by Chris Harris
As the bright morning sun peered down on Fountain Square, Tiffany Bourne stepped to the podium in front of a bustling crowd and ushered downtown Somerset into a new era.
“Today we can be proud of our past and look forward to our future,” said Bourne as part of the opening remarks for the Fountain Square dedication ceremony Friday.
A project spearheaded by Bourne, Pulaski County’s Community Development Director, the square that serves as the heart of Somerset has received a $1 million makeover.
A powerful new fountain shoots a tower of water into the air, and is lighted at night. A new curved entranceway to the west, and wheelchair accessibility to the east greet squaregoers.
The bronze statue of Sen. John Sherman Cooper, Pulaski’s most prominent statesman, has moved to the north end of the square and received a bit of a shine-up. Freshly-planted flowers and trees bloom, as if to indicate new life for all their surroundings.
It was a long-awaited occasion for Bourne and all who worked on the square, many of whom were in attendance. Landscape architects Mark Arnold and Morgan Dye with Element Designs, general contractors Don Davis and Hilda Grider of Hil-Don Construction, and fountaineer Russell Sitter, as well as well as Jackie and Mike Jones from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, joined numerous local dignitaries on the square facing those in attendance.
One of those local pillars was supposed to be Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers, but he was unable to attend due to ongoing headline-making spending bill negotiations in Washington D.C. However, members of Rogers’ staff, as well as wife Cynthia, were able to make it. Additionally, the family of Sen. Cooper also took in the dedication of the square so closely associated with their name from the front row of seats spread out on a closed Main Street.
Dedicated items surrounding the fountain were announced by Pulaski County District Judge Kathryn Wood. Benches were sponsored in honor of Pauline and Bodie Alexander, Dr. and Mrs. R.B. Jasper, Billy and Linda Baker, former Somerset Police Chief Vertrees Jones, Richard Cooper (brother-in-law of Sen. Cooper), and all the citizens of Pulaski County. Flowerpots were purchased in dedication to William Max Flynn and all the citizens of Pulaski County. Wood said two flowerpots were still available to sponsor, and anyone interested should contact Bourne.
“This place is a central place of my day, over and over again,” said Wood of the square. “I love to walk in the evenings and on the weekends, and I do so every opportunity I get.... Now, this is the highlight of every walk I take. ... Seeing the water flowing over the sides is breathtaking.”
Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler called the dedication “a wonderful historical event” for the community. He recalled having “reservations about how it was going to look for the future” when the county government first announced the project but now the new square has been worked into the city’s expansive plans for a reworking of downtown in the future.
“They’ve greatly exceeded all expectations,” said Girdler. “... This is the past, the present and the future.”
Girdler said the city hoped to make sure that the investment in the square would be a benefit to future generations, just as the previous incarnations of the square enriched local lives in the past.
“Look at what our forefathers did in bringing Somerset forward,” he said. “We look at all the pictures, we look at all the crowds, and sooner or later, we’re going to be looking at these pictures in the future to see these crowds here.”
Pulaski County Judge-Executive Barty Bullock took his turn at the podium and praised Bourne’s efforts and work ethic. “You give her a project to do, you point her in the right direction, then you get out of the way and leave her alone and she’ll make it happen for you.”
Bullock said this was a project that he and the late Donnie Girdler, the former deputy judge, had hoped for a long time might one day come to fruition.
“What really got me inspired to do this was, one day I was in my office and Mrs. (Cornelia Dozier) Cooper and her husband (Richard Cooper) came in — Mr. Cooper was in a wheelchair — and Mr. Cooper said, ‘Mr. Bullock, one thing I would love to see done before I leave this world, I would love to see water flowing in that fountain one more time.”
The judge worked to bring a temporary fix to a fountain that had “already died” at the time, but a more permanent solution was needed — one that Bullock compared the Bible verse John 12:24, saying that it takes a grain of corn falling lifeless to the ground to bring forth something new and alive.
“We all get older and life vanishes away, but we can spring forth into new life and that’s exactly what’s happened with our fountain,” said Bullock. “... It’s not my fountain, not the mayor’s fountain. It’s your fountain.”
Cornelia Dozier Cooper, who played a major role in the Fountain Square redesign process with Bourne, recalled the last major rebirth of the area, which her brother-in-law Sen. Cooper helped make possible in 1963. She talked about the efforts to put a statue of Cooper on the grounds in the late 1980s, and how both Young Democrats and Young Republicans organizations joined together to raise funds to make an image of the GOP senator, known for his bipartisanship, a reality.
“They raised the money ... to show appreciation for John Sherman Cooper’s contributions to Kentucky and the country, “ said Mrs. Cooper. “(The statue) was dedicated to the state showing great respect to John Sherman Cooper and Pulaski County.
“I want to thank Pulaski County for preserving this landmark,” she added. “Always remember that the Fountain Square is the heart of the county.”
State Senator Chris Girdler said that the fountain can help “lead the way for private enterprise coming back into town,” and recalled the role of the square as a place for people like his own political mentor, Hal Rogers, to reach out to the people.
“On behalf of a grateful community, I applaud you to your stick-to-it-iveness in seeing this project through and moving forward despite the naysayers,” said Girdler to Bourne and other officials. “... I know Mrs. Cooper and many of you out here in the audience today have fond memories of hearing Congressman Hal Rogers and Sen. John Sherman Cooper give some great speeches on this site. I hope that in the future, we will look back and reflect on this day as another historic day such as those that they have participated in.
“I know that if Congressman Hal Rogers was here today, he’d have (a speech) teed up and ready to go,” added Girdler.
Karen Kelly, Rogers’ district director, stood in for Rogers at the ceremony, noting that Cooper was probably “the most beloved public figure from Kentucky since (President Abraham) Lincoln” and spoke of Rogers’ pride in the current appearance of Somerset’s city center.
“Downtown Somerset means a lot to Congressman Rogers; his career as an attorney and a public servant was literally grounded on this square,” she said, noting that Rogers’ early law offices were located in the area. “... His first campaign for Commonwealth’s attorney began right here, and he was officially sworn in for his first term as our United States Representative on the old courthouse steps.”
Though fountain actually started flowing weeks ago, work has continued on the square up to the Friday dedication — with some more still to be done. Bourne noted that the flowers (form Owen’s Garden Center) and engraving plaques were eleventh-hour additions, and that plaques for the benches and Master Gardeners and Somerset Garden Club’s landscaping will take place soon.
Equipped with its own electrical system, the new fountain sits in the center of a new-look square, renovated with an $800,000 enhancement grant made possible by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and $200,000 in-kind contribution from county government.
The new square was designed by Designed by M2D Design Group and Bell Engineering. A lush green lawn, evergreen shrubs, grasses and trees creates a low maintenance frame for the plaza. Six of the existing cherry trees are preserved. A large custom designed bowl houses the fountain, surrounded by a pool; the spray is brilliantly illuminated each evening until midnight.
“I feel great. I feel relieved,” said Bourne after the ceremony for the square. “I’m so glad that it’s now open and people can enjoy it for everything it is.”