HAZARD – Several decades ago, Hazard’s downtown was a thriving center for local commerce. Prior to the city’s expansion outside of the downtown area, retail shops, restaurants, and hardware stores were just a few of the businesses that could be found on Main Street.
Now, if some local community and business leaders have their way, Main Street could well be on the rebound.
In fact, it seems Main Street has slowly been on the mend for the past eight years, first when the new justice center opened in 2004. The new bridge and park area on the lower end, along with the Peoples Park across from the courthouse have in recent years brought some much needed changes to the street scape. And though not all at once, some new businesses have also opened or existing ones have moved into some of the older buildings, in effect rehabilitating a part of the city.
“I think it really helps downtown, and I’d like to see more businesses come back,” said attorney David Johnson, who recently moved his office next to First Federal Savings and Loan after completely refurbishing one of the Main Street buildings from the ground up.
Johnson initially opened his firm in the office space above the bank in 2003, and just this past Monday saw his new office fully operational. The move will allow him to better serve his personal injury clients by including a state-of-the-art conference room on the ground level. It will also allow him to better challenge large insurance companies, he said, and show them that he has the resources to match their own.
But while Johnson’s move was first and foremost about business, he sees it as an added bonus for the downtown area where he maintains his law practice.
“Just changing the face of the building, so when you drive by this building and just see the signage out front, I think it brings a little bit more life to Main Street,” he said.
Hazard’s Main Street has taken some hits over the years, with fire ravaging buildings or businesses closing down and moving to other areas of the city, leaving behind vacant lots or empty storefronts. While Main Street isn’t yet all that it can be, there are some in the community who are working to that end. The Community Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky is facilitating an effort to bring together business owners in the downtown area in a bid to help revitalize Main Street and build the local economy.
Gerry Roll, the community foundation’s director, noted the city’s Renaissance on Main project that was in full swing just a few years ago with a local committee working on street scape projects to clean up the downtown area. New lamp posts and flower pots were installed, while sidewalks and parks were refurbished. Roll said she would like to see community leaders pick up where that project left off.
“There seems to be a lot of renewed interest in that and trying to figure out where we go from here,” she said.
With Renaissance on Main, the city was able to utilize some public funds, though with recent budget cuts at the state level and coal severance funds on the decline, those same types of funds are likely not available, or at least in the same quantity. And there are already several businesses on Main Street, especially on the lower end near the William D. Gorman Memorial Bridge, that have also begun to spruce up the street.
Hazard Insurance Group, formerly Hazard Insurance Company, moved to the former Sterling Hardware building in 2008, completely renovating the building inside and out. Bill Gorman, Jr., the group’s president, grew up in Hazard and noted that he bought his first baseball mitt inside Sterling Hardware just 15 feet from where his current office is located. He said he’s encouraged that other business owners are seeing the value of Main Street, and while it may not be as easy to open and operate a successful business in the downtown area as it used to be, these business owners are in a way preserving Hazard’s history by transforming Main Street into an area viable for today’s local economy.
“I think it’s really important that we try to keep the history that we have and try to preserve as many of the Main Street buildings as we can, and keep Main Street viable,” Gorman said. “I think that’s important, for a small town especially.”
With existing businesses maintaining their own offices, like Area Office Supply which recently opened a new building on Main Street, there are also a handful of new businesses occupying formerly vacant spots, including two bakeries, a clothing store, and a real estate office. And what these business owners have been able to accomplish on their own has been positive, Roll stated, but she thinks there’s more potential for downtown, especially if local business owners could form an association with each other and work toward a common goal of revitalizing Main Street, which could in effect pay dividends for local business.
Having a thriving downtown, after all, gives people a place to walk, to eat, to visit and spend money.
“We’re doing all these great things individually, imagine what could happen if we pulled everybody together, and thought about what we could do collectively to make our downtown even more vital and more attractive,” Roll said.
Refurbishing the street scape is an important part of revitalizing Hazard’s downtown, but these businesses also need patronage to remain open.
“With the new restaurants that are close by, I try my best to shop down there to help keep them in business,” said Johnson, “and I encourage anybody that’s downtown, instead of running to McDonald’s or running to Wendy’s, be patrons of these local businesses to keep them in business.”
While Hazard has largely extended beyond the downtown area, incorporating areas like Morton Blvd. and the Hazard Village, there is definite value on Main Street, and Roll said it’s a good place to start to utilize local resources to build up local businesses.
“We’re going to have to figure out how to do a better job of using our own resources and figuring out how to build up our local economy with what we have,” Roll said, “and I think downtown is a good place to start.”