By: Ivy Brashear
Livingston, Ky., is a small place. At last count in 2010, the total population was 226 people. Main Street isn’t long enough for a single stoplight. Even when the L&N Railroad first came through town in 1870, Livingston stayed small. But the town’s size hasn’t kept its residents from dreaming big.
About five years ago, Livingston officials and a core group of residents took action. They wanted to revitalize their small downtown to drum up local pride and make the community more attractive to tourists. They created the Livingston Development Board and developed a master plan for the town. They painted storefronts, improved landscaping, and replaced old, un-lit welcome signs with new solar-powered ones.
“We have a lot of goals in mind,” said Livingston Development Board Project Coordinator Lynn Tatum. “This isn’t going to happen overnight. The next five years are going to be real critical. We want to really make some differences.”
In 2013, Livingston was designated as the first Kentucky Trail Town in eastern Kentucky, a title that brings with it marketing support from the Department of Travel and Tourism. That’s support that could otherwise cost communities nearly $50,000, a sum most small rural communities don’t have on the books.
It’s also support that lends credibility and notoriety to communities trying to find ways to become known as tourism destinations – an invaluable level of support when a community is trying to use that tourism to inject life back into its languid economy.
The Travel and Tourism Department requires specific criteria to be met before bestowing the Trail Town title. Communities should be located near existing trail systems and contain dedicated people who are ready and willing to build up their place to fit the Trail Town model. The Department wants trail towns to be gateways into existing tourism destinations, thus becoming an extension of those places in the minds of the public.
Livingston sits within the Daniel Boone National Forest. The closest trail system – about two miles outside of town – is the Sheltowee Trace, a 300-mile national recreation trail that spans the Daniel Boone National Forest, and Natural Bridge, Cumberland Falls and Pickett State Parks in Kentucky and Tennessee. The city is hoping signage on the trail directing hikers into Livingston will entice people to stay, eat, replenish supplies, and stay, spending valuable tourism dollars in town.
“It’s a potential economic development opportunity,” Tatum said. “The whole idea of Trail Town is to get people that are doing recreational activities to begin and end their activity in town. In our case, they can come over to the Visitor’s Center; they can rent a canoe,kayak or bike. We also have some individual entrepreneurs that are renting boats and bicycles also.”
There’s still a long way for Livingston to go before it becomes a top destination for outdoor recreationists. But that hasn’t dampened the community’s enthusiasm in its economic resurrection, a collective enthusiasm that burst forth from a single renovation at an old Main Street mainstay: the old Livingston Elementary School.
“We kept looking at the school and trying to work around it. It was like this big, white elephant right in the middle of town,” Tatum said. “It had been vacant for 20 years. Just looking at it, you think, ‘Oh my gosh, it would take millions to remodel that and to refurbish it and make it useable again.’ So, we kept going around it.”
This was the prevailing thought about the old building until Tatum made the suggestion to remodel one classroom as a way to prove what it would take to renovate the space. That one-room renovation became a catalyst. After it was complete, the community wanted to do more. They rallied, and renovated the cafeteria into a community room, then converted the former library into a early childhood development play space called “Space to Create.” One first-floor classroom was converted into the Livingston Visitor’s Center, and soon, another will house the Sheltowee Trace Association’s headquarters.
With only about $10,000 in the town coffers, the Development Board couldn’t hire contractors and construction workers to make these renovations happen; they relied on community volunteers, and that has paid off in more than one way.
“Renovating that first classroom showed the community what could be done for really very little money if people would volunteer their time,” Tatum said. “It’s been a real interesting mix of people. It’s just been everybody that’s interested and willing.”
The community, Development Board and City of Livingston didn’t stop their revitalization with the old school. They bought the adjacent building to convert into a coffee shop and retail store on one side, and a new city hall on the other, and built an exterior Space to Create playground at nearby Lake Lynnville.
Progress in Livingston won’t stop there. Plans for a horseback-riding trail that leads into town are already in the works, as well as plans for a nearby campground that can become a stopover for backpackers making the Sheltowee Trace trek.
It’s all giving hope to local residents, and continues to exceed Tatum’s expectations.
“It seems like we’re always trying to meet a goal, and we’re trying to get things done as quickly as possible,” Tatum said. “We have had to step back and re-do some things, but we feel like we’re making pretty good progress. It’s a very small group of people that are driving this, and it’s amazing what has been done.”