Sidewalks. They are what allow – or don’t allow – residents and visitors to make their way around our communities. Obstacles in these sidewalks may cause individuals with vision, hearing or mobility issues, or those pushing a baby in a stroller, a loved one in a wheelchair, or important equipment to not be able to experience the things we love about our communities in the same way.
In August 2019, community members, business owners and organizations gathered in downtown Harlan to “Take A Stroll.” Each participant had a stroller, wheelchair, roll cart, dolly, cooler or anything else with wheels that would allow them to experience the sidewalks in a different way.
Participants embarked on the downtown walking tour of the City of Harlan. The walking tour is a set route that Harlan Tourism developed years ago to celebrate the history and unique aspects of downtown.
The event was part of a series to discover ways to build a more inclusive downtown experience for visitors and citizens of all ages and abilities. These events are taking place throughout each of Harlan County’s downtowns, as a part of a grant project called “Where the Sidewalk Begins.”
The communities of Harlan, Evarts, Loyall, Cumberland, Benham and Lynch came together with a coalition of partners, including Harlan Tourism and Downtown Development, Harlan County Public Libraries, Cumberland Tourism, Tri Cities Heritage Development Corporation, One Harlan County, Southeast Kentucky Revitalization Project, with support from the Community Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky (CEDIK), to apply for grant funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission to study and respond to downtown accessibility challenges.
Through these events, communities are learning where they need to invest in maintenance of sidewalks and keep curb ramps compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as better signage that directs people to downtown businesses, restaurants and recreational and natural assets.
The coalition believes sidewalk improvements will bring more people, residents and tourists alike, into downtown to enjoy these communities. With more people visiting downtown, they believe vacancy rates in downtown buildings will improve, and more downtown restaurants and overnight visitors will increase tax revenue.
The grant involves tracking these impacts. Harlan County currently has a commercial vacancy rate of 30 percent in all its incorporated cities. County leaders hope to see this number decrease over the next few years.
CEDIK is working with many communities in the Promise Zone, an eight-county area in southeastern Kentucky, to develop downtown plans that include the community in revitalization efforts. One of their tools for communities is called the First Impressions Forum, which helps a community learn about its strengths and shortcomings through the eyes of first-time visitors, offering a fresh perspective on the appearance, services and infrastructure of each community.
Volunteer teams undertake unannounced, one-day visits to the community, record their observations, and give constructive feedback to community members involved. Harlan’s forum revealed that downtown accessibility was a major issue for many visitors, and it led leaders to form a coalition to take action.
“Sidewalks are part of the fabric of our community. They are how we navigate our spaces. By taking a second look at these sidewalks and making improvements, we can celebrate our sidewalks and therefore our downtowns,” CEDIK Downtown Revitalization Coordinator Shane Barton said.
Sidewalks are the ground beneath our feet or wheels that help us get where we want to go. They are important aspects of a community to consider as we work to build an Appalachia’s New Day that works for everyone. For a great list of resources and considerations on disability justice, please visit here.
About: This is story #47 in the Appalachia’s New Day campaign, a new storytelling effort launched in June 2019 by MACED for Eastern Kentucky communities. We can work with you to help identify, shape and amplify stories about businesses, programs and initiatives in your community that are helping build a new economy. Read more stories here. Contact us or sign up here if you would like more details.