Better Block Middlesboro 2013 – Middlesboro, Kentucky

Isaac Kremer/ October 28, 2013/ civic engagement, downtown, music, path, placemaking, program, storefront, tactical urbanism/ 0 comments

Better Block Middlesboro was a community planning event that mobilized over 100 volunteers and attracted more than $25,000 including an award from the Successful Communities Contest which Middlesboro won, that helped to fund this project. In a two month period ideas were rapidly iterated, proposed, refined, and fully implemented to demonstrate to the community that positive change was possible and did not require millions of dollars or years of planning. It could happen over a weekend when people came together with the right vision and motivation.

August 22, 2013 – Kick-off meeting with Mike Lydon at Lincoln Memorial University.

October 2, 2013 – Hand off of keys for space to become future Exploration Center – a creative play place for kids and one of our pop-ups.

October 10, 2013 – Public meeting to discuss details of project, various interventions being proposed.

October 12, 2013 – Important detail comes into place with window painting of logo for the Exploration Center.

October 13, 2020 – Dry run of hike across Cumberland Gap to future trail connecting with downtown.

October 15, 2013 – Pre-build results in one of our first big deliverables – a xylophone made out of PVC pipes that can play music by striking with a flip-flop.

October 24, 2013 – Hunter gatherers deliver the pallet chairs and street furniture that was built in advance to use for activations the day of the Better Block event.

Same day volunteers gather at Exploration Center to mark successful completion of all cleaning, painting, and pre-build.


Friday, October 25, 2013

The active phase of the project begins. Matt Tomasulo with Walk Your City in foreground, Michael Lydon with Street Plans Collaborative in background installing first sharrows, and parklet and two pop-up shops behind him.

Guerilla signage install with Charles Leachman, II, of Linebach Funkhouser working with a team of University of Kentucky students. More than 200 Walk Your City signs were installed making it one of the largest installations for any community in the US at the time.

Sidewalk stencils brought positive graffiti to our streets and sidewalks. The messages “It’s Good to be Here” based on a similar project using the same words by Candy Chang in New Orleans connected us with bigger trends in the world, while “Greater in the Crater” was unique to Middlesboro reflecting the fact the community is built entirely within a meteorite crater formed over 75 million years ago.

An enormous debt of gratitude is due to the fine missionaries with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They were among the first volunteers to sign on to the project, were active in the pre-build phase, during the build, and afterwards too. None of the success or results experienced could have been accomplished without them. This speaks to the need to connect with well-networked people early on that can bring groups of people and enthusiasm to any project. Individual volunteers are great but can take a lot of work to coordinate. Having an already organized group to plug in can be the critical catalyst needed to attract even more people to participate.

Volunteers gravitated to the parklet early on and it became a base of our operations for the next two days.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

This is the day of the big build where we had the most people working at any given time – approximately 100 volunteers. The morning started early at the break of dawn positioning materials to be used by different teams throughout the day.

Checkin started early while there was still a chill in the air. There was frost on the grass early that same morning. That did not stop people from showing up.

Right next to check-in we placed the one mobile vendor we could fine. They were pleasantly surprised with interest expressed throughout the day and managed to sell product throughout the day. A big success. The key here was positioning them in the highest trafficked area.

A second parklet was positioned on Cumberland Avenue. When building one it makes sense to do two because the builders will have the knowledge from building the first one. This also creates more of a physical and visual impact for the project overall. The adjoining restaurant reported a 3x increase in sales the days the parklet was out in front of their business. This underscores the power of making environments more welcoming for people, and how this can directly translate into economic returns for existing businesses.

Our pop-up cafe “A Slice of Art” was in the other vacant storefront next door to the Exploration Center. Here we staged the window with antiques that were consigned to us for the day and also for sale. A small coffee machine and some baked goods were enough to get us started in business. Another artist hung some framed photographs on the wall. Throughout the day traffic was steady, and by the end of the day after all of our costs we turned a profit. This demonstrated how a business like this could be successful at this location.

Some of the most intensive activities occurred in and around the Park Theater and the adjacent vacant lot next to it. The theater had been abandoned for over 20 years. The night before it was thoroughly power washed to get a lot of the dirt and grime up. Then it was painted by approximately 20 volunteers to give a fresh coat of paint. A sheet was hung from the ceiling, projector and speakers set up, and temporary seating put in place. Later that night a screening of “It’s a Wonderful Life” was the capstone of the build. That was still hours ahead of what volunteers were working on… with plenty of activities to complete before the film rolled.

