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Building a Vacation Destination

County leaders have long pinned their hopes on tourism as an economic catalyst for McCreary County.  Optimistic that the recent designation of historic Stearns as an official Kentucky Trail Town will bring tourism dollars to the County, local leaders are currently faced with the challenge of actually making the Trail Town designation  result in a thriving tourism industry that will benefit the county as a whole.

Along with County government, the McCreary County Tourism Commission and the McCreary County Heritage Foundation are recognized as being major players responsible for the growth of tourism in the county.

Buddy Wilson, Chairman of the McCreary County Heritage Foundation, recently discussed the history of the Foundation and the role of the organization in developing tourism.

According to Wilson, the Foundation was formed in 1987 in an effort to preserve the history of McCreary County by acquiring ownership of landmark historic buildings and establishing the McCreary County Museum in Stearns.  Eventually, the Foundation acquired the downtown block of historic buildings in Stearns, including Stores 1 and 3 and the Depot building.

The Big South Fork Scenic Railway attraction opened under private ownership in 1982.  A few years later, realizing the railway could not maintain itself as a private business, the final owners signed the railway over to the McCreary County Heritage Foundation.    Today, the Foundation owns the museum, historic downtown buildings, Depot building, and the railway from Stearns to White Oak Junction as well as sixteen miles of old railroad corridor from Stearns to the bridge at Yamacraw and on to White Oak Junction.  Through agreements with the National Park Service, the Big South Fork Railway is allowed to operate on the one mile Blue Heron spur.   The Foundation also leases the Stearns railroad yard from Stearns Property and the Stearns Historic Golf Course.

In the last few years, Stearns tourism has admittedly suffered setbacks.  The number of tourists arriving in Stearns to ride the scenic railway declined significantly in 2015. An elaborate plan to restore and revitalize Stearns, including the development of a bed and breakfast, has made little progress due to a lack of funding.

The need for massive funding became even more urgent after a July 2012 fire destroyed the woefully underinsured historic Stearns Restaurant and severely damaged some of the adjacent historic buildings.   Today, as a result of the fire, Store 1 is still not usable and restoration of the original Restaurant is doubtful due to cost.  Restoration of Stores 1 and 3 for functional use is estimated at a cost of 2.5 million dollars.  A plan to restore the soda fountain and theater space carries an additional estimated cost of 2.5 million.  Currently, the most pressing need is construction of a new roof on Store 1 at an estimated cost of $300,000.

Despite the hurdles, Wilson emphasized the positive.  In an effort to boost the number of tourists visiting Stearns, the Foundation recently contracted with a marketing firm to rebrand Stearns as a true vacation destination.  While the Foundation strives to be active in promoting the entire county with its waterfalls, natural arches, and outdoor beauty, Wilson commented that Stearns is perhaps the most marketable because of the historical sites and easy access, including rail, to Blue Heron and the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.

This year, following a vote by those in the Stearns voting precinct to allow alcohol in the historic sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places within the Stearns precinct, the Whistle Stop Café opened in the Depot building.  Despite the offering a family friendly atmosphere with options of wine, beer, or non-alcoholic beverages served alongside a wide array of menu choices, the Café has yet to build a consistent flow of patrons.  Beyond the cafe, the alcohol vote and overall plan for the economic development Stearns has spurred private interest in establishing a distillery across the street from the historic buildings in the old Ford Garage building.  With the recent listing of the Stearns Golf Course on the National Historic Register, the golf course became eligible to apply for a qualified historic license to serve alcohol by drink if it so chooses.

Becki Egnew, President/CEO of the Foundation and secretary/treasurer of the Board of Directors, is excited the first phase of a Rails to Trails project will be completed this month.

“Our first phase of the K & T Heritage Trail, consisting of approximately six miles from the Yamacraw Bridge to Carmago (Riverview), is almost complete,” Egnew shared.  “We plan to offer packages in the 2016 season so passengers can bring their own bikes or rent bikes for an all-day experience.  Bikes will be carried via the train to the start of the trail.”

The second phase of the K & T Heritage Trail project will involve County government, Department of Transportation, National Park Service, and Forest Service in developing the west side of the Yamacraw Bridge area for better parking for those driving to the trail and for historical interpretation.

“We’ve already contacted County officials to let them know the railway is willing to enter into easement agreements from Yamacraw to White Oak for trail development,” Egnew commented.

Part of the original planning for Trail Town designation involved working with the National Park Service to open more areas including White Oak Junction.

“One of the most challenging aspects will be putting the bridge back across Rock Creek,” Egnew remarked.  “The original bridge piers and I-beams are still in existence.”

While realizing the Foundation still has a monumental task ahead of it, Wilson and Egnew both remain optimistic that Stearns can become a vacation destination bringing tourists and dollars to the entire county.

“This isn’t just about Stearns,” Egnew emphasized.  “It’s about McCreary County.  This is my home.  Stearns and the railway are a big part of our heritage.  They show visitors why we care about McCreary County.”

The Board meets on the second Tuesday of every month at 3:30 p.m. or 5:00 p.m. at the Stearns Depot.

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