Finding our way together in an unpredictable future

Joe Nickol and Kevin Wright are the authors of a new book called The Neighborhood Playbook, a field guide for community members and developers that facilitates the activation of spaces with the goal of influencing physical and economic growth in neighborhoods. Today, they're sharing a guest article with Strong Towns.

This week’s United States elections ushered in a new level of unpredictability and another reminder of the widespread structural changes to business as usual that are underway. But a countervailing force also seems to be gaining momentum. Perhaps fittingly, we also saw this past week the third installment in as many months of a small town’s determination to choose its own fate to attract investment and create hope that cuts through divisiveness and might be shared by all. Here, we see great cause for optimism in our neighborhoods, towns and cities in the years ahead.

Watch this video to learn more about the Old Kentucky Maker's Market.

The work we are talking about is taking place in Bellevue, Kentucky. It is not being powered by government, but by five community members’ shared desire to make their neighborhood just a little bit better and attract the type of amenities that make life meaningful, enjoyable and enriching. This group is unlocking investment in a forgotten stretch of its main street left vacant by a departing institution and shuttered storefronts. They are doing so not by waiting around for someone else to do something, but by coming together, themselves, to be the change agents.

What they have created is known as the Old Kentucky Maker’s Market (OKMM). It transforms the leftover space created by two buildings  into a regular market space and gathering spot. The market features northern Kentucky craftspeople, barbeque and rotating local breweries. The night is headlined by bluegrass music preceded by dueling banjos and fiddles. It is overtly Kentucky proud and a place where people of all incomes, ethnicities, political beliefs and ages feel comfortable experiencing good things in what they know to be a good place. It is just as much old Bellevue as it is new and it is attracting hundreds of people, half of which rarely, if ever, came to Bellevue before. 

The targeted event and, more importantly, the people, have attracted the building's new owner to the site. He purchased it and the space occupied by the market with the intention of preserving its built heritage and infusing it with the type of life and activity so clearly demonstrated by the market. The rigorous repetition of the event authentically engages the community (a stark contrast to conventional community meetings), allows organizers to tinker with setup along the way, and proves to potential investors and to the community, itself, that demand exists for these types of amenities, even in their small town. It has become the new building owner’s chief means for figuring out the site’s future and attracting tenants. It has created a little more certainty in an increasingly uncertain world by using people, not abstracted data or convention, as the real source of big ideas.

The Old Kentucky Maker’s Market founders are one of the early adopters of a methodology set forth in our recently released, Neighborhood Playbook. The Neighborhood Playbook is a field guide to attracting investment through the activation of overlooked spaces. It is a two-sided book (one entry point for developers and another for everyone else) that is built around five plays for any community entrepreneur to make positive changes in their neighborhood. It focuses on discovering outcomes that are as inclusive as they are trailblazing with the intended result of attracting enduring, authentic investment embraced by the community it calls home. It works in towns and cities both big and small. Its politics are, by definition, pragmatic and purple. What a productive alternative to the zero-sum, winner takes all approach entangling state and federal levels!

Whether you’re from a small town or a large urban metro, it is this type of opportunity that gives us great hope that each of our community’s best years are still to come. Let’s get to work.

Get your copy of The Neighborhood Playbook here.

(Top image from OKMM Facebook page)

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About the authors

Kevin Wright

Kevin has been Executive Director of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation (WHRF) since 2011 where he has helped the organization develop a new brand and mission and grow from a staff of one contracted employee to five full-time employees and several interns. Kevin has led teams in the creation and implementation of dozens of projects ranging from small creative placemaking activities to multi-million dollar real estate deals. Kevin earned a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Missouri State University and received a Master's Degree in Community Planning from the University of Cincinnati with a specialization in urban real estate and neighborhood development. 

Joe Nickol

Joe leads urban design and development strategy efforts as a Senior Associate for Columbus-based MKSK. His focus is on the regeneration of our towns, cities, and neighborhoods and using the lessons of those places to inform the design of new districts and towns that are inherently highly adaptable and resilient. Joe graduated from the University of Notre Dame, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture.