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Next generation could revive downtowns

Staff WriterMay 20, 2019

For decades, the building at the corner of Louisa Road and 26th Street in downtown Catlettsburg, Ky., stood out for its appearance and its architecture. Its dark gray color contrasted with that of other buildings in the area, and its turret recalled a time when such features were common on multistory buildings.

The old building had stood on the corner since the late 1800s and was present for many changes over the years. But time and neglect took their toll, and last week the building came down after the Catlettsburg City Council ordered its demolition. Parts of the building were falling onto the sidewalk and the street, and it was deemed irreparable.

It was one of two adjacent buildings that were demolished. Their owner, J.C. Williams, said he plans to save a third building and renovate it. The lots where the two demolished buildings stood will be used for parking, he said.

And so downtown Catlettsburg loses another part of its architectural and visual history. It’s an occurrence that’s not been uncommon in the Tri-State in recent years. Fire, neglect or time have removed several structures that have not been replaced. And many buildings that have avoided that fate remain empty.

Huntington, Ironton, Ashland, Portsmouth, Gallipolis, Point Pleasant and other communities have many such stories to tell.

The opening of the Huntington Mall in early 1981 — yes, almost 40 years ago — put a big hurt on retailers in downtown Huntington. Even before then, though, shopping plazas on the edge of town or across the river had begun eroding the downtown’s retail base. City officials tried reversing that in the 1970s by closing 9th Street between 3rd and 5th avenues and turning the area into a pedestrian plaza, but the end result was a virtual ghost town that discouraged business instead of encouraging it. The plaza was removed around 1996.

The development of Pullman Square helped downtown Huntington overall, but one downside was how its presence pulled business and foot traffic from 4th Avenue to 3rd Avenue.

The consolidation of the banking industry and downsizing of other businessnesses took workers out of the down town area, meaning downtown businesses had a smaller customer base to draw from.

Ironton likewise has seen business activity in its downtown area fall off as the city’s population declined at the same time as its former merchant class retired or died off. New businesses have not replaced old ones at a fast enough rate to keep commercial activity at previous levels.

Yes, there are some success stories, but often they are outnumbered by the businesses that close and are not replaced.

Money will go where it can make money, and businesses want to be near competitors. Clothing stores and other retailers know that if they cluster, they will draw enough shoppers for all to prosper.

In Catlettsburg, Williams said he’s willing to give it a try.

“Somebody had to start a trend and get things moving in the downtown area. I guess this is just my way of putting my money where my mouth is,” he said. “It’s not a home run right now by any means, but I think it’s a good thing for this city.”

Universities are doing their best to encourage entrepreneurship among students in their business programs. Chain stores prefer malls and plazas, so homegrown talent with access to capital and training — and customers — are likely the best chance for revival in the area’s downtown business districts.

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