Let’s talk about downtown -- OUR downtown. In case you don’t know (and many don’t), Downtown Independence, or Courthouse Square, is the area around the historic Kenton County Courthouse at Madison Pike and McCullum. One hundred and fifty years ago, or even fifty years ago, this was the thriving hub of our city and the center of commerce and camaraderie. If you don’t believe me, Google “Independence Kentucky 1938” and check out a really cool YouTube video. I’m pretty sure you’ll recognize a few buildings.
As many of you know, I lived in Courthouse Square for the past 20 years. My love of that neighborhood is what started me on the path that landed me in my current role. As my wife and I were renovating the house, we’d look around town and see such potential. Unfortunately, like many downtown areas, it had become a collection of part-time businesses in spaces that hadn’t received any attention in decades. I contacted the mayor at the time and told him I’d like to volunteer for any city efforts to revitalize downtown. Coincidentally, the city had just completed a small area study to help plan for growth. A large portion of that study was focused on the downtown neighborhood. I was appointed to the Independence Strategic Action Committee (ISAC), and so began our efforts to try to turn recommendations into reality. A few things came to fruition. I was able to bring a farmers’ market downtown. We started a historic preservation group that hosted some events and conducted interesting interviews with longtime residents. We created a unique DI (Downtown Independence) zone to encourage development while maintaining the historic character of the area. But what also happened was the Great Recession. That pretty much dashed any hopes of seeing substantive change in the near term. Regardless, this experience did serve as a catalyst to get me more involved in the city. After a couple years on ISAC I decided to run for city council. Four years later I ran for mayor, and here I am today. Through all of this, Courthouse Square has been in the back of my mind. So much else moved to the forefront, but I haven’t forgotten.
Recently, a few things renewed my interest. Selling our house several months ago reminded me how much we still love the area and hope to end up back there. In addition, the wonderful folks who bought the house reminded my wife and I of ourselves 20 years ago. Like us, their strong passion for that beautiful old Victorian home is expanding into a passion for the area. Kenton County is also making improvements to the historic courthouse and has much bigger plans down the road. Long term is the construction of a new south wing and replacement of the north wing. We also collaborated with the county to obtain a grant to construct a permanent farmers’ market building on the courthouse grounds. This structure can also be used for other community events. Sadly, the fire in March that destroyed the old Odd Fellows Hall also reminded me that we have a precious city resource that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Most of you probably knew it as Fred’s Barber Shop (actually Independence Hair Center). Fred cut hair in that space since the early 1970s. Nothing in Independence made you feel more like you were in Mayberry than sitting and waiting for a haircut and listening to the chatter on a Saturday afternoon. More recently it was home to Madison Pike Yoga and Hazelbaker’s Music School, but there are still several folks around who remember the building as the original Ponzer’s Tavern. All these things remind me that we need to start focusing on Courthouse Square again. Our downtown is a part of this city’s long and rich history, and is a potential asset that sets us apart from other communities.
I can’t say I have a solid plan to regenerate the downtown area, but I wanted to put the issue on the record with nearly 30,000 of my friends and neighbors (who are also stakeholders in this venture), and to generate some interest. Maybe it’s just passive support, but for a few it could mean offering a special skill or volunteering for a committee, like a certain mayor did a couple of decades ago. Many hands make light work. Whether delving into the idea of sprucing up downtown is something you’d like to be a part of, you don’t have the time but have some thoughts, or you just want to say “I love the idea” or “Why bother?” please shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We can also chat about it at Party at the Park or at the 25th anniversary of the Independence Day Celebration. I look forward to seeing you this summer and hearing your thoughts.
- Mayor Chris Reinersman