MOREHEAD – Like a lot of small towns, Morehead sometimes seemed to be stuck in the past, awkwardly dealing with the present and ill-prepared for the future.
Local leaders knew there was more potential in Morehead, but how could they realize it?
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In 2005, then-Mayor Bradley Collins was president of the Kentucky League of Cities. The league had started the non-profit New Cities Institute. And the institute had developed a program to help communities identify and build on their strengths by bringing together key players and — most important — involving average citizens.
”You've got to bring the citizens into the equation, and leaders are often so reluctant to do that,“ said Sylvia Lovely, the league's chief executive officer and the force behind the New Cities Institute. ”But at the end of the day, it's the only thing that works.“
Collins decided Morehead would be the first Kentucky city to try the program.
”To be quite honest, I was afraid of it at first,“ said Collins, who has retired after four terms as mayor. ”I thought the people of Morehead and Rowan County wouldn't go for it. I was in for a wonderful surprise.“
Madisonville followed Morehead, and a program will begin Aug. 27 in Inez. West Liberty will begin one later this year, and Paintsville and other towns are considering it.
Lovely is especially excited about the program in Inez. One reason is that Inez has some dynamic, young leaders. ”They are just determined they are going to turn this town around,“ she said.
Another is because Inez, in Martin County, has been a national symbol of Appalachia's troubles and hopes since 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson went there to launch his War on Poverty.
The New City program has a community's citizens and leaders discuss issues, needs and goals around 12 principles that focus on civic pride, connections to place and people, and hopes and visions for the future.
It's no magic formula, but Morehead leaders say it has been well worth the effort.
Rowan County is famous for its fractious history. The governor sent the militia there in the 1880s when local feuding got so out of hand that some legislators wanted to dissolve the county.
More recently, officials had worked pretty well together. But the big players – the city, the county, Morehead State University and St. Claire Regional Medical Center – didn't communicate as much or as well as they needed to.
Of more concern was that government wasn't especially transparent, and citizens didn't speak up because they didn't think officials would listen.
”I'm not proud of it,“ Collins said, ”but that's the way it had always been done.“
That changed when local businesses put up money to sponsor the New City program, and large groups of citizens showed up at public meetings to have their say.
”It was a wonderful experience, even though I was afraid of it,“ Collins said.
His successor, Mayor David Perkins, and Rowan County Judge Executive Jim Nickell said many New City initiatives, such as some downtown beautification projects, have yet to be accomplished because of tight budgets. ”Hopefully, when the economy picks up they can start implementing some of the ideas,“ Nickell said.
But the tone of civic conversation is much better, as is the working relationship between the key institutions and leaders.
”It was really a thoughtful, frank series of discussions,“ said Morehead State President Wayne Andrews. ”I came away thinking we learned a lot.“
”We're still going to disagree sometimes, but we're not at each other's throats,“ Perkins said. ”People realize that now they have more of a chance for impact. And we have a much broader sense of what people in the community want.“
Morehead has made big strides recently, including: A new civic center opened in 2006. Major downtown projects include a new courthouse and library, and an arts center in the old courthouse. A joint city-county recycling program is making the local environment better — and making a profit. And there's more city-county cooperation on water, sewer and emergency services as well as on home construction regulations.
City officials had meetings to listen to Morehead State students, who said they wanted more to do on weekends. As a result, the city helped attract a new sports bar and six-screen movie theater by subsidizing land acquisition.
People said they wanted the university to have more presence downtown. The university's Center for Traditional Music is now on Main Street, and Andrews said officials are looking for similar opportunities.
”We really believe that if we work together and the community succeeds we all succeed,“ Andrews said. ”It has been a great story for our community.“