By LISA BICKNELL
CV&T News Editor
So, while most of us were oblivious, some “mystery shoppers” came into Estill County last March to check out what this community has to offer. What they found was a little surprising to some, not so much to others.
In a nutshell, our community is friendly and welcoming, but we don’t think of ourselves as a destination people would want to visit. That about sums up the 12-page community assessment report.
Twelve team members, ages 18-37, including some University of Kentucky students and some professionals in community and economic development, spent a few days in March popping into local businesses and traversing our county.
The visit was conducted as part of the First Impressions Program, a service offered through the Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky (CEDIK).
Team members did some homework before their visit. They searched the internet for reviews and websites. They visited city and school webpages.
Their next step was to do a quick drive through, or a “Quick Pass Impression,” just to see what caught their attention and what they’d like to check out better.
The team then spread out and visited locations more thoroughly. They compiled comments and prepared a report, which they presented at the Steam Engine Session Room last Tuesday evening.
Apparently, our cities are cleaner and better kept than we thought. The report didn’t cite any dirty or unkempt places, although the tattered billboards on Richmond Rd. were mentioned.
One of the greatest lacks they found was signage. Some are so obvious, I wonder how we missed them, but that’s what often happens when we are so close to a situation that we can’t see the forest for the trees.
The report said that coming to Irvine from Route 89, no sign was visible. We know that is because of the construction, but where is the ‘Welcome to Irvine’ sign before you cross our iconic green bridge?
We take for granted that everyone “just knows” they’ve arrived in Irvine, but not everyone does. Not those tourists we hope to attract.
Over and over again, there were positive comments made about the murals in town and the beautiful natural setting, including this one: “The scenery and the way the town is settled into the mountains is beautiful.”
It is. Take a good long look around sometime and appreciate the beauty of this county, whether it be inside city limits or on the outer boundaries.
In searching the area on the internet, the group found that, in general, we don’t have a strong web presence. For example, they found that the cities of Irvine and Ravenna have Facebook pages, but there is little on them.
The county’s website received some positive comments for providing plenty of information about local services, but the event calendar didn’t show much happening. There was no tourism site, and the official site was not mobile phone friendly.
To some, these things might not seem important. But to the team visiting, representing the “emerging generation,” that’s how you do research-with your smartphone.
Don’t we want to attract young families to come here to eat, shop and live? Wouldn’t we like to keep the young families already here?
The group paid close attention to online restaurant reviews. Some of them were very positive, and as the lady presenting said, I’d easily drive an hour for a good meal.
We are relatively strong in that area, I think, and I hope that our food scene continues to grow.
Many are looking for unique local places to shop and eat. They aren’t necessarily looking for a really nice place, or a fancy place, but a place with a unique atmosphere or a “cool vibe.” A place unlike any other on the planet, and we have several of those. The Wig Wam, for example, is celebrating its 60th year in business. The group found positive reviews online for the Wig Wam, and when they visited it, they had positive reviews to add as well.
People are tired of chain restaurants, at least people who have easy access to them. They want local flavor.
The group couldn’t find many things to do on our local websites. That’s too bad, because it seems to me there are always things to do. Of course, I get that information funneled to me each week for the paper.
However, people from out of town or out of state might not get our paper, and they look things up on the internet. That’s why we need a strong web presence.
We need to talk up the national forest at Chestnut Stand, the Cottage Furnace, the Lily Mountain Nature Preserve and the best fishing spots in the creeks and river that are accessible to anyone. We need a guide to local junk and antique stores, rural mom and pop stores, scenic drives. There’s plenty to see if you know where to look. I’ve lived here all my life, and I still like to drive around to more unfamiliar parts of the county on occasion. And there’s usually some sort of special event going on somewhere in the county.
The group did a little investigation of our local schools. Generally speaking, they found them to be well-kept in appearance, but again there was no signage or written information about the quality of the schools or any that indicated distinction.
What? With a state champion band and nationally ranking JROTC? With academic and sports teams that excel every year? We’ve definitely got some things to brag about, but we haven’t yet utilized those things to market ourselves as a community worth visiting and a good place to live.
Other points of interest made: There is a lack of apartments or rentals.
The group couldn’t find Fitchburg Furnace.
They apparently had no idea that the Lily Mountain Nature Preserve was an option, or that there are several points of entry to the river for canoeing and fishing.
They couldn’t decide what Irvine’s cultural identity is, but they gathered that Ravenna’s is centered around the railroad. They thought maybe ours was “rooted in the Bluegrass,” because of the sign that says Irvine is where the bluegrass kisses the mountains.
Meh. We aren’t bluegrass. I think we should build on Irvine’s history and identity as a river town. Many of us drive over the river every day, it runs right beside us. The Kentucky River is part of a state and national system of water trails. We will soon have a park at Lock 12.
Another comment that stuck with me. “During my time in Estill County, I didn’t observe any evidence of civic engagement or community leadership/involvement.”
Well, that is not true. We have such a strong presence of civic engagement, but I won’t even begin to name the more obvious organizations, because I’d likely forget one and draw some ire.
It’s not that the community involvement isn’t here, it’s just that they didn’t see any evidence. That’s a shame, because this community is so very giving.
Someone in the audience noted that there was no mention of Carhartt. We have a world-renowned brand of outerwear produced right here in our county. Where’s our sign?
There should be a big sign on Main Street drawing attention to Carhartt, and I would think factory tours would be something we could add to our list of things to do around here. Does Carhartt do those?
We may feel a little ho-hum about our local sewing plant because it seems it has always been here, but folks, there are people all around the country who think Carhartt is cool.
My takeaway from the First Impressions presentation is that we just aren’t doing too swell of a job at promoting ourselves.
We aren’t accustomed to thinking, “What do we have to offer visitors?”
In fact, the visiting team said some local business owners directed people out of town when asked what there is to do around here.
I maintain that there are things to do around here, but we just have to change our way of thinking. We need signs, we need brochures, we need maps, we need a better web presence, and we need to start thinking of ourselves as a place where people would like to come and unwind for a few days.
We “get that” during the Mountain Mushroom Festival but seem to forget about it during the rest of the year.
Over and over again, those mystery shoppers confirmed what a friendly, welcoming, helpful population we have.
Let’s make it our goal to help them discover the other treasures this community has to offer.
Where are our signs?