Is it fair to say that 2021 was maybe the biggest year in the modern history of Burnside? Mayor Robert Lawson thinks so.
“I don’t want to throw off any previous mayor, but with the team I’ve got now — I’ve got a great team behind me — it’s probably the biggest year Burnside has had,” said Lawson.
Certainly, many if not most years have had some major development, but few have had so many, it seems. The big ones are well-known: Christmas Island’s return. The Dream Big Burnside Authority. The city’s effort to bring a riverboat to Lake Cumberland. But those aren’t where Lawson starts when you ask him to talk about the year’s highlights. He has plenty of others in mind.
For instance, the completion of the $3 million water line project that replaced aging and ailing pipes throughout the city. A new sidewalk down Main Street, with existing sidewalks repaired and pressure-washed. Renovations to Cole Park, shelters and picnic tables, and of course the new Don Franklin Family of Dealerships Performance Stage, as well as the Story Book Trail put in place by the Leadership Lake Cumberland class, designed to encourage literacy in children as they walk the park.
Or he’ll talk about getting several city streets freshly blacktopped, including Central Avenue and Cliffside Drive. The water plant is more secure, with new fencing, and the lease from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been obtained to move ahead with the scenic walking trails, with clearing of brush having begun. The city has a new maintenance building, 90 percent completed. They’ve purchased new fire trucks — one in hand, obtained via the county government, and a new one being custom-made in Florida expected to be ready in February, “probably about 50 percent complete,” said Lawson
And Lawson let slip one detail that hasn’t been discussed yet in any public forum — Burnside, which bills itself proudly as the birthplace of the Boy Scouts of America as Myra Greeno Bass organized a troop there in 1908, will soon have its own Boy Scout Troop. Lawson said an agreement has been signed that will form a totally new troop in the community, rather than relocating an already existing one.
Of course, the biggest highlight of the year was likely the formation of the Dream Big Burnside Authority, announced in September. The organization will make an aggressive push to develop General Burnside Island State Park, notably with the lodge facility that has been so much-discussed over time with little progress so far.
“‘Dream Big’ was one of my goals when I took office, to see the island developed to its potential,” said Lawson. “We formed the authority, and Chris Girdler of SPEDA (Somerset-Pulaski Economic Development Authority) is spearheading that now.
“We’re trying to get a meeting with the (state) Tourism Cabinet and Parks Commission,” he added. “Once we get the lease agreement with the state, then we can look forward to trying to get an investor to come in.”
Another goal of Lawson’s from the time he first took office, replacing former mayor Ron Jones in 2017, was bringing back Christmas Island on Burnside Island. The annual holiday light display brightened the Christmas experience for families from the mid-90s into the 2000s, but had been out of action for a long time before Lawson and Burnside Tourism Director Frank Crabtree, Jr., looked into getting new LED lights and bringing the tradition back in November.
“In my tenure, (Christmas Island) has gotten the most requests to bring back,” said Lawson. “The public and businesses have really responded to it. We sold (sponsorships) for every scene. We’re probably going to hit 10,000 cars (coming through to see it), so that’s huge.”
The Burnside Christmas Parade returned after a year off, and was maybe the biggest one ever, said Lawson, and Halloween was also a scary-good success, with the haunted house in Cole Park drawing around 3,000 kids. The city added an Easter Parade, and made “Thunder Over the Island,” formerly the Independence Day event, a Labor Day fixture in September after originally moving it there for COVID-related reasons last year. Lawson said that the city has learned from some of the mistakes it made with the “Thunder” event last year, admitting it was overpriced, and that he wants it to be more affordable with free parking next year.
Another big move for the city was annexing south on U.S. 27. The take-in of roadway — allowing adjacent property owners to request annexation if they so desire — goes about three miles past the Burnside border past Keno Road, and Lawson hopes it will allow the city to have land to grow on in the future.
“A lot of people thought we were going after alcohol, but that’s not the reason. We want room to expand. We’re running out of real estate,” said Lawson. “My idea for south is, at some point, I’d love there to be an industrial park at this end of the county, or any subdivision that (might want to develop).”
Looking ahead to 2022, Lawson is hopeful to close in on plans for a riverboat on Lake Cumberland that would offer dinner, tours, and more. The city hosted BB Riverboats, which operates the vessels for entertainment on the Ohio River in the northern Kentucky area, during the Christmas parade and impressed them with what the community is all about.
“We’re negotiating with (BB Riverboats) and want to tie it in with the Dream Big Burnside Authority,” said Lawson. “It’s a long-term project, maybe about three or four years out. But BB is very interested in bringing a paddlewheeler here. There are logistics to work out. We have some options, we’re just not sure where it will be. It may be something to go in a private dock already in existence, or it may tie in with Horse Soldier (Bourbon’s distillery project).”
Lawson said the city is also planning on a Memorial Day festival, a one-day affair, to kick off the summer tourism season, and is scheduled to have Grammy-award winning bluegrass musician Rhonda Vincent performing for it, as well as the Tommy Minton Band.
The mayor said he wants to blacktop more streets and look at repairing manholes that the city hasn’t had the money to fix in the past. Water tanks need to be painted, and Lawson said he wants to construct a new water tank as well. Christmas Island will see more improvements and additions, such as the possibility of a petting zoo and expanded concession stand with holiday crafts and more.
Lawson’s next big ambition is “renovating Main Street,” including the addition of decorative lighting to spruce up the downtown Burnside environment.
That’s a lot done in 2021, and a lot to go in the year to come, but to be sure, Lawson will have things sorted out. Ask if he expected such a busy year at the start of it, and he’ll say that indeed, he did — “As a city, we try to plan our years and know what we have coming at us,” he said — and as he prepares to run for re-election as mayor in 2022, Lawson wants the opportunity to see these big Burnside dreams through to the finish line.
“Am I where I want to be? No. I’m dreaming for big things. Am I happy? Yes, I’m tickled to death with the response we’ve gotten and the leadership that’s behind me,” he said. “No, I’m not done. There are things I want to see done before I leave office, and as long as I’m helping the community and serving citizens, I want to keep working.”