Balancing Nature and Commerce in Gateway Communities

Isaac Kremer/ March 21, 2016/ placemaking, tactical urbanism/ 0 comments

“Balancing Nature and Commerce in Gateway Communities,” The Conservation Fund, Sheperdstown, West Virginia (March 2016)

This session provided real world examples of thriving rural communities and the tools and techniques they use; highlighted the keys to success of working with diverse public, private, and nonprofit partners; and provided an opportunity for participants to discuss lessons learned and tips for success with peers. Learning objectives: After this session, participants were able to: List elements of successful rural community enhancement efforts; Explain different approaches used for stimulating stronger rural communities and landscapes. Presenters: Isaac Kremer with Abbi Peters, PA Wilds Center.

Following a full day of workshop sessions, we did a pallet chair build at the Conservation Center. Session participants participated in every step of building the chairs.

The Presentation (selected slides)

Map of downtown Metuchen showing the National Register district in gold, Local Historic District in purple, Middlesboro Downtown boundary in red, historic Canal (blue line), and suspected path of Boone Trace (orange line).

We sought to utilize Transformation Strategies as an organizing principle.


Community Visioning Process
The following 5-year vision was developed:

Beautifully restored historic buildings and clean and attractive public spaces have made Downtown Middlesborough a leading regional and statewide attraction. A world class hiking, biking, and horse trail system draws people downtown and connects with Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. A wide variety of shops and restaurants provide everything from daily necessities and a quick and inexpensive meal, to higher-end goods, services, and fine dining all at locally-owned businesses. People travel from miles around to be part of the fun and excitement downtown has to provide.

Approved by Board of Directors, December 2013.


    • Over 12,000 jobs and $1 billion of payroll lost from coal industry in last 4 years
    • Unemployment rate once as high as 15%
    • Poverty rate of 44% and as high as 97% for single mothers.
    • Vacancy rate for downtown buildings as high as 20%
    • 35.5% of adults in Bell County are obese
    • Record high incidence of cancer, diabetes, opiod abuse

Assessment of Local Market Needs

  • Three major market-based strategies were recommended:
  • 1. Strengthen downtown Middlesboro’s attractiveness as a regional retail and entertainment hub, attracting a large number of visitors and shoppers from outside Middlesboro and Bell County.
  • 2. Increase the number of downtown housing units (particularly upper floor).
  • 3. Develop a core of new small industries and clusters downtown.

Add product lines to existing businesses:

  • Uniform sales or rentals.
  • Specialized books, such as books on regional history and culture, religious books, and new and collectible comic books.
  • Specialized hardware and small building supplies.

Some other findings included:

  • Create a coworking space with office, meeting, and work space.
  • Enable the sale of alcoholic beverages in restaurants.
  • Work with downtown businesses to strengthen their online presence.
  • Develop a pop-up business program.
  • Redevelop the Elks Home for use primarily as independent and assisted living.
  • Create a small downtown hotel or inn.

Strategy #1: Placemaking

“Placemaking efforts – those actions which focus on what can be achieved “lighter, quicker, and cheaper” – can be particularly effective and important in energizing the community and demonstrating short-term progress.”
– Main Street America

Placemaking – Better Block

    • Competed in and won the Successful Communities Contest held by CommunityMatters
    • Organized over 100 volunteers to transform a block over a weekend.
    • Demonstrated two-dozen low cost interventions that fall under tactical urbanism.


Placemaking – Crater Commons

  • Was once a twin building to 2020 Cumberland Ave.
  • Later the Sports Center was located here.
  • Lost to fire in the 1980s.
  • Historical photo banner installed in 2011.
  • Transformed during Better Block project in May 2014 in to the Crater Commons.

Creative Placemaking

“ArtPlace focuses its work on creative placemaking, which describes projects in which art plays an intentional and integrated role in place-based community planning and development. This brings artists, arts organizations, and artistic activity into the suite of placemaking strategies pioneered by Jane Jacobs and her colleagues, who believed that community development must be locally informed, human-centric, and holistic. In practice, this means having arts and culture represented alongside sectors like housing and transportation – with each sector recognized as part of any healthy community; as requiring planning and investment from its community; and as having a responsibility to contribute to its community’s overall future.”
– ArtPlace America

Creative Placemaking – The Palace

    • Palace saloon built in 1890. Saloon on 1st floor and ante-rooms on 2nd.
    • Later T.H. Campbell & Bros. clothing and shoe store.
    • Makers Market opened in April 2014 to demonstrate the potential of an artisan-led economy downtown.
    • Followed by The Palace in Dec. 2014.
    • Home of the Selling to the World initiative where over 50 people are receiving training in entreprenuership.


