Tiny Kentucky town sees windfall after coming out against bias

By Bruce Schreiner, AP writer

Out-of-towners occasionally venture well off the interstate to make the trek to Vicco, Ky., 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 out 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.

The town, about 130 miles southeast of Lexington, Ky., made national headlines when three of four commissioners voted in January to pass an ordinance prohibiting 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. Today they marvel at the attention that has followed.

“I thought the 15 minutes of fame would have been over a long time ago,” Cummings said.

Not even close.

The town may 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 in mid-September, 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 U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan on UK’s campus.

Perhaps even more welcome since passing the ordinance has been a potential financial windfall for the cash-strapped town that has seen its population steadily decline.

“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 on 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 have been a very modest new playground. The town had scraped together only 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. The money would be used to rehab buildings and sidewalks in the downtown area.

A man who runs an out-of-state website company is donating his time to create a site 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. 

Cummings has ideas on how to spend it.

Workers are 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. People currently 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.”

A more modest update will be a new downtown bench, paid for with a $1,000 donation from another Californian. 

“It was a dead town, but it’s looking up,” said Vicco City Commissioner Jimmy Slone, who voted for the ordinance.

That isn’t to say that all residents have welcomed the ordinance.

Kim Sturgill, for example, 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 appears 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 communities 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.

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.”