Liz Engel Clark
Friday, Jun 22, 2012
A downtown revitalization effort, however, is brewing in order to spruce up this small town, and to transform its city center into an attraction point today.
Spencer, the county seat for Van Buren, one of the southernmost counties in the Upper Cumberland region, boosts no big-name businesses or industries, although the area is home to Fall Creek Falls, said to be one of the most scenic parks in the nation. Its downtown was once centered around Burritt College, founded in 1848 as the first coed university in the South. The Depression forced its closure in 1939.
“Nothing has really happened down here since Burritt College left,” said Marilyn Baker, executive director of the Van Buren County Chamber of Commerce. “It’s just been a continuous downhill spiral. And as a result, we have so much to do. We don’t know where to start.”
But the revitalization effort is a start, albeit one with a short history. A 12-person committee has been formed. Among that group’s desires: to remove an old auto garage building and transform the space into an amphitheater, to fix drainage issues and improve aesthetics – by burying above-ground wires, refacing the aging, historic buildings that face the courthouse and by staging Spring Street as the main thoroughfare from Highway 111, which is undergoing an improvement project all its own, with expected completion in October. Transforming Spring Street to exuberate more of a Main Street concept – with sidewalks and lights, both currently void now – will draw people to the county’s core.
“We’re coming at this with the ballpark mentality. If you build it, they will come,” said Don Hitchcock, who, with his wife Shirley, owns the Shell gas station at the corner of Spring and 111, Final Touch, a gift store in Spencer and the Fall Creek Falls gift store and general store. “If they see a nice street, and the sidewalks and what have you, people tend to be nosy, and they want to now where that street goes.
“We’ve got Fall Creek Falls, and after a day or two at Fall Creek Falls, you begin to look for somewhere to do,” he added. “We want to take advantage of that situation. Like I said before, if you build it, they will come. Maybe businesses will come also.”
Thus far, the committee has only met a handful of times. Funding for the to-do list of projects is still in question – cost estimates, for example, haven’t even been calculated.
But that’s not stopping the group from moving forward, and looking for any help and suggestions they can get. Among the businesses they’d like to see: a restaurant, an antique shop and more gift shops to draw in that tourist population.
“The only way we’ve got to go is up. We’re down as low as we can be,” Hitchcock said.