A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Cynthiana Mayor James Smith: Commitment to his community is evident in both words and deeds


By Kristy Robinson Horine
Special to KyForward

Webber Davis and Jim Swinford had a lot to do with how Cynthiana Mayor James Smith lives his life.

Davis was Harrison County Sheriff in the seventies and claimed Smith as his grandson.

“He knew everybody, therefore everybody knew me. I was never able to get away with anything, which was a good thing,” Smith says. “Small towns are still that way.”

Swinford was the leader of the Boy Scout Troop 60, the troop where Smith earned the highest Boy Scout rank of Eagle Scout.

James Smith and his wife Paula with their grandkids, Eli and Corie (Photo Provided)

James Smith and his wife Paula with their grandkids, Eli and Corie (Photo Provided)

“The Boy Scout Law, which talks about trustworthiness and loyalty, those are the values that I saw in Jim. Seeing those laws lived out is more powerful than saying them a thousand times,” Smith says “I try to do that now.”

Smith has been Cynthiana’s mayor for a year and is the current minister at Cornerstone Christian Church. His childhood heroes, like his grandfather and his scout master, still inform his present-day choices. And his commitment to his community is evident in both his words and his deeds.

Home Town Boy

Smith grew up in both the city and the county, spending most of his formative years in town. He says he probably rode his bike on nearly every street and walked to and from school.

After he graduated in 1987, Smith continued his studies at the University of Kentucky in History and Political Science. He graduated in 1991, and then served four years in the U.S. Army. While he was stationed in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, Smith earned his Master’s Degree in Education from the University of South Carolina.

He went straight into a corporate trainer position with the USC where he taught soft skills like time management, leadership, supervision and teamwork skills at the USC business school.

It was his corporate trainer experience which eventually brought him back to Kentucky as a trainer in the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. He worked for the cabinet for five years before he heard a different type of call altogether in 2008.

Changing of the Job and the Guard

Between graduating from UK and returning to his home state to work at the KYTC, Smith had been gone for 10 years.

“It was almost not the same community. We were in the midst of a great recession. Tobacco had been king in the 80s and it was no longer a driving force in the community. We got a Walmart and those tend to decimate downtowns, so we had a downtown that was in decline,” Smith recalls. “Small towns got hit really hard and drugs had come into the community. I don’t remember drugs being that big of a problem before. These drugs, they could kill you.”

Smith turned to his faith and, seeking to help others find a similar hope, he answered a full-time call into the ministry. At around the same time, the community theater, The Rohs Opera House, had shown its final flick and had closed its final curtain.

“That was very symbolic of the death of small town, downtown America. It was the place the community gathered, where kids went and had their first dates and it was the center of community life,” Smith says.

He took some hope from the pulpit, some good character from his sheriff grandfather, some trustworthiness and honor from the scout master and combined all those to build his next step of faith. Smith and his long-time friends purchased and re-opened the theater and embarked on a type of save-the-town campaign.

After a rough start, they created their own niche and brought live theater performances to the stage, hosted concerts, and started a Ghost Walk Tour.

“We got very creative in facing obstacles and challenges that we had. One of the things we saw was that people started coming back downtown again. A lot of these empty buildings around our theater, businesses started going back in them. We had a rebirth,” he says.

It was not only a rebirth in business, but a rebirth of trust.

Courage to Run

In 2014, Smith entered the race for Cynthiana’s mayor. When all the votes were tallied, Smith had won the election by a 20-percent margin. In a government system where the leadership had been historically made up of older citizens, Smith was the first of his generation to hold the office of mayor.

Cynthiana City Government works in a commission form, the role of mayor, Smith says, “is more of a role of leadership and inspiring people.” (Photo Provided)

Cynthiana City Government works in a commission form, the role of mayor, Smith says, “is more of a role of leadership and inspiring people.” (Photo Provided)

Cynthiana City Government works in a commission form, the role of mayor, Smith says, “is more of a role of leadership and inspiring people.”

Again, Smith rose to the occasion. In just his second day of office, he received a complaint against a commissioner and had to have a hearing. Within three months of taking office, Smith dealt with two historic snowfalls and the fifth worst flood in Cynthiana history. After his trial by flake and flood, Smith helped the commission to set goals and to work toward their completion.

“We came up with a 100-day action plan of 14 goals we wanted to accomplish,” Smith explains.

Work Ready Certification

The goals included tasks like local park development, beginning a downtown beautification project, establishment of a long-range planning committee, becoming a Work Ready Certified Community, reducing empty storefronts and instituting an employee evaluation process. Within the allotted 100 days, the city government had accomplished thirteen out of fourteen goals. Within the last year, there was a 65 percent reduction in empty store fronts in the downtown area.

Smith says that in this city of 6,354, a few people started cleaning up dilapidated buildings and it just had a snowball effect.

“I think, for our people, their hopefulness came back. The community wasn’t as depressed as it was before,” he says. “That’s what I ran on. I ran on a very optimistic and hopeful future. I ran on the idea that we weren’t done yet and it might be cliché, but we had shown with the revival of the theater that we could take something that looked like it was dead and gone and bring it back to life.”

Know Where To Go

Within a month of Smith’s taking office in 2015, he was asked to consider serving on the Bluegrass Area Development District’s Executive Board.

“It has taken me six to nine months just to figure out all the ADD does. For small towns like Cynthiana, they offer a lot of services we just can’t do on our own, like grant writing and some workforce development,” Smith says. “For me, also, it allows me to be in contact with other mayors and County Judges outside of Cynthiana, so that I know that the problems we have are not just our problems. We can draw encouragement from the success of another town.”

In the meantime, Smith continues to preach part time, work five to seven hours a day in the mayor’s office, and still have time to devote to his wife and children.

Like the men who came before him, this is Smith’s opportunity to model trustworthiness, honor and respect – sound building materials for a town and a people of any size.

Kristy Robinson Horine is a freelance writer in Paris. She wrote this story for the Bluegrass Area Development District.


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