By Michelle Price
UCBJ Managing Editor
LIVINGSTON – If you build it, they will come. That was what Livingston was hoping when they started planning Central Park, its $1.4 million downtown multiuse area, and slowly that vision is becoming a reality.
The town of Livingston, the Livingston-Overton County Chamber of Commerce, and citizen groups began planning for this park around 2007. It took just over 10 years to see it come to life.
“It is all about downtown,” said Livingston Mayor Curtis Hayes. “Livingston Chamber of Commerce Director Greg McDonald and I traveled to Detroit and New Orleans and we drank the kool-aide about trying to get folks downtown to your area to help with the economy.
“The ultimate goal is to ring the cash registers. We want new money, new revenue, to come to Livingston. We want somebody to shop, eat, drink, whatever you want to do and just enjoy Livingston. It’s what it’s all about.”
The $1.4 million park was built with 100 percent grant funding and utilizing the labor of city workers. When the city received the first grant, other state and local agencies and organizations wanted to be part of the project, explained Hayes. Partners included the Tennessee Municipal League, Tennessee Department of Health, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Tennessee Department of Tourism and the Livingston Rotary Club.
Funding also came from a one-time opportunity that Livingston received. Livingston was one of six cities in the state that took part in a pilot Courthouse Enhancement Grant. This grant rebates to the city five out of every seven cents collected in state sales taxes for businesses within an area that extends one block in each direction from the square. Each new business in the zone increases available funding so the program also helps to encourage new businesses to locate in the downtown area. Livingston averages a rebate of around $200,000 each year.
“Central Park has just been a shot in the arm for downtown Livingston,’ said Hayes. “It goes with the cliché ‘if you build it, they will come.’ We have had a record number of folks coming from out of town to the park to watch movies, to listen to music that we have free in the park.
“This also was the birth of a new restaurant that is located adjacent to Central Park. So, the park has just been a major shot in the arm for the city of Livingston. It’s one of the best things that has happened to Livingston in a long time.”
The park has sparked the addition of the Steel Coop Restaurant and a branch of the Lazy Cow Creamery opened across the street.
“We also had a $500,000 investment on the square,” added Hayes. “It’s a new condo that also has about 1,500 square feet of available retail space. And again, it was all about buying into downtown Livingston.”
“We’ve felt since the beginning that if you take care of your downtown area, then everything else is going to grow around it,” explained McDonald. “We have been voted one of the prettiest squares in the state. We focused really hard on cleaning up our square.”
Livingston offered 50/50 grants to its merchants to do awnings and other improvements. These grants were funded through the downtown and the city.
“Our goal was to revitalize downtown Livingston that was somewhat dead. This area was really dead,” said Hayes. “So, there’s new sidewalks, new parks, new restaurants, and things of that nature, but it also is about revitalization. So, we revitalized the south end of the courthouse square and it’s worked. We have folks coming out. We have new folks coming in shopping. People we’ve never seen and it’s just a great atmosphere.”
Central Park serves several different roles – there’s a walking track so you can get your exercise in, or there’s outdoor exercise equipment – including an elliptical and a sit-up machine. Visitors can cool down in the splash pad. In the evenings there is often live music at no cost, with vendors set up outside for refreshments.
In 2017 the city hosted a four-concert series called Live in Livingston.
“We had a local band and we brought some other folks in from Nashville, some up and coming stars with the help of Phillip Gibbons and folks like that,’ explained Hayes. “It was a huge success. We look to do that again next fall.”
McDonald explained, “When I became Chamber director several years ago, one of the biggest complaints was there’s nothing to take kids to or for kids to go to. We have answered that with the park. We had one of the elementary schools take their third grade over there today. That happens all the time. Where it used to be, they would go to Dogwood Park (in Cookeville). We really filled a void that our community needed.”