Revitalization effort kindles hope in Campton

The Richard and Carol Jean Jett Gardens, an outdoor classroom at the Wolfe County Public Library, features a life-size chess board on which children can act as the chess pieces.
The Richard and Carol Jean Jett Gardens, an outdoor classroom at the Wolfe County Public Library, features a life-size chess board on which children can act as the chess pieces. Herald-Leader

CAMPTON — Gale Harris-Oliver sits on a new picnic bench under a pavilion at Campton City Park at Washington and Plummer streets, watching her grandson participate in a camp sponsored by the local Catholic church.

She smiles as her grandson takes a break from playing basketball to learn about serving others; a sermon many Campton residents are preaching with their actions.

Campton is a small town, huddled quietly on the eastern edge of Natural Bridge State Resort Park, 30 minutes south of Red River Gorge.

Like many Eastern Kentucky towns, it has been afflicted with poverty and drug abuse. Jobs have been hard to find, and the city suffered as a result. Sidewalks and streets were crumbling, and trash was sometimes more common than trees in the city center.

But Campton, with the help of a few community activists, has become a more picturesque town, one that even Mayberry residents might appreciate.

Last month, Campton dedicated its newest addition, the Richard and Carol Jean Jett Gardens, an outdoor classroom at the Wolfe County Public Library. Designed by Integrated Engineers, the classroom features a life-size chess set on which children act as the chess pieces.

Carol Jean Jett, now living in Winchester, and her late husband donated the land that the library occupies. The Jetts were active in the community for decades, and Richard Jett was mayor for a time.

The classroom joins new sidewalks and rock walls along downtown streets, a mural depicting the four seasons of agriculture in Wolfe County, and a new 2-acre city park with a playground, picnic area, walking trail and basketball court.

The projects have cost about $800,000, said Pam Pilgrim, the backbone of the revitalization effort and vice president of the Wolfe County Industrial Board. The money came from a mix of sources: proceeds from the sale of land by the industrial board, donations from the community and grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Pilgrim said the grant funds were doubled and tripled by donations of time, material and money.

Harris-Oliver now takes her grandson to the park two or three days each week.

"It has been wonderful being able to have something right here in Campton for kids to do," she said.

Before the changes, Harris-Oliver said, going to the gorge was her only option when she needed to find something for her grandson to do.

Pilgrim, who also is president of the library board, said the town has become much busier since the projects were completed.

Still, problems persist.

Poverty is a heavy burden in Wolfe County, where the median income is just $21,000. About 41 percent of residents in the county live in poverty, a rate more than double the average in Kentucky. Almost 40 percent of residents have less than a high school diploma, a rate also nearly double Kentucky's average. Only 11 percent have completed college, which is about half the average rate in Kentucky.

Last month, as children played at the new park, a food bank for low-income seniors provided 264 boxes of food to people in a county with only 7,200 residents. Forty to 50 more seniors remain on a waiting list.

"Poverty is devastating for everyone; there are no jobs here," Mayor Gay Campbell said.

There are no coal mines in Wolfe County, but many workers worked in the industry, driving trucks or operating heavy equipment.

"The death of coal jobs has really hurt us, and we have to find something to replace that," Campbell said.

He said many residents drive to Lexington, Winchester or Mount Sterling for work because nothing can be found closer to home.

Tom Yeager, manager of the Radio Shack store at the center of the revitalization effort, said the projects have not yet helped create new business.

"You have to generate the business through what you have to offer, not just through new sidewalks and plants," Yeager said.

He said that if Campton can attract tourists to the city, the new designs and landscapes in the town can make it enjoyable, but for now, tourists at the gorge generally don't make their way into town.

Pilgrim sees the future of Campton as a niche town, full of craft and specialty businesses that attract tourists from the gorge and from all around Kentucky.

Every Thursday during the summer, the town holds a music night in the park, featuring local bluegrass and country music groups.

In March, Rita Rogers and Carol Dunhuber opened Sew Unique. The sewing store has attracted customers from all over Eastern Kentucky who previously had to drive to Morehead or Lexington to find fabrics and supplies, Rogers said.

Sew Unique is one of several businesses that have opened recently in Campton, including a tanning salon and an antiques shop.

"People are starting to take pride in Campton now," Pilgrim said. "We still have a long way to go, but I think if we can keep making small improvements here and there, we can make a real lasting difference in our town."