State-private partnership proposed for Grayson's Tavern

January 15, 2004|HERB BROCK

"New slow-food restaurant to open in Danville."

Imagine a newspaper headline like that at a time when the majority of stories about new restaurants coming to town have fast-food somewhere in the leads.

Well, Brenda Willoughby would like to see the slow food headline and story some day, especially if it applies to Grayson's Tavern at Constitution Square State Historic Site in downtown Danville.

Willoughby, longtime manager of Constitution Square, has long held a dream that the historic building be brought back to life. Actually, it's been more than a dream. She has made formal proposals to her superiors to revive the tavern, and the latest one is on a desk of her new boss, Jim Host, secretary of the state Commerce Cabinet, which is where the Department of Travel recently was placed under Gov. Ernie Fletcher's cabinet reorganization plan.


"For many years, my ultimate goal here has been to see that Grayson's Tavern be reborn as a working restaurant," said Willoughby, who has managed the park for more than a decade.

"It's a beautiful, historic building, and our visitors are always curious about it and are always disappointed that it is closed," she said. "But I think it could be more than a historic curiosity, something to look at and ask about. I really do believe it can be a place where people can really experience history and enjoy a good meal."

Willoughby's idea is for the state to lease the circa 1785 building to a private concern - whether it's a person or a group of people or a restaurant company - that would fully operate and manage a restaurant there.

In addition to serving as a place where early Danvillians drank ale, wine and other alcoholic beverages and had meals, the tavern also was the meeting place for the town's Political Club and the stage for several debates featuring political leaders from all over the state.

"What I'm proposing is a state government-private sector partnership," she said. "The private people or company would rent the building, and the state would earn money from the lease but that would be it. The private concern would be in charge of everything else. It would be our building and their business."

If Willoughby has her way, she would prefer that whoever would run a restaurant in the tavern agree to preserve the "historic integrity" of the structure and decorate and furnish it in late 18th century period fashion.

"They would have the right to put money into it as far remodeling or restoring the place, but we would want to make sure that any project they would do would not alter its historic character," she said.

Willoughby also thinks it would "really give tourists a historic treat" if the menu reflected authentic period Kentucky cuisine as well, or at least a mix of late 18th century Kentucky foods and current fare.

"I envision a restaurant along the lines of the kinds of eateries they have in Williamsburg (Va.)," she said. "Their architecture and furniture and decor reflect the period in which they were built, especially the authentic, restored restaurants, and their foods reflect what the people of 17th and 18th century Williamsburg ate."

Asked if she would like to see the building returned at least partly to its original status as a tavern, serving alcoholic beverages, Willoughby said it should be an idea that the state and whoever would operate the restaurant at least consider. But she said that decision would belong to her superiors and to the operator.

However, Willoughby did say she thinks that, with some reconfiguring of space or remodeling, there would be enough space in the tavern for at least 100 seats. Under the state's "moist law" under which Danville has been operating for a year, a restaurant which has a minimum of 100 seats and which derives at least 70 percent of its sales from food may qualify for a license to sell alcoholic beverages.

Willoughby noted that the tavern, and many of the other buildings in the square, including the buildings that house an art gallery and museum, were brought back to life a few decades ago as "living, breathing businesses." They formed part of what was a thriving commercial district along Second Street that primarily served Danville's African-American community. A few years ago, a local human rights group convinced the state to erect a historic marker on the square telling visitors and other passersby that it was the heart of that black commercial district.

In the 1970s, the state acquired the tavern and other historic buildings along Fisher's Row from the local urban renewal agency, restored them and re-created others as part of the development of Constitution Square Historic Site. The plan was developed and implemented by Danvillian Bruce Montgomery, who was overseeing the state's park system at the time.

"Grayson's Tavern has had a variety of uses," said Willoughby. "It has been an apartment building, and it was a record shop. At one time, a newspaper written by African-Americans for their community was sold there."

One day, Willoughby said she would like a newspaper to carry a story about her long-held dream for Grayson's Tavern coming true.

"Before I retire, I would dearly love to see Grayson Tavern return to life as a period restaurant, a place where visitors not only can see history but feel it, taste and experience it," she said.

"It would be a great retirement gift for me but an even greater historic asset for the community."

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