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What makes Danville special? Keeps small-town character, attracts national attention

A view of Main Street in Downtown Danville (Photo By Elizabeth Adams.)

Main Street in Downtown Danville (Photo By Elizabeth Adams.)


By Elizabeth Adams
KyForward reporter


A street-filling brass band festival, two vice presidential debates and a collection of preserved historical sites dating before the Civil War are just a few reasons Kentucky’s Danville has become an internationally known small town.


With a population of 16,000, the seat of Boyle County keeps a mixed community of agrarian families, retirees, college professors, entrepreneurs and others who desire small-town living that isn’t absent culture, community and economic opportunity. In the past decade, Danville has risen to the top of national lists for its natural beauty, quality of life and resilient economy. Residents and city planners also emphasize collective values of beautification, preservation and sustainable development as qualities that make Danville an exceptional example of small-town America.


In 2012, Danville was one of six finalists on the Rand McNally/USA TODAY Best of the Road competition. The same year, the city ranked as a Top-10 Small Town in the United States on Livability.com. In 2008, Boyle County ranked No. 10 on The Progressive Farmer magazine’s Top 100 List of the Best Rural Places to Live in the Southeast. The small town was featured in a 1997 TIME magazine article about small towns as desirable places to live in America. For two consecutive years (2011-2012), CNN/Money magazine named Danville one of the nation’s top-25 locations to retire.


Danville's Constitution Square. (Photo by )

Constitution Square in downtown Danville (Photo by Elizabeth Adams)

Called the “city of firsts,” Danville’s many developments during Kentucky’s formative years set a pattern of progress that would continue into the 21st century. At the center of downtown, visitors gather at the Constitution Square Historic Site, the birthplace of Kentucky’s statehood in 1776. Other historic sites in the area include the Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site – the location of a pivotal turning point in the Civil War – and the Abraham Lincoln Museum. The Battle of Perryville was voted a Top 20 event in the U.S. in 2013 — and the site itself is recognized as one of the 10 great Civil War sites to visit.


City Manager Ron Scott said Danville wins admirers with its high-performing schools, preserved history and architectural beauty, and its refreshing ease of living. Projects recently managed by the city include a repaving and striping of downtown roadways, a renovation of the park, and a water quality initiative throughout the county. One of five Cultural Arts and Heritage Districts in the state, the city of Danville was named a Great American Main Street in 2001 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


“We have a reputation for being a Norman Rockwell kind of place,” Scott said. “It’s the best of a small town with the best of modern amenities.”


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While many small towns struggled through the nation’s economic recession, Danville managed to maintain local businesses on Main Street. When the city expanded its alcohol sales in 2010, local businesses benefited with new recreational and dining opportunities. Other businesses fueling the local economy include the Ephraim McDowell Hospital, which provides 1,500 jobs, and the prominent banking industry in the county. A diverse set of economic drivers has helped sustain the community through the downturn.


“I have lived in Danville all my life,” said Erica Sluder, a business service specialist with the Kentucky Career Center in Danville. She is proud of Boyle County’s designation as a Certified Work Ready Community, a measure of the quality of the county’s workforce.


A Centre graduate, Boyle County Judge-Executive Harold McKinney said the resident college plays an important role bringing new residents into the community of Danville. Centre has brought well-educated college professors to the area. McKinney said the mix of scientists, artists, historians, businesspeople and farmers have made Danville a sort of “renaissance” community.


“Centre College draws in people who are not only educated but tasked with educating young people,” McKinney said. “We have people here who have seen the world – and it’s what makes this place in Kentucky unique.”


Centre College, Kentucky’s top-ranked liberal arts college, adds a presence of young people who participate in the community through internships. Founded in 1819, it is ranked among U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges and is also included in Colleges That Change Lives. As to “seeing the world,” Centre encourages it. Its students are guaranteed an international study experience, and it even buys passports for students who don’t have them. The college’s Norton Center for the Arts also attracts packed houses for nationally acclaimed touring artists and performances.


Danville Visitor's Center (Photo by Elizabeth Adams.)

Danville Visitor’s Center (Photo by Elizabeth Adams.)

McKinney credits an involved, hard-working community for the high quality of life linked to Danville. He said in recent years, the city has become more aware of the importance of tourism. The residents rally behind events like the Great American Brass Band Festival, which lures more than 50,000 tourists every June, and the Kentucky State Barbecue Festival in September. Still, development, national recognition and tourism have not altered the values of the community.


“People and values and the things that make the community have not changed,” McKinney said. “Clearly, the face of the community has changed, but not the city itself. It’s driven by the same values and the same forces.”


Owen McNeill, business services manager of the Bluegrass Workforce Investment Board, applauds Danville’s “effective planning.”


“They find a way to seamlessly get all the planning entities — Centre College, urban planning, Boyle County, downtown association — to work well together . . . the relationship between the college and the city certainly appears to be a two-way beneficial relationship.”


Robert Casher, public administration specialist with the Bluegrass Area Development District, agrees, and adds:


“I don’t think there is a better example of regionalism in the state.”


In 1982, Ernst Crown-Weber and his wife had the thought to relocate their family to a place where living was a little easier. At first, Crown-Weber said the idea of moving from Cincinnati to his grandfather’s lakeside house in Danville was a joke. But just a few weeks later, his family was settled in the house — kayaking and fishing on the property. Crown-Weber established the family-run downtown Danville Bike & Footware that has served the town, which is also one of the healthiest in the nation, for 21 years.


“This was a far better experience living in a small town and having an intimate relationship with friends,” Crown-Weber said.

You might also be interested in reading Judy Clabes: Danville rolls out red carpet for tour of available space downtown on KyForward.

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