Startled drivers saw something unusual when they cruised down North Main Street last Friday night and Saturday afternoon.
There were people on the sidewalks, lots of people, walking in and out of storefronts, eating, shopping and socializing. The block between Broadway and Washington streets hadn’t been that busy in years.
As in many Kentucky towns, there is a lot of vacant space in the century-old buildings along Main Street. As this town of 18,500 people grew over the past few decades, businesses moved out of downtown to Bypass Road and along U.S. 60.
But for about eight hours last weekend, almost all of the vacant street-level spaces on this block were filled with temporary tenants, including a restaurant, a café, a bicycle shop, a pet store and an art gallery.
“The idea is to show people a living version of what downtown can be,” said Michelle Franzetti, program director for Clark County Parks and Recreation and a member of the volunteer committee that organized the event called ReMain North.
“Two weeks ago, it would have taken a visionary to see that place as restaurant potential; it looked pretty rough,” Franzetti said, pointing to a building across the street. “But now you walk in there and it's very easy to see it. So, when it's empty again, I think it may spark some creativity in somebody to say, ‘Yea, I could do this.’”
ReMain North used a strategy developed by Jason Roberts for Oak Cliff, Texas, the area of Dallas where he lives. He has since spread the concept to dozens of other towns around the globe through the Better Block Project (Betterblock.org).
After seeing a video of Roberts’ TED talk, Rachel Alexander, director of Winchester First Main Street, and several others began quietly planning this event. To build enthusiasm before they announced it, they invited Roberts to speak last month at Ambition Fest, an annual program sponsored by the Greater Clark Foundation.
Roberts got people fired up. Alexander said Main Street building owners were eager to participate. Committee members recruited volunteers from about 30 local groups to clean up storefront spaces and build temporary sidewalk seating areas. They also approached businesses about setting up shop downtown for the weekend.
“It was a great community-building experience,” said Alexander, who thinks the same potential exists in other Central Kentucky towns with beautiful downtown buildings ripe for renewal.
Next weekend, when it's all gone, I want people to look around and say, 'Why don't we have this all the time?’
Michelle Franzetti, program director for Clark County Parks and Recreation
Mayor Ed Burtner was impressed with what the volunteers did. He said it shows how much interest residents have in revitalizing Winchester’s downtown.
On other fronts, the city has begun a $100,000 downtown master plan study, and downtown merchants have a “shop local” campaign for the holidays with the slogan, “Bah Hamburg!”
Diane McKinney, owner of Grace Coffee, Café and Bakery on Bypass Road, got a lot of business in her temporary shop during ReMain North.
“It’s a really cool concept,” McKinny said, adding that she liked the downtown vibe so much that she would consider moving her shop there someday. “The architecture is gorgeous in a lot of these buildings.”
Three businesses that set up temporary locations — Pedal Power Bike Shop, West Sixth Brewery and Kre8now Makerspace — are urban pioneers in their once-neglected, now-popular Lexington neighborhoods.
Pedal Power came to Winchester and set up shop in the 1889 S.P. Kerr Building, whose first floor has been vacant for 11 years. The company even created elaborate window signage that made it look like a permanent location.
“We were talking about how Lexington has changed and is being redeveloped,” said Alan Brady, who was staffing the pop-up bike shop with his wife, Holly. “It would be great to see it done in some of these little towns, too.”
Ashley Norman and her husband, Carvel, couldn’t agree more.
Last year, the Normans bought and renovated a 1908 commercial building on this Main Street block. The college art majors now live in the upper two floors and last week opened Dirty South Pottery in the street-level space. The shop will sell their work, and behind it will be a ceramics studio where they will teach classes.
“It’s a gorgeous building, but it was in pretty rough shape,” she said. “We have a good feeling about what Main Street is becoming, and we wanted to get in while we could.”
Organizers were thrilled that several hundred people turned out for ReMain North.
“It changes the narrative,” Franzetti said. “Next weekend, when it's all gone, I want people to look around and say, 'Why don't we have this all the time?’”