Activists work to improve Manchester's image

bestep@herald-leader.comDecember 27, 2013 

MANCHESTER — Violence and drugs have long tarnished the reputation of Manchester and Clay County.

Governors considered abolishing the county in the late 1800s during a vicious feud, and again three decades later, when murders and violence created "a climate of fear in Clay County throughout the 1930s," local historian Charles House wrote in his 2007 book Blame it on Salt.

When Paul Hays started patrolling the twisting roads as a state police officer in the 1990s, there were still enough shootings to perpetuate the city's pejorative Gunchester nickname.

"There was somebody killed seemed like every week," said Hays, who is now law-enforcement director with Operation UNITE.

Stories about widespread marijuana production in the county in the 1980s and 1990s, and, more recently, about pervasive abuse of prescription drugs and federal corruption charges against local public officials, have not helped the county's image.

So how does a community change the way people see it?

Civic activists and officials are pursuing projects to beautify downtown Manchester, expand tourism attractions, improve health and education and boost local businesses.

They also are finalizing a comprehensive development plan for the city of 1,200 built around Goose Creek.

The suggestions in the plan include building a towering statue of Jesus Christ to attract visitors.

Residents hope the work will pay off in an improved economy and a better image.

"We want our town to be known as a town where good things, positive things, are happening," said Margy Miller, who is with a civic group called Stay in Clay.

There are obstacles to overcome.

There are few jobs in the county, for instance, and the poverty rate is more than double the national level. That makes funding services and projects to improve the town a challenge.

But residents say the city and county have numerous assets, including nice parks, natural beauty and great opportunity for outdoor recreation.

Three local elementary schools were in the top 10 in the state in test-score gains in the most recent assessment, and residents are, in the main, hardworking people of faith, said those who attended a session to identify strengths and weaknesses as part of developing the city's strategic plan.

The county's unique history also could be used to boost tourism, residents said.

The county was on the Warriors' Path that Native Americans used to travel through the state, and legendary explorer Daniel Boone surveyed the area that became Manchester, House wrote.

In the first half of the 1800s, the county was one of the largest producers of salt in the nation, which brought wealth but also a greater use of slavery than in any other Eastern Kentucky county.

In the Civil War, rebel and federal soldiers purloined provisions from local farmsteads, and Union forces destroyed the valuable saltworks to keep them out of Confederate hands.

The salt industry sowed the seeds of one of the bloodiest, most enduring feuds in Appalachian history, in which prominent families and poorer local allies settled economic, political and personal differences at gunpoint.

With local police and courts ineffective or controlled by members of the warring factions, the bloodshed lasted decades, resulting in dozens of deaths and infamy for the county.

Some local people don't want to acknowledge that part of the county's history, but that's wrong, House said in an interview.

The county is a very different place now, House said.

"The history shouldn't cast any aspersions on us now," he said.

The county's violent-crime rate was lower than that of nearly every county in Central Kentucky from 2008 through 2010, according to one study.

And what was once a black eye could be a plus now, House said.

"You could use this negative history to effect a positive outcome," he said.

In the last few years, high-profile stories out of the county have often dealt with a long-running federal investigation that found widespread vote-buying and other acts of corruption, and led to charges against more than a dozen one-time public officials.

The honest people outnumbered the vote-sellers even during the worst of the fraud, Miller said, but many people sat back and let problems fester because they didn't know they could do anything.

That has changed.

One turning point was a massive community march against drugs in May 2004. Organized by churches and attended by an estimated 3,500 people, the protest helped show citizens could make a difference in their community.

"There's good people here and they want good things to happen," Miller said. "We don't want (people) to say, 'Oh Lord, that's where they arrested half the courthouse ..."

There have been some successes already.

Stay in Clay has formed a community theater group and has had murals painted on the sides of buildings to dress up the downtown area.

The group also raised $17,000 needed to restore a historic swinging bridge over Goose Creek in the middle of town, Miller said. The Kentucky League of Cities recommended the city use the bridge as a symbol in marketing.

Another group called Healthy Clay helped pave part of a walking trail along Goose Creek and worked to get exercise equipment at a city park.

"We have accomplished so much in the last two years," said Rhonda Bowling, who works at the Cumberland Valley District Health Department and is active in Healthy Clay. Bowling is senior program coordinator for Spread the Health Appalachia, which advocates for such improvements as healthier food at senior centers.

The name of the Healthy Clay group — set up by the district health department — was a reaction to a 2010 story in the Washington Post about the county being one of the most unhealthy in the nation, with high rates of obesity, heart disease and other problems.

The group successfully pushed for a local ordinance barring smoking in public places, Bowling said.

It also got a federal grant to bring in Vaughn Grisham, a University of Mississippi sociologist who studies community development. Grisham told civic activists that a community's health, education and economy are all linked, Bowling said.

He also outlined potential improvements and donated the first $500 to get the work going, Miller said.

Manchester officials later got a federal grant to draft a development plan, which is necessary to apply for certain aid, said Mayor George Saylor.

The Kentucky League of Cities helped prepare the plan, which listed "foundational challenges" to work on. Those included helping residents get healthier, cleaning up the environment, continuing to push for educational improvements, working to improve the economy and making sure local government is fully accountable.

The report offered such suggestions as a communitywide weight-loss challenge and incentives for local businesses.

The report also recommended tackling some big ideas to bring attention to local efforts.

That's what local attorney Scott Madden had in mind.

The key to turning around the economic fortunes of the city and county, he said, is to "build the biggest something in the world" on an industrial site atop a mountain outside town, where the only factory closed years ago.

His suggestion: A 1,000-foot statue of Jesus that could bring visitors from around the world.

The idea ended up in the strategic plan, and Madden will chair a fund-raising effort, Saylor said.

The city will also begin figuring out how to implement other parts of the plan, Saylor said.

"The next thing is to pick out things we can do," he said.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1

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