Here is Mayor Bill Kelley talking with some volunteers. One of the keys of events like this is to invite public officials. This is to help demonstrate to them that change is possible. Enlisting their buy-in and support is critical in the planning phase, during the build itself, and afterwards to ensure the most successful activations move from temporary status to something that is more lasting and permanent. Ultimately, at the end of the day most people don’t care much about politics. They just want to see their place better. There were more smiles on this block this day than in decades, with the biggest one on the face of the Mayor. That was encouraging to see.

Other volunteers were a block away attempting to make pallet gardens out of shipping pallets. It was relatively easy. Garden fabric is stapled to create pockets that can hold dirt and plants. Then a little painting helps to make the pallets look more vibrant, if you prefer that look over raw wood. Sometimes an inscription can be made too such as “Where flowers bloom, so does hope” or something like that. Incidentally, this location over a year later would become the Levitt AMP Middlesboro Pop-up Park, though that is getting a bit ahead of this particular story.

We couldn’t have a build without music. The stage was constructed by professional carpenters during the pre-build phase a few days prior to the event itself. This ensured its stability. That also gave a completed element to use for programming that did not require time or intensive coordination to build the day of the event. This stage would go through a number of iterations, serving as the Levitt AMP Middlesboro main stage in 2015 and 2016, before being replaced by a permanent elevated steel stage in the following years.

Probably our favorite photo of the event was this one with Mike Lydon, high above a ladder putting letters on the marquee. He had not yet written his book “Tactical Urbanism.” That would come out over a year later. He very much demonstrated what it took to put it all on the line and bring people together. As an interesting aside it is the group of LDS volunteers holding the ladder for him. As mentioned before – it is good to enlist support of organizations because they have a leadership structure and teamwork in place before the day of the event.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

We concluded on Sunday with some minor tweaks to the work started the day before. While there were far fewer people, it was still quite effective. One of the surprises was an AmeriCorps crew that used their day off from a trail building assignment, to come into town and put their backs into the Better Block event as volunteers. That was truly awesome to have them participate and a much needed help at a crucial moment when most of all the other volunteers were tired out.

Here is the AmeriCorps crew taking a rest in the pop-up park that they helped to complete.

Later that day we had a thank you lunch for all the volunteers. We also used that as an opportunity to publicly announce our strategic plan that had been developed over the prior year with extensive input from the public, stakeholders, and partners. From an organizational development and leadership perspective this was intended to be the high point of the event, with the Better Block activities physically demonstrating the vision for entrepreneurship, connecting the downtown with the National Park by a trail, etc. In reality it was too conceptual and the real high point was probably when we had the highest concentration of volunteers working downtown the day prior. 48 hours was a bit more than most volunteers with jobs and families (or students going to school) could take. Those constraints were noted by many, and influenced future builds, such as the one held the following year – Better Block Middlesboro 2014.


After spending the greater part of the last week preparing and then leading the Better Block event, the following Monday, October 28 (which also happened to be my birthday), I took my son Thomas (age 2) in his backpack carrier from downtown and across the Cumberland Gap. Sort of like Daniel Boone’s trek in reverse. That was mine and his reward for a job well done.

Greeting me along the way were all of the activations, but most importantly these two – Greater in the Crater and It’s Good to be Here. Those words had added meaning for me, having moved with my family to Kentucky just over a year ago. For the first time I felt proud to be in this particular place, at this time, seeing what had just been accomplished. In ways that would be clearer in the years ahead this Better Block event became the foundation for all of our future work. An iterative approach where internal teams are rapidly mobilized to undertake interventions, then to test and refine these, became the project delivery system for all future projects over the next 3 years – to amazing effect.

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About Isaac Kremer

Isaac D. Kremer, MSARP, is an agile leader with a track record of success revitalizing downtowns in the U.S. The prior two downtowns he managed were named Great American Main Street Award Semifinalists. Isaac is a much sought after speaker, having presented at over 30 conferences. Through speaking and writing he has influenced hundreds of fellow practitioners.

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