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Women are leading downtown Hopkinsville’s renaissance

The iconic clock tower in downtown Hopkinsville.
Liam Niemeyer
The iconic clock tower in downtown Hopkinsville.

Downtown Hopkinsville has seen an influx of several new locally owned businesses in the last decade — including restaurants, caterers, a coffeehouse, a brewery, several gift and clothing shops, photographers, media companies and an event center.

Women own and run almost all of them.

The startups, along with several established ventures, account for more than 30 businesses, nonprofits and agencies that are run by women entrepreneurs and executives in the heart of downtown. That number doesn’t even include the women who practice law and have healthcare practices downtown.

They are part of an effort to bring downtown Hopkinsville back to something resembling the bustling place it was when stores such as Tom Wade’s, Clayton’s, Cayce-Yost and many others were fixtures in the community.

The decline of downtown as the city’s retail core started in the 1970s — as it did in many American towns when local shopkeepers began to migrate to malls and suburban shopping centers. Around the same time, local merchants found it harder to compete with retail chains such as Walmart.

Alissa Keller stands next to a bell hooks poster.
Aly Adler
The Hoptown Chronicle
Alissa Keller stands next to a bell hooks poster.

In Hopkinsville, that retail shift left a number of the city’s historic downtown buildings vacant. Many sat empty for decades, and some had to be razed. Others have been restored, including the two cultural centers of downtown — the Alhambra Theatre run by the Pennyroyal Arts Council with executive director Margaret Prim and the Pennyroyal Area Museum, which is part of the Museums of Historic Hopkinsville-Christian County, where Alissa Keller is in charge.

As a historian, Keller understands the cultural significance of women leading Hopkinsville’s downtown revival.

“Women are expected in roles now that they weren’t 50 years ago,” she said.

However, stereotypes still exist, said Keller, and there are lingering beliefs that women can’t handle both a family and a career. A woman might be viewed as too feminine to be strong, or too strong to be feminine.

“Being yourself,” is the answer, said Keller, who identifies as a career woman in her hometown.

Before she became executive director for the local museums in 2012, Keller lived in Charleston, South Carolina, for several years. There she worked in tourism, drove a horse-drawn carriage, managed a tour guide company, told ghost stories and earned her master’s degree in historic preservation.

She loved the work in Charleston, but it was a competitive environment and it was difficult to get the opportunities she needed to be successful. Hopkinsville provided something she couldn’t find in Charleston — community.

Keller said she always feels supported here, giving her the confidence to go out and accomplish her dreams. Everyone in the downtown area chips in and helps each other out, she said.

“No matter how far you run, Hopkinsville is always going to be with you. I think some people don’t appreciate that,” she said. But to Keller, it means everything.

Another woman who has a collaborative spirit for downtown is Julie-Anna Carlisle, who owns Milkweed Health & Harmony Emporium in the old Odd Fellows Building at Ninth and Virginia streets.

“I want my business to be a welcoming place,” said Carlisle. “There are many women helping each other promote their businesses.”

Carlisle believes it’s her job not only as a business owner, but also as a feminist, to support other women in the community. While her shop is known for its handmade soaps, essential oils and teas, she also sells art made by people in Hopkinsville and surrounding communities.

She wants her business to be a safe space that feels welcoming and inclusive. The idea is connected to her grandfather’s gas station that was called Liberty Bell in Kettle, Kentucky.

When she was growing up, Carlisle felt like the gas station was a “magical place.” People would come from all over town to meet at Liberty Bell to get gas or maybe just sit in a lawn chair and smoke a pipe. It’s the same kind of environment Carlisle has tried to create at Milkweed.

Holly Boggess, who directs the city’s Downtown Renaissance District for Community and Development Services, has seen the growth of women-led businesses in Hopkinsville’s historic core.

A flyer promoting Milkweed Health & Harmony Emporium’s Women on the Rise Event highlights downtown women leaders.
A flyer promoting Milkweed Health & Harmony Emporium’s Women on the Rise Event highlights downtown women leaders.

“We have great relationships with all the businesses, but we are always excited to see the diversity of the business ownership become more vast,” she said.

Hopkinsville’s downtown incentive programs have put $1.2 million into the city core, while private investments have pumped another $10.7 million into downtown in the past 14 years, said Boggess.

The incentives and the private investments have given local business owners new opportunities. Boggess believes this has brought more diversity to the downtown area and has given Hopkinsville entrepreneurs the chance to showcase their talents.

The revitalization is also responsible for boosting downtown as a destination with numerous events at the museums, Founders Square, the Alhambra, Hopkinsville Brewing, the restaurants and in shops.

Carlisle, true to her word about building community, hosted a Women’s History Month event Thursday evening in her store. Women on the Rise, a panel discussion, featured Keller with Human Rights Commission executive director Idalia Luna and Hopkinsville Brewing Co. founder and co-owner Kate Russell.

Keller, Luna and Russell, along with Carlisle, are among the women who have emerged as downtown leaders in the last 10 years.

This story was originally published by the Hoptown Chronicle, a nonprofit newsroom covering Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Aly Adler is a senior at Christian County High School. She is thinking about a career in journalism. This article, co-written with Hoptown Chronicle editor Jennifer P. Brown, is her first news story.

Aly Adler is a senior at Christian County High School.
Jennifer P. Brown is the founder and editor of Hoptown Chronicle.
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