As the first CAO in Morgantown, KY, Jerrod Barks was facing some serious challenges for the town of 2,500 that lost 60 jobs and was saddled with a large amount of debt when Kentucky Copper went bankrupt. But instead of guessing or acting on anecdotal information, he conducted a survey, researched deeply, and came up with a recovery plan, Morgantown Renaissance, that has been active since early 2016.
In a town where 52 percent of residents live at or below the poverty line and with average household incomes among the lowest in the nation, investing would not come easy. But with just under $50,000, in joint public and private funds, the results have been impressive so far.
Here’s a snapshot:
- Added two blocks of sidewalks with an emphasis of providing safe passage for school children;
- Added eight benches to a 1.5 mile stretch of sidewalk installed on Main Street via a state project. For $1,000, local businesses could sponsor a bench which includes a small plaque in honor of the donation;
- Planted 50 cherry trees, also sponsored by residents for $12 each. The goal is to have more than 200 cherry trees along the city entrances and parks that will complement Yoshinos already living in the downtown area;
- Demolished six dilapidated homes within the city limits to improve aesthetics and reduce police activity.
The project was launched with an initial community survey. More than 300 responses were returned providing “crucial information,” according to Barks.
In compiling the data he discovered trends and topics of concern. Primarily, residents were concerned about downtown development, infrastructure and quality of life issues. The downtown had a greater than 50 percent vacancy rate and the roads, park, and infrastructure were in disrepair. Additionally, the input identified a lack of “community.”
“In finding our direction, I created 20 goals for the city to accomplish in the first year” Barks said. These 20 goals fit within three focus areas in different capacities, ranging from updating the town’s blight ordinance to creating a free series of movies shown in the park on alternate Saturdays during the summer.
The main goal of the Renaissance Project is to encourage people to live and work in Morgantown.
“I feel the foundation of achieving that is to ensure that properties are maintained. People are attracted to beautiful, safe spaces and I want to facilitate that as much as possible,” Barks said.
By The Numbers
The Renaissance Project includes a mix of community events, new committees, long-term infrastructure goals and updated ordinances. But nothing has been done without statistics to back it up. Barks collected data from the fire marshals, police departments, the Barren River Area Development District office, the state building code authorities, and the Kentucky League of Cities.
A main citizen survey complaint was that the city hosted too many low-income housing units, which anchored the median income. However, Barks was able to show that removing government housing from the city would actually reduce the overall median income. His research showed that housing authority residents earn on average $2,849 more per year than the rest of the town. This proved that the Housing Authority Units were not the primary culprit of the town’s low income levels as people had originally suspected.
Additionally, when creating the plan, Barks researched police dispatch calls and noted the locations of all the calls. He was able to prove that neighborhoods with blighted and dilapidated homes required the most police support. When elected officials and the community learned about the drain on the department and associated costs, they were more willing to jump on board with the plans, specifically code enforcement reform that resulted in demolition of structures or conveyance to the city for maintenance, Barks said.
Spin offs to the program have been recognized as well, such as the planting of more than 212 blossoming cherry trees, Barks said. “Our goal is to facilitate a possible Cherry Blossom Tree Festival when the trees mature.” Morgantown’s Facebook page and other social media showcase the successes of the program. This encourages citizen participation and confidence in the plan.
“One of our main goals of the Renaissance Project was to prove that the city government was not a reactionary body, but rather was on the offensive with the issues of today,” Barks added. “..proving that we are a proactive government that can and will navigate the challenges of today and will make Morgantown a beautiful and capable city.”
Subsequent surveys and anecdotal stories show that the plan is working. The city is scoring higher in surveys and citizens walk into city hall and “tell us that they cqn see and feel a real difference in the City,” Barks said. “I feel that the public confidence in the city and its officials has drastically improved.”