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Hardin County government’s decision to relocate the bulk of its services out of downtown Elizabethtown has left a sour taste in the mouths of many business owners located nearby.
Pointing to vacant buildings, they said the loss of county offices will further deplete the downtown district, leaving older structures to crumble and sucking away an established customer base.
“Personally and professionally, I think it’s a terrible idea,” said Jayme Burden, owner of Cobbler’s Café. “The county government needs to lead by example.”
Burden said those interested in revitalizing downtown have pushed for developers to take a risk, but the loss of one of the area’s largest tenants can do nothing but dampen investor confidence.
In fact, Burden said, he cannot expect others to approach downtown when the county is not committed to an investment in the area.
Judge-Executive Harry Berry has said county government is not abandoning downtown but seeking larger quarters because it has outgrown its existing space. The Hardin County Attorney’s Office plans to consolidate its divisions and move into the H.B. Fife Courthouse once the remainder of county government vacates. However, the rest of the county’s services will share a home in a new 60,000-square-foot facility near the Emergency Medical Services facility on Rineyville Road. The cost for the proposed center is $12 million, most of which would be financed through bonds and paid down over time. ICON Engineering & Design Services, an Elizabethtown company located downtown, is designing the structure and should be ready to seek bids in six to eight months.
The R.R. Thomas building, which houses the Hardin County Clerk’s Office, would be sold to a commercial or real estate prospect, according to Berry.
Burden argued the decision made is troublesome because many residents frequent downtown while completing county-related business. He said a mix of government services, retail, food and other businesses has proven prosperous in some of the country’s most famous downtowns.
“It just seems shortsighted to me,” he said.
Burden also believes the loss of county workers could adversely affect local businesses who count them as regular clientele.
Emily West, executive director of the Historic State Theater, said she is not a proponent of the move, which could rob the theater of some drive-by business.
West said she routinely hears from visitors who took in a show or movie at the State Theater because they were downtown taking care of county business and noticed the marquee.
“It’s the only way that I get to these folks,” she said.
West believes the theater has built a loyal enough following since reopening to keep business steady once county offices leave, but she worries about the vacant buildings left behind and the toll it could take on revitalization’s momentum.
“We have enough dilapidated buildings in the downtown area,” she said.
West said the Elizabethtown-Hardin County Heritage Council has invested a lot of energy into attracting local businesses, but it takes time and money to grow the area and the relocation does the district no favors.
Roxann Smalley, a local attorney who is developing Roxie’s Restaurant beside the Hardin County Justice Center, said the relocation will definitely have a negative effect on downtown. Roxie’s expects to attract a large number of its clientele from the Justice Center, which will not be affected by the move, but she said other businesses may not be as fortunate with foot traffic dwindling.
Smalley also believes easy access to county services downtown will be missed by residents, describing the proposed location as an “inconvenience.”
“I just don’t think it was well thought out,” she said of the decision.
Larry Jury’s businesses — DJ’s Antiques & More and Jury Auction and Realty — were recruited to the downtown area, but he said more activity is being stripped away after he made the decision. This loss, he said, will culminate in a reduction of foot traffic and motorists outside his shop as they travel elsewhere.
He was unaware of the county’s decision to relocate when contacted Friday, but he described it as “the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.” He also questioned the cost, wondering if taxpayers should bear the burden for a multimillion dollar facility in a still-shaky economy.
Some magistrates who voted for the move said they believe the relocation could be an opportunity for downtown to further develop entrepreneurs, artists and retailers. Magistrate Fred Clem described county offices as a potential “hindrance” to downtown growth.
Looking around Public Square from his window at the antique store, Jury counted more than half a dozen vacant properties qualified to house more retail that still are empty.
“We’ve got enough empty downtown property we need to fill up,” he said.
Marty Finley can be reached at (270) 505-1762 or firstname.lastname@example.org.