong agricultural background.”
Carrollton also is noted for its rich history. The city, initially called Port William, was established in 1794 by pioneers traveling down the Ohio who decided to stay. The name was changed to Carrollton in 1838 when Carroll County was formed. It retains its historic charm today, peppered with 19th century and Victorian homes and buildings. Carrollton boasts a 25-block area recognized as one of the most intact 19th-century downtowns remaining in the state and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“History is playing a big role in tourism today. More and more people are looking for heritage destinations where they can travel for overnight jaunts. Carroll County has much to offer along these lines,” notes Jennifer Ray, the county’s executive director of tourism.
Add to that the fact that Butler Park, ranking 17th on Kentucky’s list of top tourist attractions, sits on the outskirts of town, with a new 1,000-capacity conference center set to open next year. Plus, a race track that may possibly hold NASCAR events is scheduled to open soon in adjoining Gallatin County, just 20 miles away. It should come as no surprise, then, that tourism is a major industry for the county, attracting more than 500,000 visitors, nearly $31 million and employing more than 820 people in 1998 alone, Ray says.
The town is definitely primed for growth. That’s what prompted Hazel Ray and several other concerned citizens to push the issue. One major outcome of their effort is a committee whose objective is to make Carrollton an official participant of the Main Street Program (part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation), which helps communities across the nation revitalize their historic or traditional commercial areas.
It has likewise proven a powerful economic development tool. A study tracking the program’s success in 1,400 communities, conducted from Main Street’s inception in 1980 to date, shows that on the average every $1 spent to operate the local program yielded $35.43 reinvested.
Working with the Chamber of Commerce, the Tourism Commission, the Carrollton Main Street Program, the Carroll County Community Development Corp. (CCCDC), the Kentucky Heritage Council and supported by the City of Carrollton, just two years later the Main Street board is beginning to see its efforts pay off handsomely.
Carrollton was among a select group of Kentucky cities the state recognized last year as a Silver Renaissance Community, something that never would have happened without the Main Street connection, according to Jennifer Ray.
What does this mean to the city? Nearly $428,000 in a state grant to be used for the revitalization and beautification of the downtown area. Matching funds from local groups add up to another $142,726, with the total amount exceeding $570,000.
When complete, the area bounded by U.S. 42 (Highland Avenue) from Fourth to Sixth streets, and on Court and Fifth streets from U.S. 42 to Main Street, then on Main Street from Fifth to Court will undergo a massive cosmetic surgery.
Broken sidewalks will be replaced, the walk in front of the main entrance to the courthouse lawn will be redesigned and widened, and all area sidewalks made handicapped accessible. Utility lines will be buried and both contemporary lighting and 1930s-style street lamps installed.
Landscaping, including removing existing trees whose roots have damaged the sidewalks and replacing them with non-intrusive varieties, will complete the work.
The objective is to re-establish the Courthouse Square as downtown’s focal point. “It gives us an opportunity to improve the downtown quality, which makes it more inviting to other businesses,” Tomlinson adds.
CCCDC director Bill Mitchell agrees. “A downtown helps attract high-quality industries when all things are equal. It can give the edge to a community, just like a good hospital and schools.”
On a more aesthetic level, the project will help strengthen and preserve downtown’s historic integrity and, its proponents hope, lead to further redevelopment of the entire riverfront.
“I’d like to see them clean up the river banks, too,” Hazel Ray notes.
The state has allocated another $37,500 for business owners in the designated area who want to improve their building facades.
Structures along Main Street back up to the Ohio River, so Jennifer Ray hopes that some of the money will go for revitalizing that side as well as the facades along Main.
City Council has likewise shown its support. Along with pledging matching funds for the revitalization grant and promising workers to help with the streetscaping, in 1996 it approved an incentive package for business people who want to locate downtown.
That money is earmarked for such things as start-up expenses and building improvements. With the exception of pool halls, bars, adult entertainment and any enterprise that requires extensive on-street parking, any business is eligible to apply.
Beefing up the roster of downtown businesses themselves will be next on the revitalization group’s wish list. Currently, says Jennifer Ray, the mix includes gift shops, craft shops, an inn, an antique mall, a hardware store, a general goods store, a clothing store, a sporting goods store, a couple of restaurants and bars, and several service businesses and professional offices.
The Carrollton campus of Jefferson Community College is there, too.
She would like to see a few more antique stores come in and a bookstore/coffee shop combination.
Mitchell would add more professional offices, entertainment, service industries, institutional tenants and residential units to Ray’s list, to ensure the area remains viable even during tourism’s offseason.
“The downtown area can’t be on its own. It has to be a part of everything else,” he cautions. “That’s why Carrollton and this part of Kentucky have been so successful. We haven‚t ignored one thing in lieu of another.
“With a population of about 9,600, the county’s small enough that we’ve got a real synergy going here,” he adds. “Everyone has worked together to keep their eye on the ball.”
There is one dark cloud on the horizon – a gravel quarry is moving to the fringe of downtown and several business owners are concerned about what impact this will have.
But overall, they view the city’s future with optimism. “After all, we never dreamed the grant would be as much as it was,” Hazel Ray points out.
“A lot of people pitched in to help, and we’re hoping for a lot of success.
“It’s just time for us to have this now.”

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