Business is booming in London despite pandemic

Photo by Nita Johnson

This mix of banana and strawberry shaved ice is a tempting treat for Jacob House. Presenting the fruit-topped treat is Rust & Rhinestones owner, Heather Noyes.

There is no doubt that 2020 will be remembered as a challenging year. On the local front, however, the year brought both good and bad.

Traffic Fatalities

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic that had many people isolating at home during March, April and May, the traffic fatalities throughout the year showed an increase over 2019, with 13 deaths in 2020 to 2019's nine.

The first fatality of 2020 didn't come until April 30, but that crash took the lives of two elderly women who crashed on West Cumberland Gap Parkway. Just one week later, the second traffic fatality involved a Williamsburg woman who was stopped in traffic along West KY 80 following a three-vehicle crash approximately a mile westward toward the Laurel-Pulaski County line. A Volvo semi truck driven by an Ohio man struck an SUV driven by the female, causing it to collide with a flatbed Freightliner. The female was pronounced dead at the scene while her 3-year-old child was trapped inside the mutilated vehicle before being removed and flown to a Lexington hospital.

July brought three traffic-related deaths, with two more on Aug. 1 and Aug. 28. In September, the death of a 15-year-old high school football player in a four-wheeler accident with his older brother shocked the Laurel community just days after the double murder of a Laurel pastor and his wife. A second four-wheeler accident in October took the life of a 19-year-old Laurel man, while November brought the death of a Manchester man after he was struck by a vehicle traveling along KY 30 and KY 1394. That man was flown to a Lexington hospital where he died later that night. December marked two deaths from traffic accidents, the first being near the 28 mile marker of northbound Interstate 75. The final death reported came on Dec. 22 when a 23-year-old Keavy man was killed when his motorcycle overturned along KY 363 on the evening of Dec. 21. That man died the following day from his injuries.

Traffic fatalities have fluctuated over the past decade, with 2018 being the deadliest year. According to records kept by The Sentinel Echo, there were 13 in 2020, 9 in 2019; 18 in 2018, 13 in 2017, 14 in 2016, 7 in 2015, 13 in 2014, 12 in 2013, 17 in 2012, 8 in 2011 and 15 in 2010.

In Memory..

Many of the community's "movers and shakers" departed during the year of 2020.

January - Former Kentucky State Police, FBI and U.S. Marshal Charles (Charlie) Pennington who served on the London Laurel County Industrial Development Authority and later became executive director where he served for many years. Gene Allen, who was the longest serving school board member in the state, passed away on Jan. 27. He served on the East Bernstadt School Board for over 50 years.

Billie Dyche King, granddaughter of The Sentinel Echo founder, Russell Dyche, passed away on Jan. 22. King and her sister Margaret Dyche Keith grew up in the newspaper business, with Keith and her husband, the late Luke Keith, being the last family members to own the newspaper before it was sold into corporate ownership.

Tony Conley, co-owner of Conley Tire in London, passed away after a lingering illness.

February - Retired rescue squad member Doug Cawood and former funeral home director Bill Henderson

March - Former Laurel County School Transportation Director Mike Broughton Sr.; Lucille Carloftis, established Rockcastle River Trading Company; Lindsay Sharp, who served as mascot of the 2019 World Chicken Festival.

April - Gerald Tuttle, who played for Hazel Green High School before playing and graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, playing for legendary coach Dean Smith. Laurel County native R. C. Walker, passed away from COVID-19 at age 85 in mid-April. Walker was a member of the London Fire Department, founder of the Laurel County Fire Department where he served as chief, as well as chief of the London Laurel County Rescue Squad. He was Laurel County coroner for 8 years, Deputy Jailer for 2 years and Laurel County Jailer for 4 years. He was a funeral director at House Funeral Home, Bowling-Walker Funeral Home, House-Rawlings Funeral Home and Laurel Funeral Home. Beuna Bishop, long time nurse for Laurel County Health Department and program director for Dept. of Social Services in London

August - Former Laurel County Sheriff Floyd Brummett died on Aug. 1. He was 85, a 32nd Degree Mason and member of Oleika Shriners.

September - Glen Chaney, founder of Chaney Lumber; Joey Kessler III, established WOBZ-TV in London and broadcast high school sports events and local events; Toni Ryser, co-owner of Ryser's Furniture in East Bernstadt; George Humfleet, who established George Humfleet Homes in London; Rev. Johnny Benge and wife Mary Saylor Benge.

October - London attorney and former Master Commissioner Steve Cessna and former Kentucky State Police Larry Lewis

December - Former Laurel County Sheriff Gene Hollon, who also served as chief of Campground Fire Department.

