Money for Town With Anti-Discrimination Ordinance
Eight months after this tiny Appalachian town took a stand against gay-based discrimination, it’s basking in a flurry of attention and even an infusion of much-needed cash. All that hoopla has its openly gay mayor dreaming of reviving a place that had long seemed past its prime.
Out-of-towners occasionally venture well off the interstate to make the trek to Vicco, a fading coal town of about 330 residents where an aging row of buildings lines one side of the block-long downtown. Railroad tracks run along the other side, though trains rarely pass by anymore.
Visitors pose for pictures in front of the Mayberry-like city hall or shake hands with Mayor Johnny Cummings, 51, a chain-smoking hair salon operator who grew up in the town, spent some time living on both coasts, and then returned home.
"I thought the 15 minutes of fame would have been over a long time ago," Cummings said.
Not even close.
The town may even become the setting for a reality-based television show. Cummings said he expects to review a contract proposal soon from a production company, but doesn’t know which network might be interested.
He said he wants the show to focus on revitalizing the town.
"I don’t see us being that entertaining, but somebody else seems to think we’re a little unusual," he said.
Vicco was singled out, and drew applause, last week when University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto described Kentucky as a place "deep in values that show up in unexpected ways and in unexpected places." The event featured Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan on UK’s campus.
Perhaps even more welcome since passing the ordinance: a potential financial windfall for the cash-strapped town that has seen its population steadily decline.
The town, about 130 miles southeast of Lexington, made national headlines when three of four commissioners voted in January to pass the ordinance, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations. City leaders said at the time they simply thought it was the right thing to do, and today marvel at the attention that has followed.
"All this hoopla, we’re enjoying it," said Tony Vaughn, the town’s police chief and friend of the mayor. "But our main focus is still getting a small town back to having jobs and revitalizing the area."
After passage, letters of support poured in from across the country, along with a handful of letters condemning the ordinance, the mayor said.
Money was tucked into some of the supportive letters, mostly in the range of $25 donations. A pastor from New England sent $40 to buy a round of beers for locals who appeared in a segment about Vicco by Comedy Central’s "The Colbert Report."
A few other supporters are digging much deeper to show appreciation for the town’s action.
A mother and son in California pledged to buy all the new playground equipment for a city park, a project that could reach $90,000, Cummings said. He declined to identify them, but said the gift would greatly expand what was going to be a modest new playground. The town had scraped together enough money to buy a couple of swing sets and a see-saw, he said.
The town is applying for an $80,000 grant from a private, out-of-state company that encouraged the application, he said. A company representative reached out to town leaders after hearing about the ordinance, Cummings said. The money would be used to rehab buildings and the sidewalks in the downtown area.
A man who runs an out of-state website company is donating his time to create a website for the town. And an Iraqi-born artist who lives in Louisville plans to paint a mural on an outside wall at Vicco city hall to showcase diversity.
All together, the pledges and grant applications amount to more than $200,000, approaching Vicco’s annual budget of about $300,000, Cummings said. Still, the town has only a tiny fraction of that money in hand.
Cummings has ideas on how to spend it.
The town is cleaning up the weed- and trash-infested banks along the North Fork of the Kentucky River, which flows through town. The mayor wants to build a walking path and fishing piers along the river. Now, people have to fish off a bridge as traffic goes by.
"They need a safer place to fish," he said. "We’re a little short on that budget, so we’re working on that."
He hopes to renovate downtown storefronts and put in new sidewalks.
A more modest update will be a new downtown bench, paid for with a $1,000 donation from another Californian, he said.
Vicco City Commissioner Jimmy Slone, who voted for the ordinance, said he hopes the attention restores some vitality to the town.
"It was a dead town, but it’s looking up," he said.
That isn’t to say the ordinance has been welcomed by all.
Area resident Kim Sturgill said it’s divisive. She’s heard some residents talk about moving away because of the ordinance, but Sturgill said she’s staying put, despite her objections.
"My thoughts were, they should have kept it in the closet," she said. "What people do is their own business, but that really messes with the town."
Vicco is by far the smallest of the five cities in socially conservative Kentucky to adopt ordinances protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination. The others are Louisville, Lexington, Covington and Frankfort. None appear to have gotten the amount of attention that Vicco has.
Two other Appalachian communities, Morehead and Berea, are discussing the issue, and grassroots efforts are under way in nearly a dozen other community across the state, said Chris Hartman, director of the Louisville-based Fairness Campaign, a gay-advocacy group.
Hartman calls Vicco a "modern-day civil rights leader." He said Vicco’s ordinance "helped quash many stereotypes about Appalachia and how rural Kentucky and, really, rural America, feels about" gay-rights issues.
So far, no cases have come up to trigger enforcement of Vicco’s ordinance, the mayor said. One landlord worried the ordinance would prevent her from evicting people who fail to pay rent. Cummings said he reassured her that she could evict them.
Similar ordinances have been enforced elsewhere in Kentucky, Hartman said. In Louisville and Lexington, the state’s two largest cities, local officials investigate dozens of claims of discrimination each year based on a person’s sexual orientation, he said.
Hartman said he’s not seen such an outpouring of response for another community that took on the issue.
Cummings plans to run for re-election as mayor next year. He said he doesn’t expect gay rights to be much of an issue.
"There are certain churches and certain people that will never agree with it," Cummings said. "But in general, it’s all been pretty calm."