Approximately 50 local residents braved a frigid night last Thursday to attend the City of Berea Strategic Planning Listening and Design Session at Madison Southern High School. The event was moderated by facilitators from the Kentucky League of Cities.
The two-hour exercise began with an inventory of how participants view Berea, then explored the city’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and many ideas for change.
On the question of what they loved about Berea, attendees listed several qualities. Some stated that Berea is a religious-based community, while others touted the city’s heritage as a place forged on racial equality. Some expressed appreciation for the arts and for the shared use trails, while others expressed thanks for Berea College, Berea’s highly engaged citizenry, city staff, and safe neighborhoods.
When asked about Berea’s strengths, participants provided a diversity of responses. Some touted the city’s tourism identity, Berea’s location next to a major interstate, and others identified features that can draw visitors, such as the Spoonbread Festival, summer concert series, the artisan community, dance events, shared use trails and other amenities. Others citied Berea’s educated population, the presence of many non-profits, good schools and locally owned utilities. Berea’s racial and ideological diversity was cited as a positive, along with its national reputation, its faith-based communities, and its positive outlook for economic development.
When it came to the community’s potential weaknesses, participants had a substantial list to address. The drug epidemic was a big concern, as well as a lack of the choices when it comes to grocery shopping. The need for a vocational training for non-college bound students was listed more than once at the meeting, as was the future maintenance of city infrastructure, a lack of recreation opportunities for teens and youth, and the need for a convention center, gym, multi-purpose or activity center.
Discussion of the city’s potential weaknesses also reflected the tenor of the times, as there were some very divergent views of what is challenging Berea. Some cited a lack of a fairness ordinance and a lack of tolerance between various groups in the city. Others noted the need for better control of trash in the city, a need for a permanent farmer’s market location, a desire for expanded alcohol sales in the city, and the need to broaden the city’s tourism appeal. Homelessness was also identified as a significant challenge, as was a lack of affordable housing for low-income families. On the other side of the spectrum, one participant cited a desire for a well-regulated militia and a shooting range in Berea. Lack of respect for both the older and younger generations was also offered as a potential weakness.
Identifying opportunities was the next phase of the discussion, which included promoting adventure tourism, the transformation of the Parker Seals building, further development of parks and the industrial park, attraction of more artists and supporting artisans already here, and the expansion of the city’s water supply. Berea Bypass Phase II was also listed as an opportunity, as well as more restaurants in Berea, a wealth of federal grants that are employed to improve the city, and initiatives to generate renewable energy.
Participants then moved on to address threats in the city, which again were as diverse as the participants. Global warming was listed as a concern, as were health concerns supposedly connected with the introduction of 5G wireless technology in town. The end of CSEPP funding was raised, along with the moving of toxic munitions at Blue Grass Army Depot and the eventual closure of the depot. The fact that people need to shop more locally was also identified as a potential threat to Berea commerce.
Others viewed the lack of employment for young people as a long-term threat to the well-being of the city. Again the opioid epidemic was a concern, along with the potential loss of Berea’s unique identity, loss of industry and jobs, homelessness and vacancies and neglected properties.
As the evening wound down, participants submitted their ideas to enhance the City of Berea. Attracting new business was a recurring priority, as was using the space near interstate exit 77 for commercial development. Others said somehow connecting the city’s tourism areas, like Old Town and College Square, is vital. Toward that end, one participant suggested an updated staircase leading from the back of the college’s Danforth Hall area to Ellipse Street, or establishing a public art trail that would link Berea’s tourist districts. Establishing a site for the Farmer’s Market was suggested more than once, including finding a location near Berea Community Schools. There were some new ideas as well, including installing traffic roundabouts in various places around the city.
When the evening concluded, Berea Mayor Bruce Fraley thanked participants and noted that because government can’t do everything, it’s important for citizens to come together, work together, and offer their ideas.