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Time to reassess downtown direction

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Editorial: Oct. 6, 2013

ISSUE: Future of downtown Elizabethtown
OUR VIEW: Awaiting a vision and a plan

With the recent resignation of Heath Seymour as executive director of the Heritage Council, perhaps it is time to consider what the taxpayers’return on investment has been with regard to downtown development.

Each year the city of Elizabethtown appropriates money for the Heritage Council. The purpose of that taxpayer support is to help the Heritage Council fulfill its primary objectives, which are to preserve and encourage development of the historic downtown.

The idea and concept is to preserve historic landmarks and buildings while filling those buildings with businesses that would contribute to the local tax base and draw more commerce downtown.

By no means has this been an easy task. The challenges have been monumental. Empty space in downtown will become even more evident when Hardin County government relocates to its new facilities planned for Ring Road.

The challenge extends throughout the Elizabethtown community, it is not just a Heritage Council issue. No one has communicated a clear vision nor does a plan exist on how to get there. It appears to be an issue that many residents have very little interest in resolving.

Some say breathing life back into the downtown area is a quality-of-life issue and the community needs a vibrant and healthy downtown to reach its potential.

Yet others are beginning to ask a different question: If nothing significant changed in downtown Elizabethtown would your life be any better or any worse?

Finding people to make substantial financial investments in buildings that need overwhelming improvement has proven to be the equivalent of picking the winning Powerball numbers or being able to toss the ping pong ball into the floating glass at the fair.

The Heritage Council has done a great job with Second Saturday and the Ghost Walk events as well as helping place a few small businesses downtown. It was a part of reviving the Historic State Theater, which has been a spark in the dark by providing a venue for activities, but developed only because the restaurant tax created necessary financing.

Supporters had banked on relaxed alcohol laws to fuel development of bistro-style intimate restaurants but state law, the city’s classification and a failed referendum eliminated that option.

City government financial support of the Heritage Council should be reassessed. Financial support should not continue without a clear business plan including measurable results and specific timelines necessary to gauge progress.

Accountability for a return on investment is not an unreasonable expectation.

The Heritage Council could continue to exist as a volunteer organization with a focus on preserving and protecting the historical aspects of our community without the responsibility for downtown development. Continued funding should be contingent upon the Heritage Council providing a vision of how it will use the financial support and backed with real progress-oriented metrics.

It’s time to face one huge fact. In all of the efforts to revitalize downtown Elizabethtown, neither the city nor the Heritage Council have any control of how current property owners decide to use their buildings. Short of breaking any ordinances or local laws, they are free to do with the property as they may choose.

City government already has acquired a couple properties. An entire city-owned downtown is not practical or reasonable.

Where does all of this leave downtown redevelopment? Now is the time to consider hiring a community redevelopment firm instead of continuing to donate money to an undefined plan of action.

Taxpayers, voters and residents should express their ideas and dreams now because a major question remains. Who really cares and if it does matter to you what are you doing to help?

This editorial represents a consensus of The News-Enterprise editorial board.