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CEDIK analysis gives feedback from “mystery visitors” regarding their impressions of McCreary County
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” Social commentator Will Rogers once said. Rogers’ words are especially true when it comes to tourism. After all, visitors and tourists rarely give a second chance or grant a second visit to a destination that initially leaves a bad first impression.
As part of the University of Kentucky’s Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky (CEDIK) and unbeknownst to McCreary Countians, seven individuals recently paid “mystery visits” to McCreary County to analyze and provide feedback regarding their “first impressions” of McCreary County in terms of community and economic development. Their analysis was used to identify strengths within McCreary County as well as opportunities for future development. Additionally, the program offers suggestions and resources to address the areas identified for potential improvement.
Assessments for McCreary County were conducted by seven team members throughout the Summer and Fall of 2022. Visits were conducted on both weekdays and weekends to capture a variety of activity within the community. Ages ranged from 25 to 45 years, with a mix of young professionals, outdoor enthusiasts, and small business owners. Assessors were both from both rural and urban areas.
Assessors began their assessment of McCreary County by researching the community via the internet, visiting both official and non-official sites. Information gathered through this process was used to develop McCreary County’s web analysis. After completing web analysis during the “pre-visit” phase, in-person visits were made to conduct detailed exploration and documentation for the development of a community analysis.
In their community analysis of McCreary County, the seven mystery visitors focused on six areas: entrances to McCreary County, livability, tourism, infrastructure, arts & culture, and lodging, restaurants, & retail.
The mystery visitors noted some of the entrances to McCreary (from Pulaski, Wayne, Whitley Counties, and Tenn.) have attractive welcome signs while others do not. Farewell signs for those exiting the county were not noted. Visitors noted a lack of directional signage for the Downtown and Whitley City areas. The following are a just few of several comments made by the visitors.
“The first sign we saw was the penitentiary directional sign. A welcome sign might be nice so the first impression isn’t “prison”.
“There’s a neat look atomic-style bridge as you turn toward Whitley City (apparently turning north at Pine Knot). This could be an iconic visual if they added some art or spruced it up a little!”
“We particularly loved the mural on the outside of the library!”
The mystery visitors noted an abundance of healthcare facilities in McCreary County. They also noted the local blend of nice houses and abandoned buildings with an apparent lack of rentals. The schools were deemed to be in good condition with the availability of a community college identified as an asset.
The visitors specified the lack of an obvious Visitor Center. One visitor, noting a lack of signage, was given directions down Main Street but was still unable to locate the building. Other comments noted the lack of banners and promotional materials (downtown) for local events, festivals, and local tourism draw.
The lack of intentional gardens, flowers or foliage, and green spaces was pinpointed.
Trail signage and “brown” tourism signs (federal) as well as the “Welcome to Stearns Trail Town” entrance area were regarded as positives for tourism.
The Stearns Ranger Station was recognized as being nice; although the county’s outside gazebo at that location needs some maintenance.
One mystery visitor enjoyed the train ride; while another with a family of four deemed the ticket cost too expensive for a family.
In general, most of the comments indicated a need for the county to add some “curb appeal.” Comments included:
“I noticed several broken sidewalks in town.”
“Most buildings seemed empty and in various states of disrepair. They weren’t rundown as much as they were just old brick buildings that probably used to be filled a few decades ago.”
“The main areas of the community didn’t seem to be set up with benches, drinking fountains, or those types of amenities that make a community feel like a place you want to walk around and spend time in.”
“The streetscapes/landscaping seemed relatively well maintained. There could be a bit more color downtown and cleaned up/trimmed shrubbery around signage.”
Some of the positives noted were the library (with eye-catching signage design), the green space/park across from UCB on Main Street, pavilion and sign for the McCreary County Farmers Market, County Park, and Whitley City Fire Department (looked very nice and rather new).
Lodging, Restaurants, & Retail
Comments indicated an availability of spaces to rent for store fronts but a lack of hotel offerings. Some comments indicated the available hotels were not places they would want to stay.
Among those local businesses highlighted positively by the mystery visitors are: Kristina’s Kitchen, Red Roof Surplus, Whistle Stop, Santa Fe Mexican Restaurant, Bradley’s, and a thrift store.
The lack of a “Shop Local” campaign and signage was noticed. The addition of eclectic eateries (such as Miguel’s Pizza at the Red River Gorge) was encouraged.
Arts and Culture
The few existing murals and the McCreary County Kentucky History and Genealogy Facebook page posts were noted positively within this category. The Museum was mentioned.
Pottery by Megh and Mountain Craft Center were mentioned positively.
A lack of civic engagement, community slogans, and lack of cohesive identity were noted. Artwork (murals, etc.) to tie the community identity together was suggested.
“There are several opportunities for artwork in this community. A few more murals or paintings would go a long way.”
“There is a nice Appalachian identity, and a nice identity of outdoor recreation. I also felt the spirit of small town hospitality was apparent.”
The analysis summarized the lasting impressions of the mystery visitors after their McCreary County experiences. Overall, outdoor beauty, affordability of prices, and friendliness of local folks were regarded as positives. Challenges to overcome were: lack of a downtown hub, lack of things to do outside of outdoor activities (if available, itineraries needed), lack of openings and things to do on Sundays.
Visitor recommendations included: development of county maps to help visitors plan their time in McCreary County, more branding and signage of “Downtown Whitley City” as a whole, and more attention to visuals. One visitor commented:
“Many buildings could use a little spruce up-not complete renovations, but some pressure washing and a little landscaping. Perhaps a community effort would invite more people to participate and create some buy-in.”
Based on the feedback compiled from the visits to McCreary County, final recommendations were as follows:
- Audit existing websites and update information.
- Establish a clear community identity. While there are several successful tourism initiatives with Cumberland Falls and Stearns, these activities feel disconnected from Whitley City. Establishing a cohesive, clear community identity can allow the entire county to have consistent themes and work towards a common goal to attract and retain visitors.
- Clean and update signage to highlight current attractions.