Millersburg, Kentucky – Back From the Brink

Something about the tiny Bourbon County, Kentucky town lit a fire in Kevin Smith, President and CEO of Community Ventures. One can tell when talking to him that it went much deeper than wanting to salvage Millersburg and its history before they were lost forever. It was equally about rekindling the spirit and pride of the townspeople as well. How hot was the blaze? So hot that Smith bought and renovated one of the first houses on the town square, where he and his wife now reside.

So what about the burg’s storied past? In 1778, a party of 18 settlers set out on foot from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, having received 400 acre land grants from the Governor of Virginia to settle in Kentucky. Major John Miller purchased an additional 1000 acres, upon which he founded Millersburg. Shops, mills and several distilleries soon sprang up.

But looking up and down Main Street in 2016, it was hard to believe that tiny Millersburg was once a town of renown, known far and wide as an educational center. Between the Civil War and World War I, Millersburg was home to the Millersburg Male and Female Academy as well as Kentucky Wesleyan College. Also located there was the Millersburg Military Institute (MMI) which began turning out top-notch cadets in 1893 until the decline in students forced a temporary closure in 2003 that became permanent in 2006. In 2008 the U.S. Army Cadet Corp purchased the distressed property to turn it into their national headquarters, a National Cadet Training Center and a military boarding school. But in 2014 the ACC began a reorganization and closed the historic—and now crumbling—facility.

The MMI closure was a double whammy for the rural burg located just 6 miles from wealthy Paris, KY and less than 30 miles from bustling Lexington. In 2013, Joy Global (formerly Stamler)—Millersburg’s only real industry—closed its doors citing government regulation and shuttered coal mines as reasons. The manufacturer of mining equipment moved its production facility to TX, leaving 197 local employees out of work and the few town businesses in operation struggling. With the closing of Joy Global, the town lost revenue of $100,000 a year in payroll taxes—fully half of the town’s operating budget.

On Main St. the once-busy shops, post office, doctor’s office and a bank sat decaying around the town square where the ornate cast iron fence that enclosed the green space—gifted to the town by Fayette County in 1882—tilted this way and that.

A trip down Millersburg’s side streets, many named for those who figure prominently in the town’s history, reveals a disparity in homes. While a few are beautifully upkept others, like the buildings around the square, have fallen into disrepair.

Enter Community Ventures with a vision to remake and revitalize not only the rural Bourbon County town, but to help the farming community that surrounds it as well.

In 2016, Community Ventures purchased the former MMI property and set about bringing it back to life with a brand-new purpose (event venue) and moniker (Mustard Seed Hill.)

Between 2016-2019, much of the campus has undergone an amazing transformation. With careful attention to historic detail but utilizing today’s technology, the Allen House mansion and gymnasium are bustling once again with school children, sports activities, parties, weddings and more. Other structures—former dormitories—are now undergoing their own renovations with the mess hall to follow suit shortly. When complete, these buildings will house a variety of businesses and educational opportunities designed to bring even more commerce and visitors to Millersburg.

The gymnasium and Allen House renovations were accomplished through collaborative efforts with Kentucky Bank, CDFI Fund (by way of New Markets Tax Credits – NMTC), NeighborWorks America, Community Trust Bank, Farmers Bank of Carlisle and Traditional Bank while the partners on McIntyre Hall—currently undergoing its transformation—are Capital One, Enhanced Capital, Pacesetter, Kentucky Bank, Cumberland Valley National Bank, CDFI Fund, NeighborWorks America, Farmers Bank of Carlisle and the Kentucky Department of Local Governments..

Flash forward to 2021, and despite Covid’s best effort in 2020 to derail CV’s efforts in Millersburg, Mustard Seed Hill is flourishing.

Christmas at Mustard Seed Hill, an annual holiday extravaganza first held in 2019 helped CV prove the concept that given good reason, people would once again flock to Millersburg.

In fact, CV has determined that MSH has drawn some 138,000 people to the town, with those shopping at the Christmas Market and elsewhere spending an average of $50 each, generating $3,750,000.00 for local artisans, craftspeople, food vendors and local businesses.

“That was our first step,” explained Smith. “The goal was to bring enough people to create an economic engine to get Millersburg back on track. What we have accomplished at Mustard Seed Hill has done that.”

Phase two is to now revitalize the whole town and the area surrounding it. In order to accomplish this, CV is seeking funding to help pull together a collaborative that will address the problems of blighted housing and crumbling infrastructure while at the same time continuing to fuel the economic engine now in place. CV has begun purchasing properties and restoring the historically relevant homes, renovating the salvageable ones and tearing down those that are uninhabitable.

Goals for this phase include providing B&B accommodations for those attending weddings and events at MSH, helping the current residents of Millersburg maintain and beautify their own properties and, on land where deteriorated structures have been razed, build new houses in hopes of enticing new buyers to make their homes in Millersburg. So the first order of business was to take a look at the town “by the numbers.”

“The first thing we needed to do was figure out was who owns the housing stock,” Smith explained. “We want the majority to be owned by people that live in the community. Millersburg rental stock was about 40% owned by people that don’t live there. That’s not good. We want to see that number at less than 20%.

“And the other thing we looked at is homeownership rate. It should be over 50%, but in Millersburg for the year 2017, it was less than 20%.”

CV seeks to strike a balance in homeownership in the town. The strategy is to have 70% market rate housing and 30% affordable individual housing on each block with homeownership above 50%.

The plan-of-attack includes buying and renovating houses to create affordable single-family housing. Those that are too far gone and negatively impacting property values will be taken down with an eye toward erecting new homes in the future. Buildings and houses with historical significance will be restored with detailed accuracy. The strategy for the commercial buildings on Main St. includes B&B accommodations for MSH events, a casual eatery/coffee shop and pops-up shops that will provide a place for local artisans to sell. Eventually, CV would like to establish or attract a destination restaurant that would entice people to Millersburg to dine.

Additionally, there is a need to coordinate essential infrastructure repairs and upgrades. All of this to further fuel to the economic train now beginning to chug along behind the engine of Mustard Seed Hill. To accomplish this comprehensive community development, CV will enlist the help of the Bourbon County Economic Development Authority, the Bourbon County Fiscal Court, the Millersburg City Council, the Kentucky Main Street Program, the Kentucky Department For Local Government, Kentucky Housing Corporation, and the Bluegrass Area Development District.

In addition, we would enlist the help of all of CV’s partners at the federal level which include the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Economic Development Administration (EDA), the Small Business Administration (SBA), Kentucky Housing Corporation’s Community Housing Development Organization (CHDO) Program, New Markets Tax Credits and the Department of Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institution Fund. Working with entities such as these, CV will work to ensure proper code enforcement, detailed historic preservation, upgraded infrastructure, etc. as together we seek to revitalize the town of Millersburg.

Photo Title