By Nita Johnson
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
Despite a laundry list of repairs and renovations, London native Jim Hays couldn’t suppress a smile as he journeyed from building to building of the former Sue Bennett College campus (formerly The Bennett Center) in downtown London on Friday.
The ink was barely dry on the deed when Hays, one of the three owners of Sue Bennett Hill LLC, went to work.
It was a “homecoming” for the eldest son of the former long-time Sue Bennett College’s president Earl Hays, having been raised on the campus while his father was at the helm of the prospering two-year college. Even after his father retired in 1985, Jim Hays continued to serve at the school that was established in 1896.
“When I left the President’s Home in 1985, I said, ‘I’ll be back.’ Now here I am,” Hays said.
As a historian and preservationist, Hays has big plans to revive the 50-acre property that currently hosts the Laurel County Adult Education, Sunrise Children’s Services, and Connect Church (overseen by the First Methodist Church in London). The apartment complex that sits just below Helm Hall will also retain its current renters.
“The current residents will be staying here,” Hays said. “And I’m going to have my office in the Administration Building and hope to lease office space in other suites. We hope to utilize every building to its best use.”
The Administration Building will also host an antique store, an Alumni suite where text books from 1900 begin the collection that extends to the athletic trophies earned by the college over the years.
Helm Hall was one of the first areas that Hays began clearing out, donating beds, mattresses, pillows, utensils and dishes to the Christian Shelter for the Homeless. Tom Combs, president of the shelter’s board of directors, and wife, Rosa, were on hand Friday afternoon to load up the donations for the shelter.
“We can really use the beds and mattresses,” Rosa Combs said. “Some of the men are stacking two mattresses on top of each other. They say it makes it more comfortable.”
Combs said the residents of the shelter were more than happy to receive the donations from Hays.
“You’d have thought it was Christmas,” she exclaimed.
Aside from having leaves and debris cleared from the grounds and emptying the dorm rooms, Hays said his first line of work will be to repair the decaying porch of the Belle Bennett building, which also houses Belle Bennett Auditorium — a full fledged stage and seating arena that has served for several theatrical organizations in past years. He hopes someday the building will be used as a performing arts facility dedicated to the people of the community.
The next order of business is to lease the swimming pool to the London-Laurel County Rescue Squad for $1 per year.
“They need the pool to conduct rescue training,” Hays said. “They have to pay other places to use their pool and they have to be re-certified periodically. I hope this will help them with training they need when they have to do a rescue at Laurel Lake.”
Hays will also rent out the shelter house by the Earl Hays Nature Preserve for weddings and special events. The cemetery where some of the founding families of the community lie in their final resting place is another historic facet of the campus that Hays hopes will be a drawing point for the public.
Hays did not disclose the other two partners in the venture nor did he state the price of the property, but he did say that preserving the existing buildings and reviving the campus are his top priorities.
“Things have not been the same since my dad left in 1985 and we hope to bring back the activities and breathe life back into this campus,” he said. “It has been neglected and repairs are needed and they ARE going to take place.”