Work on renovating old Belk building into community center gaining momentum

Published 9:30 am Thursday, October 26, 2023

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By Jennifer McDaniels

For the Enterprise

A sneak-peek tour of the old Belk building in downtown Harlan that has been under renovation for several years was given recently by arts group members helping with its slow but steady transformation. The cast of Higher Ground, a local theatrical organization that produces community plays to not only promote mountain culture but also to create dialogue about local issues such as the drug problem and equality, were on hand last Thursday evening to show the progress being made on the old store that they hope see turned into a community center.

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The renovation is being done by the Harlan County Community Foundation, which owns the building, in partnership with Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College (SKCTC).

Robert Gipe, who formerly worked at SKCTC as its Appalachian Programming Director, led the sneak-peek tour of the old Belk building on Thursday, telling the gathering it was hoped to be officially open in July of 2024.

As part of his former position as SKCTC’s Appalachian Programming Director, Gipe headed up the Higher Ground initiative until he retired in 2018 and has stayed involved in the Belk building renovation effort because he believes in how impactful the arts can be in communities and because he wanted to see through his commitment to the project.

Gipe said the first sizeable funding to renovate the building came from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) in 2017, and was followed by other funding sources such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, James Graham Brown Foundation and local investors.

“We’ve been able to raise a lot of this money because it involves workforce development and downtown renovation,” Gipe said. “The training component of the workers and their renovation of the building at the same time, funders like that because it’s both developing the people and the place. It’s been important to me to stay with this project because we’re keeping the faith that this will be something beneficial to which people can devote their time and creativity.”

Nicole Garneau, an artist in residence currently working with Higher Ground, said arts participation helps build healthier communities and facilitates stronger ties among people.

“This project of revitalizing a downtown community into a new performance space is so ambitious and beautiful,” said Garneau, who is originally from Chicago but has an extensive theater background in the Berea area. “I’ve been a big fan of Higher Ground for many years. I’ve seen their shows throughout the years and have always had tremendous respect for Higher Ground in Harlan, so I feel really lucky and privileged to be able to work with them as an artist in residence.”

Kate Handzlik, current Higher Ground Creative Director at SKCTC, said the purpose of Thursday’s sneak-peek tour of the old Belk building was to get cast members and the community excited for its projected grand opening.

“We’ve been working on this for a while,” Handzlik said. “It hasn’t been safe enough to bring people inside, and now it’s finally at a place where we can imagine a little better with our community what this space can be.”

Gipe agreed the building had a lot of work to do when his group was handed its keys. There had been previous flooding, so a new roof had to be installed once the building dried.

Thursday’s sneak peek saw clean floors, newly-installed electrical wiring, and wooden frames now in place that will house the future community center’s various rooms, such as a planned retail store that will be used as a business incubator of sorts, a restaurant, plus performance and multi-purpose area.

The Harlan County Community Foundation’s plan for the building is to be a mixed-use space, including retail, residential, and office space, as well as space for community gatherings and cultural activities.

Gipe said the grand opening for the community arts center is slated to coincide with Higher Ground’s tenth play production and an arts and wellness festival the group is planning.

He also said it was a good time for Higher Ground to explore through theater and a planned community gathering ways that Harlan County can heal after the COVID-19 pandemic and how the arts can be used in the healing process.

Gipe said Higher Ground teamed up with Clover Fork Clinic and Harlan County government to carry out the One Nation/One Project grant funding intent to promote a new term being used in the medical field called social prescribing, which involves doctors prescribing holistic health resources, such as involvement in the arts, to improve the well being of patients.

“Around the country there have been some examples of doctors prescribing participation in the arts and cultural activities and insurance companies paying for it,” Gipe said. “We don’t know if that will ever happen here, but that’s the goal, the idea being that with theater, music, making things with our hands – just being involved with other people and making something beautiful together –  is good for your health. I think there is starting to be scientific evidence around the fact that it’s good for you.”

Garneau, who is helping with the tenth Higher Ground play development based on the arts-wellness initiative, said while the script is still a work in progress, stories are being gathered and dialogue is being created to address health concerns in Harlan County.

“I think this is really important work to make strong connections between the ways in which participation in the arts contribute to our own, individual health, which I  personally can definitely say it does contribute to good health, and how arts participation helps build better communities,” she said.

An arts festival and health fair will take place in downtown Harlan on July 27, 2024, to coincide with the drama’s release.

The festival, which has been called MAMAW Fest (Mountains of Appalachia Music And Wellness Festival) will celebrate women as health keepers of their community, the contributions of community health care providers, and will address how connecting the arts to good health is beneficial.

The restored Belk building, the community drama and festival’s headquarters will also be officially opened to the public.

For more information on becoming involved with Higher Ground, contact Handzlik at SKCTC by calling (606) 589-2145.