IRVINE, Ky. — Trains and railways are a part of Eastern Kentucky’s heritage that has been slowly slipping away, but “The Yard,” an economic development project, plans to make them a key part of the region’s future.
Backers hope The Yard, a 40-acre former railroad property in Irvine, will someday feature a 75-year-old steam locomotive, a rail rehab facility, a machine shop, an interactive museum, a restaurant and a pavilion to spur revitalization of Eastern Kentucky’s economy.
The Estill County project is led by Kentucky Steam, a non-profit with a goal of restoring historic rail equipment and bolstering economic development in Appalachian Kentucky by adaptive reuse of the area’s rail infrastructure.
The Yard has come together slow and steady.
In 2016, Kentucky Steam agreed to lease a steam locomotive from the Kentucky Railway Museum. Kentucky Steam President Chris Campbell said the 75-year-old steam locomotive, Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Steam Locomotive 2716, will be the tourism project’s focal point. Once it is repaired, the steam locomotive will be one of only a few in the nation operating.
A working locomotive is like a dinosaur that has been brought back to life, Campbell said. It wheezes, drips and shakes the ground, creating interest because of its novelty.
Two years later, in 2018, Kentucky Steam purchased property for The Yard.
Joe Crawford, executive director of the Estill Development Alliance, is cautiously optimistic about Kentucky Steam’s plans. “We’ve had our heart broken before,” he said.
Last month, Hardy Oil Company in Irvine announced it will be the title sponsor of “Hardy Pavilion at The Yard.” Campbell said pieces of the puzzle that have been in the making for more than a year are starting to come together.
“It’s not a matter of if, it’s when,” Campbell said. “This Hardy Pavilion is really going to be a way we can publicize our endeavour and say ‘Hey, this isn’t just a dreamed thing, it’s coming to reality.’”’
Campbell said he estimates the final project will cost $5 million to $8 million. The non-profit has raised $300,000 and is applying for grants. The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet awarded Kentucky Steam a $120,000 partially-forgivable loan.
Campbell estimates The Yard, once completed in three to five years, will bring 170,000 visitors a year and bring in $1.75 million annually, with an economic impact five times that amount throughout the region.
The pavilion will be able to hold 4,500 people. It will be used for concerts, but Michael Hardy, the vice-president of Hardy Oil Company, said it can be adapted for other community gatherings.
“As a fan of live music, I initially envisioned attending a concert in Irvine with 4,500 of our closest friends,” Hardy said. “But it can be so much more. Whether it’s used as an outdoor classroom in conjunction with an educational field trip, as a stage for the high school concert band to perform, or perhaps as a centralized pavilion and lawn area to host a farmer’s market, its uses might only be limited by the imagination.”
Campbell said the pavilion is a natural fit in Estill County, which has been an anchor for music in the region and a champion of Appalachian folk rock and country. It’s home of the annual Kickin’ It On The Creek music festival and Tyler and Senora May Childers. The county also produced Kevin Richardson of the Backstreet Boys.
Organizers hope the pavilion can be operational by late summer or early fall of 2021, when COVID-19 restrictions will hopefully be lifted.
“COVID-19 is only a pause, not a hesitation,” Hardy said. “By that I mean we have not hesitated in our sponsorship of this project despite the significant changes we all have encountered, but merely paused its travel from vision to venue. While we may not know when, we are optimistic that life will return to normal again and gatherings, such as those at The Yard, will return soon.”
Campbell understands most people aren’t train enthusiasts and said The Yard can’t be “a one-trick pony.” The pavilion makes the project multi-faceted, but he hopes visitors see and understand the impact trains have had on Eastern Kentucky.
Irvine, like much of the region, has long been economically dependent on coal and the trains that carried it. The region was economically crushed as the industry declined in the last decade, Hardy said.
“The trains stopped moving, jobs were eliminated, and the livelihoods that depended on both simply disappeared,” Hardy said. “This project, while giving a nod to our proud history, provides more than just the jobs directly associated with it. The trickle-down economic impact of The Yard’s visitors will be felt by our local businesses and community partners looking for any means to replace a source of revenue they once depended upon.”
Crawford said trains were a way of life for many in the region, recalling how he often listened to trains pass through in the night as a child.
“When it’s gone, you miss it,” Crawford said. “The sounds of the railroads are who we are. It’s who we are, and it’s so exciting to get back to that.”
Backers of The Yard also hope Estill County vocational students will be able to get hands-on training in its machine shop. While working on trains, the students will learn valuable skills, such as welding, pipe-fitting, fabrication and metal bending.
The Yard will draw visitors to Eastern Kentucky, Crawford said, but tourism will not be the sole answer to building back an economy that had relied on coal for decades.
Campbell said The Yard will be an example of ways to capitalize on the already existing assets of the region.
“(The Yard) will be a calling card in saying there’s a lot of things that we can do here and we don’t always have to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “We’re essentially utilizing old infrastructure and just reusing it.”
Liz Moomey, The Herald-Leader, The Associated Press