Creative Placemaking – Levitt AMP Middlesboro

      • Site of Woolworth’s department store.
      • Lot has been used for a variety of uses since the 1980s.
    • Farmers’ Market was here starting around 2009.
    • During Better Block in October 2013 built a stage.
    • Winner of Levitt AMP [Your City] contest and $25,000 grant in 2015 and 2016.
    • Market sheds and lot converted for music in 2015.



Strategy #2: Trail System Development

    • Work on Canal Walk began in 1990s to commemorate City’s centennial.
  • Completed design of city-wide trail system in 2014 with help from University of Kentucky and the National Park Service.
  • Began construction of extension to Canal Walk between 17th and 19th Street in 2015.
  • After the Presentations Ended the Work Began

    Credit: Abbi Peters.

    Here is the end product. Later it ended up at the home of one of the conference organizers, as a nice reminder of the work we did together that day.

    Credit: Abbi Peters.


    Additional Resources

    From Balancing Nature, Commerce and First Day Jitters, Pennsylvania Wilds, May 11, 2016

    Isaac Kremer from Discover Downtown Middlesboro (KY) followed and the inspiration continued. Isaac discussed the planning process within the Middlesboro community that led to action and successful projects throughout the city. After dinner he led the way as we deconstructed an old pallet and used the wood to build an Adirondack chair. Power tools were shared and it was a great exercise in teamwork, solidifying the lessons learned throughout the day.

    This was definitely the best “first day” on the job that I have yet to experience. Since I was so inspired I can’t keep this information to myself so I’d like end by sharing my top takeaways from the workshop with you.

    15 Takeaways from my time at the
    Balancing Nature and Commerce Workshop
    1. A city without a past is a like a man without a memory – so as a community, town, village, city or region tell your story. Even if it’s a bad one, you can always flip the narrative and bring out the good as a valuable learning experience.
    2. Be genuine and authentic. Did you know that to millennials interesting and authentic is more important than predictable and comfortable? (hello rapid success and popularity of AirBnB)
    3. Quality of life is key. Enough said.
    4. There is quantifiable evidence that a view has value. Rooms with a view are always worth more – remember this if your entire community is a great view – people will want to see it!
    5. Growth is about choices – so be a good neighbor!
    6. Good design is good for business. Design choices can create and enhance community character. Did you know that every chain retailer has 3 design choices for building their store? Plan A is cookie cutter, Plan B has a variation and Plan C can actually match the character of your community. All you have to do is ask. The PA Wilds Design Guide thoughtfully lays out choices for community character and recent Champion of the PA Wilds winner Subway restaurant in New Bethlehem is great example of the design implementation.
    7. The image of your community is vital to its success. Why would anyone want to invest in your community if you don’t want to?
    8. Leverage your partnerships. If group A will donate money then ask group B for volunteers and approach group C for additional funding based on the successes from projects with group A and B. Rinse and repeat.
    9. Community character matters. Refer to take aways 1-7.
    10. The journey is as important as the destination. This is true if you are traveling through the country side or building a new community center – each step of the process is just as important as the final result.
    11. Assess your assets. Within your community/region you are surrounded by assets of historical, cultural and natural value. Link your assets/sites together and have the whole be greater than the sum of its parts.
    12. Be a placemaker! There’s a reason the quote “If you build it they will come” still resonates beyond a corn field in Iowa. Each individual has the ability to contribute to the greater good of their community in a number ways, both small and large. It’s your place – why not make it great?
    13. Middlesboro (KY) is a magical city. No really it is, you know why? Because as the community devised their improvement plan, they included that as a goal so they strive to achieve their magic in little and big ways throughout the city.
    14. Get up and do something creative in your community! Citizen-initiated actions can make your place better and cost $500 or less. Pop up events are a great way to get things moving for little investments. Better Block projects are happening across the nation so get inspired here. And once you do something share via social media #BetterPlaces #BetterMainStreet and email
    15. “I’m from here, I’m from here, now.” – Bob Dole. Say it loud, proud and with authority. You may be new to a place and people might want to know where you’re from, as a type of initiation or a way to build trust, and your answer should always be “I’m from here, now”. If you truly love where you live and have a passion to see it succeed it only matters that you call it home now.

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About Isaac Kremer

Isaac Kremer is a transformational leader with a track record of success revitalizing downtowns in the United States. He has written and spoken extensively. He's always on the lookout for new and innovative ideas to unlock the potential of downtown areas.

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