Commonwealth Journal

Local News

December 17, 2010

Fountain Square: A Battlefield?

Somerset —

Fountain Square has been a centerpiece of downtown Somerset dating back to the days when horses and buggies were the chief mode of transportation. The jeweled little park attracted large crowds at political speakings and was standing-room-only on Cow Day, a nationally know promotion of the dairy industry. It was the center of town in days gone by. Now, as in the past, the pocket-size piece of real estate is creating controversy between the city and county. The city wants to bulldoze a road through the middle. The county says, “don’t touch it,” and the county holds the trump card. The ground in the center of the traffic maze belongs to the county. During the late 1950s, before Ky. 80 bypass was built and when Lake Cumberland was a brand-new magnet for tourists, thousands of cars pulling boats came through downtown Somerset. On Friday, heading into the weekend, traffic was bumper to bumper as the Ohio Navy tried to negotiate the confusing traffic patterns around Fountain Square. The late A.A. “Sandy” Offutt, then mayor of Somerset, decided the best solution to the traffic problem was, as he put it, “take a bulldozer and push the square out of the way.” The county sued and the courts ruled the square is owned by the county. The city and its bulldozer were forced to back off. Once again, the city and the county have two different viewpoints about the square. The county has obtained a $1 million grant ($200,000 would be in-kind contribution) to upgrade the square. County officials want to replace the modest fountain with a magnificent display of water and make the square a conduit between the existing courthouse and new judicial center. The city is hanging onto a lingering dream of redeveloping downtown Somerset into a pedestrian-friendly place with shops, restaurants, sidewalk cafes and condos to attract urban dwellers. The historical little square is a roadblock. Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler says it would be a waste of effort to glorify existing Fountain Square without a comprehensive plan to redevelop the entire downtown district. And, he says, if the city redevelops downtown, the square has got to go. The mayor candidly remarked that the county should give the square to Somerset and step aside. Somerset, one of the most affluent third-class cities in Kentucky, has the money to do the redevelopment if grants are not available. Pulaski County Judge-Executive Barty Bullock says “ ... if you look at the issue from a transportation standpoint, the city’s plan is one of the better scenarios. “From a traditional standpoint, (removing the square) is farthest from the right thing,” said Bullock. Tiffany Bourne, the judge’s administrative assistant who wrote the application for the $1 million Transportation Enhancement Grant, commented “ ... as long as we (county) own it (square) it will stay traditional.” Bourne, apparently speaking for a committee appointed and chaired by Bullock, explained that the Kentucky Heritage Council, an agency through which the grant was obtained, will not permit the county to destroy the historical significance of the square. With the grant, the county plans to upgrade the electrical system on Fountain Square and create crosswalks to make the little park accessible. “(Rules of the grant) won’t allow the county to change the footprint,” Bourne said. “The Heritage Council will not allow us to use the money any other way,” Bourne said. Members of the county’s committee on the square include Cornelia Cooper, wife of the late Dick Cooper and sister-in-law of the late U.S. Senator and ambassador John Sherman Cooper, and Cynthia Rogers, wife of 5th District Congressman Hal Rogers. City Engineer Alex Godsey also is a member of the committee but he allegedly has been told by Girdler not to attend any more committee meetings. “I wish Mayor Girdler would attend the committee meetings,” Bullock mused. Girdler’s plan for redevelopment of the downtown area would restart Offutt’s bulldozer. It would eliminate the existing square and route Mt. Vernon Street straight through town. Two mini-parks would be developed on the south side of the square, one near the recently opened entrance to the new judicial center and another near the intersection with Main Street. Girder said he realizes eliminating the historical square and moving the statue of John Sherman Cooper would be controversial. But to make downtown the way he envisions it, the square as it currently exists must be moved. “A pedestrian can’t even get to Fountain Square without jaywalking,” Girdler declared. “And it would be an honor for John Sherman Cooper if we would position his statue within easy access and among plaques and displays depicting the many things he has done for this county,” Girdler noted. John Sherman Cooper and his wife, Lorraine, renovated Fountain Square “for the people of Somerset and Pulaski County” in 1963. The city’s redevelopment plan, drawn by Godsey, provides for mini-parks with fountains, “ ... maybe even a statue of Hal Rogers,” Girdler said. The mayor says he has a vision of a downtown with cafes and sidewalk eating areas. Condos on second floors of existing business building would provide living spaces for residents who would love to live downtown, the mayor said. “Downtown can be for people or traffic flow. You can’t have both,” said Girdler. ‘Now we have more cars than people downtown. I’d like to see downtown where people could sit outside and eat without fear of being run over. We need ability to have 1,000 people downtown for an event.” “We want to bring people downtown, not cars. Cars don’t buy a thing,” Girdler remarked. “We do have a vision for redeveloping downtown. We know where we want to go.” “For too long the city has delegated downtown redevelopment to agencies with no power and no money,” said Girdler. And, redevelopment should not be done without a comprehensive development plan,” he insisted. Girdler says three factors –– developing a pedestrian-friendly area, creating jobs and enhancing the economy –– should be the focus of any downtown redevelopment plan. The role of redeveloping downtown is for either the city or the county, the mayor contends. He envisions Downtown Somerset Development Corporation as an agency to promote new businesses and events downtown. Girdler said people are looking to the city for action ... to do something about downtown. “If we’re blocked; if we can’t do something, then I want to people to look the county to get it done.” said Girdler. He said the city has good relations with county governmental officials and indicated it is not his intent to create acrimony. “But I want people to know our hands are tied,” the mayor said. “One of the problems has been too many entities claiming ownership ... I would welcome the help of other agencies.” However, Girdler said “ ... if the county spends $1 million to enhance the existing square it will kill redevelopment of downtown,” said Girdler. “If redesign of the square is simply cosmetic, the city is not interested,” he added. “I can’t redevelop downtown without redeveloping the square area.” He said the city could do the redevelopment project with limited grants, “ ... or the city could do it alone. Bullock is careful not to create a rift with the city. “We want to do everything in our power to assist the city with downtown. We would support whatever they do,” said the judge.

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