Revival in Wilmore
Little college town experiencing renaissance
It was only a few years ago that there were as many offices and empty spaces on Wilmore’s Main Street as there were retail stores and restaurants.
There was a barbershop and an old-fashioned drug store with a soda fountain, both of which had been there forever, and a homestyle Mexican restaurant, but many of the old brick-and-mortar buildings were occupied by Christian nonprofit groups, studios, a marketing firm, a magazine, law offices.
It was eclectic, but it wasn’t what most people would expect to find in a small town.
In the past few years, however, Wilmore has undergone a kind of revival — not the kind of Holy Ghost revival the town has been known for since the days of John Wesley Hughes, but there is definitely a spirit in the air. You can feel it when you stroll downtown on an April morning with the dogwoods in bloom and see shoppers going in and out of little boutiques or enjoying lattes and laughter with friends.
“I think the heart of Wilmore has so much to offer,” said Rachel Paddock, an Asbury University student who works at Narratology, a gift shop that sells items from two-thirds world countries and gives all its profits to organizations that improve the lives of marginalized people abroad and here at home.
Friday afternoon, Paddock was showing merchandise to Rachel Phillips and her friend and guest, Jenni Grace, who were charmed by downtown.
“It’s so cute!” Phillips said.
Paddock was looking forward to the Wilmore Spring Open House the next day, when Narratology would be doing a bracelet-making workshop and a campaign to support the Jessamine County Homeless Coalition. Nearly every business on Main Street planned to participate.
“It’s just bringing people together and showing what a great community this is,” Paddock said.
Tiffany Mayhew, who owns Days Gone By, another downtown shop, said Sunday there was a great turnout for the open house,
“It was a great day,” she said, and it was encouraging to see people coming out in large numbers to support the downtown businesses. “Despite COVID and the continued safety measures, it was nice to hear laughter and see fellowship,” she said.
Judy Woolums, the City of Wilmore’s community development director, who works closely with the Wilmore Business Association, said the growth that has happened in downtown Wilmore in the past five years has been remarkable. And in the past several months, when the coronavirus pandemic has posed challenges to small businesses everywhere, redevelopment of the former railroad flag stop has really been gaining steam.
The city government was part of the emphasis. When Wilmore bought the old school building on Lexington Avenue for a bargain and turned it into a new City Hall, it opened up possibilities for downtown. Tammy Goble, owner of Shades of the Bluegrass, and her husband, Kelly, who already owned her business’s building, the Narratology building, and the prayer room next door, bought the old City Hall and are renovating the downstairs, stripping it down to the original floors and brick walls. They plan to lease the space, and Goble will probably use the upstairs for her creative workshops.
There has been talk of a hardware store or a restaurant, but the Gobles are considering all their options.
“We would definitely be open to that,” she said, when asked about a restaurant, but because of COVID-19, opening a new restaurant is a risk. “We don’t want to set somebody up for failure,” she said.
Other restaurants, though, are doing well. Solomon’s Porch, owned by Erin and Tim Gibson, is busy every day, and friends Tom Fogger and Chris Hale recently opened Wilmore Pizzeria & Creamery in the old Sims Drug Store after the pharmacy relocated.
Randy Hardman, a former seminarian who opened Drinklings, a coffee shop, five years ago, has just bought the historical Rice House, which the city sold at the same time as the old City Hall and another piece of property. He plans to relocate there next month and also have a coffee retail place close to Lexington Avenue.
“We’re shifting more toward a coffee house model,” he said, “which is actually more in line with who we are.”
He said the name Drinklings is a play on Inklings, the name of the writers club C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien formed at a pub at Oxford University in England.
Does that mean they’ll be selling pints of stout and ale after a ballot initiative last fall made alcohol sales legal in Wilmore?
“Our focus is coffee. We’ll add new things as they make sense, but we’re not chomping at the bit” to sell any other kind of brew, he said.
Almost everyone in this conservative evangelical town is reluctant to talk about the alcohol referendum, which was apparently a mistake. The people who organized the campaign for last November’s ballot say they intended to exempt Wilmore, but that wasn’t in the wording.
Still, the possibility of alcohol sales opens up some opportunities for a nice restaurant downtown, maybe something like The Bluebird, an upscale farm-to-table eatery in Stanford, Woolums said.
“I don’t drink, but I do go to a lot of restaurants that serve alcohol,” she said, and owners of those kinds of restaurants insist that being able to sell cocktails, wine or beer is essential to being profitable, she said.
Mayor Harold Rainwater has said that by divesting itself of its property downtown and moving into the school building, which was never on the tax rolls, Wilmore now has three pieces of prime taxable property and is promoting economic growth.
Many of the new generation of owners downtown are young, like Hardman, Mayhew, the Gibsons, Christa Parrish, owner of Narratology, and Erika and Cameron Miller, who have bought multiple properties downtown since they met in college and married.
Erika owns The Olive Branch, which sells the work of local and regional artists, as well as the building next door where Drinklings has been for the past couple of years. When Drinklings moves out, she’s going to turn that space into The Local Confectionary, an ice cream parlor and sweet shop.
They also own the building across the street where her husband’s office is, and the Scott Station Inn, an Airbnb bed and breakfast.
“We’re both from small towns, and we just wanted to invest in some commercial property,” she said. “We just fell in love with the community and saw the potential that it had and really wanted to just build on that and grow it and sort of revitalize the economy.”
Not all the owners are young professionals or newcomers to town, though. Gigi’s Boutique, owned by Lisa Smith, and Queen of Sweets and Treats, owned by Sharon McKinney and Katherine McKinney, are two of the newest locations, but the owners of both have been around a while. Both businesses formerly operated out of their homes as well as in other places downtown.
Several of the business owners we talked with said they want to see Wilmore become “a destination,” similar to other small college towns such as Midway or Berea, but with its own culture — one that has strong roots but is also growing and changing.
“I think what’s happening with revitalization is that it’s breaking down some of those walls that have been there and actually showing that Wilmore, like a whole lot of institutional towns, is big enough for everybody to have space and have a lot of stuff in common,” Hardman said. “That’s kind of my hope. I’ve been really excited about those changes.”
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