By Daniel Klapheke
Kentucky for Kentucky, a small company located in Lexington, plans to open a Kentucky Fun Mall that will be “12,000 square feet of Kentucky awesomeness,” said cofounder Whit Hiler.
The South Limestone storefront will be the venue for pro-Kentucky items, including “Y’ALL” apparel and Muhammad Ali coffee mugs.
Kentuckians are taking action at the local and state levels to change stereotypes and outside perceptions haunting Kentucky. Organizations including Kentucky for Kentucky are at the helm for the state, and people like Cynthiana’s Emily Ammerman are taking action at the local level.
Kentucky for Kentucky began in 2011 as a joke between Hiler and cofounder Griffin VanMeter while watching football. One of them said it would be cool to see a Kentucky Super Bowl commercial. They laughed about it, but a few months later they were using Kickstarter to fund the commercial.
Hiler and VanMeter asked friends to design a logo as they began making a promotional video. The original video is quirky and brags about Kentucky inventions, including fried chicken, George Clooney and the Kentucky Derby.
The Super Bowl commercial goal failed, but the spirit behind it did not. Kentuckians noticed the energy and fun coming from the pair and wanted more of it. Hiler and VanMeter started researching Kentucky history to spotlight all the things that make the commonwealth “kick ass.” They knew they needed material product to keep the fire burning, which sparked the creation of pro-Kentucky prints and t-shirts, VanMeter said.
“We put out shirts and they all sold out,” VanMeter said. “We give people something they can literally buy into.”
The mission of Kentucky for Kentucky is to rebrand the state as a uniquely “kickass” tourist spot. However, they are not government affiliated and run their self-proclaimed state slogan, “Kentucky Kicks Ass,” against Kentucky’s official slogan, “Unbridled Spirit.” Despite this, Kentucky for Kentucky does not consider this a weakness.
“We can do whatever we want. We have the internet,” VanMeter said.
However, they aren’t completely uninterested in helping out in Frankfort, Hiler said.
“We would love to shake policy,” Hiler said. “There are still a lot of things in Kentucky that don’t kick ass that need to be addressed.”
Kentucky’s “Unbridled Spirit” slogan does not hit well with all Kentuckians, Hiler said. It was created through a deal with Kentucky-based advertising company New West and cost approximately $650,000, according to Kentucky.gov. However, Hiler and VanMeter acknowledge that not everyone supports the Kentucky for Kentucky image, and some prefer Kentucky’s current official brand.
Younger Kentuckians are especially attracted to Kentucky for Kentucky’s brand, thanks to the company’s focus on humor and fun, Hiler said.
Caleb Dunn, 19, a Corbin native, is an avid Kentucky for Kentucky customer. He and his family have bought dozens of prints and shirts from the company, as it gives Kentuckians something to be proud of, Dunn said.
“They are the first real company I can remember that is openly marketing Kentucky as what it is: beautiful, historic and kickass,” Dunn said. “They are the voice of the massive amounts of Kentuckians that truly find Kentucky to be an awesome place.”
Other efforts in revitalizing Kentucky are happening on a smaller scale across the state, one is the resurgence of culture in the small town of Cynthiana.
Recently, Cynthiana held a shop small day, where a street downtown was closed off to set up pop-up shops and invite townspeople and visitors to explore the downtown businesses. Some of the storefronts downtown are empty, so outside companies like Kentucky for Kentucky came to fill space and attract locals to new shopping venues.
Entertainment and food is also increasing downtown. Cynthiana recently opened JJ’s, one of six places locals can eat in downtown. The local theater, Rohs Opera House, recently installed new equipment and had a midnight premier showing of ‘Mockingjay.’ The theater also shows blockbuster movies while they are in season, something it was not able to do in the past.
Emily Ammerman, 24, is at the helm of the project as Cynthiana’s Main Street director and in charge of promoting the town to visitors and locals. She has raised money for beautification projects and sold Cynthiana t-shirts.
Cynthiana is considered a bedroom community, meaning that most of its residents work outside of town, Ammerman said. The challenge is stimulating economic expansion within a mainly age 40 and up demographic, she said.
“Many people are stuck in the past. Local businesses feel threatened by innovation, especially because it usually comes from outside of what they consider our local economy,” Ammerman said. “When we show that we’ll support small businesses outside of our community, then those small business will, in turn, support our community.”
Ammerman has found most success in focusing on the positive aspects of Cynthiana. An abundance of historic buildings downtown have the potential to showcase beautiful architecture and house new businesses, Ammerman said.
“You can sulk in negativity all day long, but it’s not going to produce any improvements,” Ammerman said. “Continuously thinking about what makes Cynthiana special helps generate new ideas about how to market Cynthiana as a great place.”
What the town needs most is internal pride, Ammerman said. If the town’s citizens don’t have a positive outlook, then it can’t be expected for anyone else to.
“Cynthiana needs its citizens to value its history and be proud of where they live, no matter the condition the town is currently in,” Ammerman said.
Cynthiana residents are also finding ways to reshape the town.
Shopping local doesn’t have to be a special one-time event, said Wylie Caudill, 18, a Cynthiana resident. He said he gets involved any way he can to help promote the town and was helping out at the shop small event.
“Shopping small doesn’t end at four today,” Caudill said. “It’s a decision you can make on a daily basis to help your local economy.”
After three years of operation, Kentucky for Kentucky is a profitable company that keeps growing, Hiler said.
“We’re constantly in a routine of doing and making. It feels good,” Hiler said.
Above all, what matters most is that the company is connecting with Kentuckians and representing the state how Kentuckians want, VanMeter said.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if they say Kentucky kicks ass,” VanMeter said. “What matters is if they believe it.”
Photo courtesy of Kentucky for Kentucky founders Whit Hiler (left) and Griffin VanMeter (right).