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Constance Alexander: Celebrating community identity, creative placemaking one step at a time

(Image courtesy Murray Convention and Visitors Bureau)

Besides butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers, Murray’s Downtown Farmers Market also features farm to fresh foods, arts and crafts, flowers, plants, jewelry, a portrait artist, exotic imported attire, a fiddler. The list goes on and on. Bottom line, people of all ages travel from near and far to meet and greet each other every Saturday from May to October on the courthouse square.

What is the attraction? Simply put, Murray feels like home.

The people who thronged the farmers market this holiday weekend were not focused on buying alone. They were enjoying the cheerful hustle and bustle that emerges when engaged in activities that inspire civic pride.

According to Eric Carrico, Executive Director of Murray’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, “One of the things that makes Murray most attractive to visitors is the sense of community and spirit. You can’t see it,” she admits, “but you can feel it.”

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

“Feels like Home” is the slogan that captures local identity, encompassing the many ways the intangible is transformed into activities and programs.

The evolution from thought to specific things takes time. For example, last year’s installation of 62 wayfinding signs throughout the community took eight years to implement. In addition, the four murals that capture attention of drivers and walkers as they approach the heart of downtown did not materialize overnight either.

Deana Wright has guided Murray’s Main Street program for 24 years. Throughout that time, programs and partnerships – including Downtown Farmers Market — have emerged to cultivate pride and ownership.

According to Wright, people spend time at the farmers market not just for something to do, but for a sense of place. “You can buy things,” she said, “but you can also see your neighbor.”

Nationally acclaimed experts like Jeff Siegler, founder of a consulting firm that specializes in working with small rural communities, would view Murray as an example of transforming a sense of place into sustainable programs and policies.

Siegler’s no-nonsense approach is reflected in the name Revitalize or Die, which encompasses urban planning, downtown district management, revitalization, real estate, economics and organizational development, as building blocks that address community concerns.

“This is not ‘new urbanism,’” Siegler declared.

In years of consulting, Siegler recognized repeated patterns that affect identity of rural communities.

“When our human habitat is negative, so are we,” he explained last week as keynote speaker for the 2023 Placemaking in Small and Rural Communities Conference.

“Every community takes on the character of its residents. When people stop caring, they become unhealthy. The more things we’re proud of, we’re healthier.”

Civic pride in Murray is evidenced in an array of tangibles. Expansion of the local library, free activities like outdoor movies on the courthouse square and concerts in the park, businesses locally owned and operated are some examples.

Transportation improvements on Routes 68-80 and Route 641 ease access in and out of town. With a campus providing many free opportunities for enrichment and enjoyment, Murray State University is another community asset.

The ability of local organizations to foster an authentic sense of place is achieved with simple, thoughtful measures. For instance, this Memorial Day weekend, downtown Murray lauded local heroes with banners to celebrate current or former residents who have served, or are currently serving, in any branch of military service, or are affiliated with any veteran organization.

The places and spaces that feel like home can make us feel proud, connected and accomplished. When downtowns are replaced by strip malls cluttered with outlets of national chains, local pride erodes.

The way Siegler sees it, “We have Main Street vs. Wall Street, with shareholders more important than locals. We’ve retrofitted society around the car, so we’re better off when we drive instead of walking.”

“We lose our sense of belonging,” he said.

How can rural communities gain it back? By fostering civic pride to tell stories of our town; ask more of ourselves when it comes to vacant and blighted properties; foster the growth of local developers; make foot traffic easier; plant flowers.

Without these and other actions, we live among a bunch of strangers because of lack of inclusion.

“Towns get negative when there is a lack of optimism,” Siegler concluded. “But people want pretty places to live. The secret is to connect and empower.”

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  1. pat seiber says:

    Thanks so much for showcasing Murray. We know what a jewel of a town it is, but many are not aware of all Murray has to offer. As my son used to say, “If Murray had a body, I’d give it a hug.”

  2. Anne Adams says:

    Thank you, Connie, for another wonderful, insightful article. I share your pride in our community. So happy we met 35 years ago! You get it AND share it!

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