Over the last several years, the tiny hamlet of Millersburg lost its largest private employer and two large property owners declared bankruptcy.
And then it got worse.
A new US 68 bypass opened in January, diverting traffic around the Bourbon County town of less than 800 people.
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"If there was ever a test case for revitalization, Millersburg fits the bill," said Kevin Smith, president and CEO of Community Ventures, a community development corporation. Community Ventures purchased one of those large bankrupt properties — the more than 100 year-old Millersburg Military Institute.
The military academy has long been synonymous with the town. It opened in 1893. In the 1940s and 1950s, it had an enrollment in the hundreds, but that steadily declined. Over the past decade, various attempts to take over the school and make it a military academy again failed.
Since Community Ventures purchased the campus in November 2016 for $450,000, it has pumped $8.5 million into landscaping and renovating two buildings on the campus — the former gym and the former main administration building, called the Allen House. It's just the first phase of a multi-year effort to transform the former military academy into Mustard Seed Hill.
Bourbon Christian Academy, which was founded by Smith and his family, now occupies the gym building. The Allen House is a renovated special event space for weddings, corporate gatherings and other events.
A grand opening for Mustard Seed Hill is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday.
"Everything that we do is designed to get people who weren't coming to Millersburg to come to Millersburg," Smith said.
The gym opened in the fall of 2017. In addition to Bourbon Christian Academy games, it also hosts tournaments and a men's basketball league is renting the gym this summer.
The renovated and historic Allen House has already hosted birthday parties and other events prior to its official grand opening Monday. It has booked 12 weddings and will be featured in a national bridal magazine in September, Smith said.
A combination of tax credits, grants, private fundraising and a $3 million bank loan has paid for the renovations so far. Rental fees from the event space and the gym will help pay off that loan, Smith said.
But that's just the beginning. Community Ventures next hopes to start renovation of a third building that will allow Mustard Seed Hill to have 10 guest rooms for wedding parties or for overnight corporate retreats. It hopes to renovate a dorm building so it can eventually start a boarding school. In the summer, those dorms could be used for sports camps. The former cafeteria could be transformed into a restaurant space.
The goal is to make the campus not just a draw, but a business incubator and school, particularly for students who may not want to go to college. It also hopes to help re-start local businesses.
"We are not here just to make pretty buildings," Smith said. "We want to get businesses back open on Main Street."
Millersburg Mayor Samuel Chanslor said more people are already trickling into town.
When Joy Mining shuttered its doors several years ago, the town lost nearly 300 jobs. A different mining company is now using part of that property and has nearly 40 employees, Chanslor said.
Still, the city's coffers are dependent on employment taxes.
"It's a gradual process," Chanslor said of revitalization. "Part of what Community Ventures does statewide and part of their mission is to help people develop businesses and business plans. As they get their property finished, they are working to bring some restaurants to town and establishing bed and breakfasts. They are in the mode of developing the local economy beyond what they do at Mustard Seed Hill."