Business

While the coronavirus spread throughout the country, mandated business closing placed many small businesses in peril. London and Laurel County, however, lost few businesses to the pandemic and instead, announced openings of many new small businesses in the area. The monthly reports by the London Laurel County Economic Development Authority showed a consistent growth of small businesses in the area, averaging at least 10 new businesses per month.

The community also welcomed several larger businesses, the first occupants of the Greer Industrial Park and continued economic growth throughout the year. That also included some expansions of existing businesses and "Help Wanted" signs on several restaurants and other businesses.

Paula Thompson, executive director of the London Laurel County Economic Development Authority, reported that there were 108 new businesses including retail, commercial and industrial. Larger retail businesses included Kohl's, Marshall's, Five Below and Planet Fitness while Studio 206 opened various businesses and plans for Block 300 for luxury apartments upstairs and small businesses downstairs were opened or underway to open.

Businesses that closed permanently in 2020 were Gordman's, The Runway, Golden Corral, Rainbow Cleaners and Vendors Mall.

COVID-19 Pandemic

The first case of the coronavirus in the county was reported on March 24 with the first death in April. The numbers of cases continued to grow throughout the spring and summer, with a surge during the winter months. At the end of the year, the cases had grown to 3,864 with 15 deaths. Several cases were reported in congregate settings in August, sending the county into the "red zone."

Public schools were closed, per mandate of Gov. Andy Beshear, on March 16 and did not reopen for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. Students began in-person classes in late August, with parents and students choosing whether to continue online classes or in-person classes. The rising numbers of COVID cases resulted in all schools being closed in November and not reopening until Jan. 4, 2021.

Many businesses closed while others offered employees the work from home option during the early stages of the pandemic. Restaurants and bars, especially, were affected by the restrictions of only having 30% capacity - then increasing to 50% with outdoor dining options for eateries while bars remained closed. Rising cases, however, sent the capacity percentages back down with many restaurants offering drive-through and pickup services.

New Events

Despite the restrictions placed on group gatherings, residents of Laurel County saw the revision and inauguration of several events. With the traditional Easter egg hunts cancelled in 2020, London residents participated in an Easter scavenger hunt that sent participants throughout the city limits with clues for items at certain houses.

With in-person classes cancelled, South Laurel High School hosted a drive-through prom for their students which allowed them to dress in their gala apparel and drive through the school area. Live music was offered while teachers lined the parking area to wave and greet those participating in the event.

Graduation also posed a controversial area, with parents suing the Laurel County School District in order to allow parents to attend commencement ceremonies. The revised graduation plan initially involved staggered groups of students walking to receive their diploma with addresses from class presidents, valedictorians and salutatorians pre-recording their speeches with those copies being distributed to students; however, the presiding judge in the lawsuit granted students two additional persons in attendance. That placed the timing of the graduation ceremonies past the original closing of the school year but was completed before the end of May. The lawsuit by parents made news across the state with other school districts observing the policies adopted by the Laurel County School District administrators.

Graduation day for 2020 graduates was celebrated locally, however, with a parade of graduates starting at London Elementary School and proceeding through London to the two respective county high schools. Parents and friends of graduates displayed signs congratulating the senior class members as the graduates passed, with many hoping the senior parade will become a tradition each year, even after the COVID pandemic.

Red White and Boom continued this year with restricted attendance at College Park with attendees lining the KY 192 Bypass and Fourth Street to watch the display. The Laurel County Homecoming continued its 85-year tradition with limited attendance in August without the Honoree banquet but with videotaped interviews with the year's honorees. Live music and the Miss and Teen pageant also took place with social distancing precautions in place. The Homecoming Committee also buried a time capsule highlighting the year - which will be dug up in 2040. The April Redbud Ride was rescheduled for October with over 400 participants, despite a cold and rainy day. Randy Smith's Christmas on Main parade was held with spectators lining the streets, wearing their masks and cheering as Santa and Mrs. Claus proceeded along the parade route.

December's holiday season kicked off with the first-ever Lights Around London, a driving tour featuring decorated homes throughout the county. Over 70 participants signed up for the event with awards presented for the best decorated home and the Crowd Favorite in which votes for $1 were collected with proceeds donated to the Shop with a Cop program that hosts less fortunate children to a shopping spree with local police officers. The event raised over $6,000.

For the first time in its 31 years, the World Chicken Festival was cancelled this year, as were planned concerts at the newly completed Town Center Park. The annual Laurel County Fair was also cancelled in 2020.

njohnson@sentinel-echo.com

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