Strongest Town 2022, Round 1: Frankfort, KY vs. Middlesboro, KY


Entry submitted by: Layne Wilkerson, Mayor; Laura Hagg, City Manager; Rebecca Hall, Grants Manager; Blair Hecker, Project Specialist.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

Frankfort embodies the essence of everything that makes Kentucky special, from her natural charm and beauty, to her innovation and world-renowned bourbon—making Frankfort truly Kentucky distilled. As the state capital, Frankfort is host to state government, where the rotunda of the Capitol building rises above the city.  Being the seat of state government means we’ve got educated citizens with great people skills. It means diversity, including renowned Kentucky State University. It means being close to where all the most important decisions are being made for Kentucky business.

Frankfort is hands-on. You can go to the decision-makers and talk to them on a personal level.  Frankfort has its own unique character, too.  Water lovers have their pick of two marinas, boat rentals, swimming, fishing, kayaking, and canoeing. Parks featuring winding trails are popular with runners, walkers and cyclists. Frankfort  is home to two golf courses, a mountain bike course and a wildlife sanctuary. Perhaps no place in Frankfort better represents the city’s balance between the charm of history and innovation than Historic Downtown. In the shadow of the Old State Capitol, historic buildings are home to modern boutique shops, galleries, and restaurants. Red brick streets are filled on Friday and Saturday nights with visitors and residents enjoying live music, special events, good food, and friends. Frankfort is powered by strong character and hard work, as the home to several major bourbon distilling brands, as well as global manufacturers.   Frankfort is Capitol halls and bourbon balls, rolling hills and rushing rivers, southern hospitality and global connections. Frankfort is the best of Kentucky.

What is the biggest challenge your town faces, and what are you doing to address it?

Being the seat of Kentucky state government has its merits, but also its challenges. As the Capital city, Frankfort is host to numerous state government-owned properties that do not generate local property tax revenues. Frankfort also hosts a large percentage of state government workers during the work week. The COVID-19 pandemic sent many of those workers to their home communities, creating challenges for the city’s occupational tax revenue. Frankfort also often has a hard time distinguishing itself from state government, its politics, and its policies. While Frankfort enjoys the hands-on accessibility of state government, it has its own unique identity. 

To address these issues, the City of Frankfort has several strategic goals to unite state and city leaders to improve and maximize our partnership. Currently, a major downtown redevelopment project is in the works, as a result of a partnership with the state government, where a previously state-owned parcel of land will be privately developed in partnership with the city. City leadership is prioritizing relationships with state government leaders to create more opportunities in the future. The Frankfort community is also focused on incentivizing smart growth and partnering with corporate job creators to attract and retain a diversified workforce, to maximize occupational tax possibilities. Frankfort is working on rebranding itself, as a Kentucky Distilled community, truly embodying the essence of the best of all things Kentucky.  The City’s newly adopted Strategic Plan incorporates a priority for the Story of Frankfort, telling the past, present, and future of our own story. 

What transportation options exist in your town for people of varying ages, abilities, and means? How easy is it to live in your town without regular access to a car? What transportation investments has your town recently made or is it in the process of making?

The City of Frankfort has many transportation options.  The City houses its own transportation department, Frankfort Transit, providing several means of bus transportation.  Frankfort Transit provides fixed routes throughout the city; demand response that provides one-way, door-to-door  service, depending on the needs of the passengers and if there is not an accessible deviated-fixed route; and Saturday routes specifically to assist residents needing transportation to jobs and medical appointments.  Frankfort Transit offers services to anyone in the community and all transit drivers are trained to assist passengers with disabilities.

Outside of public transit, Frankfort has a transportation focused, non-profit organization, Walk Bike Frankfort, that is dedicated to making the capital city the best in the state for pedestrians and cyclists.  Walk Bike Frankfort works with the local governments and the community to create and keep updated a Walk Bike Master Plan, providing comprehensive recommendations for improving pedestrian and cycling access throughout Frankfort. The City of Frankfort refers to this plan when making road improvements. The City itself has made several investments recently to improve pedestrian accessibility. In 2021, the City opened a new trail that connects Kentucky State University to downtown Frankfort along a former rail bed. Currently the City is in the middle of a $12 TIGER grant project for one of the main corridors of town, which includes improving access for non vehicular traffic in a heavily traveled area. And, the City is in the process of planning for improvements to another main corridor through a RAISE planning grant.

Tell us about your community’s local economy. Who are the key players, big and small, and how do they help your town to be financially strong and resilient? What local businesses are you most proud of?

Kentucky is a manufacturing and industrial state and Frankfort represents the essence of that. Bourbon distilling is the main industry in the state, with 95% of the world’s bourbon  made in Kentucky, where there are more barrels of bourbon than people. Frankfort is home to several major bourbon distilleries, including an iconic distillery that  is the leader among the legendary spirit makers of Kentucky. All of these distillers are some of the main economic players in the community, housing major bottling and shipping operations, bringing in thousands of tourists annually, and contributing to the growth and quality of life in the Frankfort community. 

Frankfort also has a thriving small, locally owned business environment. In the downtown business district in 2021, there was over $120 million in planned, ongoing, or completed downtown investment projects. These projects range from bourbon tourism centered business ventures, to local retail shops, boutique hotels, and restaurants and bars. The City of Frankfort has been a key player in this downtown investment initiative, by supplying grant funds through downtown reinvestment grants. The local economy is projected to keep growing, as several of the distilleries are seeing booming growth, and one in particular has a multimillion dollar expansion planned. There is also approximately $15 million of growth planned in small, locally owned businesses coming to or expanding in the city of Frankfort in 2022. 

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