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2017 in review: Constitution Square hosts parties, makes headlines

Editor’s note: This is one of six big stories of 2017, as chosen by The Advocate-Messenger.

The “Birthplace of Kentucky” had a very big year in 2017. Constitution Square Park — where constitutional conventions were held more than two centuries ago that led to the founding of Kentucky as a state — hosted Kentucky’s kickoff for its 225th birthday on June 1. And many eyes and feet returned to Danville in September, when the original Kentucky Constitution returned to the place it was created for a day of public and private viewings.

On top of all that, 2017 saw Boyle County begin a push for donations to Constitution Square’s endowment — a pair of funds officials hope will provide the money needed to maintain the historic park in perpetuity once they’ve gathered enough value.

News of the plan to celebrate Kentucky’s 225th birthday at Constitution Square first broke in February, when Kentucky Commissioner of Travel Kristin Branscum visited the park for a tour and announced what officials had in mind.

The Constitution Square party on the actual founding date of June 1 kicked off a year-long series of special events around the state that are still going on now.

Branscum said in February that the goal of the year of celebrations is to look back at what Kentucky has accomplished and what makes the state great, and then talk about what can be done to make the state even better.

“We know we’ve got issues, but we know that we can make ourselves better — and look at all the great things we’ve done in this commonwealth, what we’re known for over the last 225 years,” Branscum said. “This 225th is a great (way) to make history exciting and really put it in context with the state and what we’re doing and where we can go with it.”

Around 200 people filled the park for the party, The Advocate-Messenger estimated in June.

“Welcome home, Kentucky! Everybody wants to go home on their birthday, don’t they?” said Harold McKinney, Boyle County judge-executive, as he delivered a toast during the birthday celebration. “We are here in the cradle of the commonwealth. Y’all know that, right? And the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. That’s why we think we ought to be in charge of the world in this community.”

Also in attendance was Kentucky State Treasurer Allison Ball, who has a lengthy family history to match the state’s — she is a ninth-generation Kentuckian from a family that has lived in the Floyd County area since the 1790s.

“These folks dressed up over here — they probably look about the way that my ancestors would have looked in 1790,” Ball said, referencing the reenactors who populated Constitution Square all day as part of the festivities. “It’s almost a piece of family history.”

Ball was one of four to lead the crowd in toasts of Kentucky, along with Branscum, McKinney and Danville Mayor Mike Perros.

The Rev. Jim Stewart from Danville’s Presbyterian Church delivered a sermon of sorts on Kentucky’s history, highlighting famous and less-famous Kentuckians from across the state’s 225 years who fought for better things. Stewart spoke about lawyer and orator Henry Clay, black journalist Alice Dunnigan and others, including the David Rice — a delegate from the Danville Presbyterian Church to the constitutional convention when Kentucky was founded, who argued that Kentucky ought to abolish slavery.

Less than four months later, the original Kentucky Constitution came to town and was put on display at Grayson’s Tavern in the park.

It’s not common for the public to have access to see the first Kentucky Constitution — it’s usually kept locked in an archival, climate-controlled safe at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort.

When the Constitution makes a rare trip, it travels in specially built cases designed to keep it safe. And two Kentucky Historical Society employees who travel with it — one archivist and another to assist — are trained on how to handle it, how to set it up for viewing.

Dr. Amanda Higgins, one of two who traveled with the documents,  said Kentucky has actually had four constitutions — the original on display Friday made Kentucky a state in 1792; leaders wrote new constitutions in 1799 and 1850; and the one the state currently operates under was written in 1891.

The original Constitution notes on its final page that it was created in Danville. And it’s signed by two people — Thomas Todd, the clerk for the conventions credited with writing the Constitution down; and Samuel McDowell, the president of the constitutional conventions and a founder of Kentucky known well to Danville and Boyle County as an influential politician and father of Ephraim McDowell.

There were losses for the park as well, though. The Kentucky State BBQ Festival had been held in the park for five years, but after the festival organizers failed to get Danville officials on-board with closing Main Street to allow the festival to grow, it moved from downtown out to Wilderness Trail Distillery on the edge of town.

“We do need more space. We loved having it downtown; it’s quaint. We didn’t want to change a darn thing,” festival organizer Brad Simmons said in March. “But we do need more space if we want bigger and better music and more vendors.”

Jennifer Kirchner, director of the Danville-Boyle County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said when organizers told her they were relocating, “my first reaction was, honestly, just to be sad.”

“I do feel like it’s a bit of a loss for downtown, but I see why they want to do it and it’s good to see it at another tourism partner at the distillery,” she said. “Ultimately, I think it’s the right move and I understand it.”

Currently, Boyle County Fiscal Court owns and maintains Constitution Square. Several organizations use office space in the park’s buildings, including the Danville-Boyle County Chamber of Commerce, the Danville-Boyle County Economic Development Partnership, the Heart of Danville Main Street program and the CVB.

Instead of always paying for park maintenance out of its general fund, the fiscal court has set up two endowment funds it hopes will one day generate enough interest to cover all the costs.

One fund, an “agency” fund, can only be given to by the fiscal court. The goal for that fund is around $300,000-$350,000, which would hopefully provide $12,000-$14,000 annually in interest that could be used to pay for maintenance of the existing facilities.

The other fund, a “designated” fund, can accept donations from anyone. McKinney has said the “goal for that fund is sort of an amorphous amount — it’s how far of you want to go with programming, how far do you want to go with management, expanding the park.”

Late this year, the EDP put Constitution Square on a short list of priorities for economic development efforts.

“A downtown experience could be created through an emphasis on ‘surprise and delight’ of those visiting (downtown). It is imperative to establish a ‘reason’ for visiting Constitution Square that is enhanced by installation of sculptures for children to play upon or adults to use to relax, programming using headsets or other media, and general improvement in lighting and trees,” an EDP priorities document reads. “Small retail businesses would cluster around and between (Weisiger) Park and (Constitution Square) to attract the public. Funding for this project and consistency in the project’s support by stakeholders ware the issues to overcome.”