For 40 years - five as assistant executive director and 35 as executive director - this small, soft-spoken 78-year-old man of proper diction and manners made a big impact on Danville. With the old Urban Renewal and Community Development Agency, he changed the face of the city, and his legacy is all over downtown and the nearby residential areas.
Boasting a reputation as a college town with a wide Main Street and large historic homes, Danville did not appear to be a candidate for the facelift Best helped provide. But not far from Centre College, Main and the shiny residential showcase streets of Maple, Lexington and Broadway were the shack-lined streets of the shanty neighborhoods along Earl, Smith and High.
300 properties and $13 million in federal funds
Those streets were the target of one of the first of a dozen Urban Renewal projects Best would administer - projects that involved some 300 properties and $13 million in federal funds used for property acquisition, demolition, relocation, renovation and construction.
An article in Feb. 8, 1965, edition of The Advocate-Messenger seemed to sum up Danville's then new commitment to attacking a problem not mentioned in the generally glowing assessments of the city's classy image. "Danville, like a well-dressed man who suddenly sees a spot on his sleeve, has decided to do something to improve areas of substandard housing and muddy streets," wrote Lawrence Pryor.
That and other "spots" were removed over the subsequent three decades not because of a grand plan by city leaders but almost by happenstance.
Then-Centre College President Thomas Spragens had been on a business trip to Washington, D.C., and, upon his return, called then-Urban Renewal board chairman Norris "Armie" Armstrong, a Centre alum who gained fame for being a member of the Centre football team that upset Harvard in 1921, with a tip. "Tom told Armie that the federal government was giving money to small communities for Urban Renewal projects, saying the federal Urban Renewal funds were no longer just for big cities," Best said in a recent interview.
As reporter Pryor commented, "Danville is proving that a community doesn't have to be a sprawling city to tackle urban blight by means of urban renewal."
Best, the son of a Perryville Road farmer and former Boyle County sheriff, Shelby Best, and his wife, Emma, began tackling the city's blight after spending four years in the real estate business in Danville and a three-year stint, with his wife, Faye, in the hotel business in the Washington, D.C., area.
He joined Urban Renewal agency in 1964
He joined the local Urban Renewal agency in 1964 as assistant director Bill Zachman. He replaced Zachman in 1969, and during his tenure has served under board chairmen Armstrong, Perry Hawn and now James Preston. "Each chairman has been very supportive of me and, more important, the agency's mission, said Best.
The first step in fulfilling the agency's mission was applying to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for grants for each project. Each and every application was approved.
Every one of the dozen projects is special is in its own way to Best, but he has a couple which he thinks illustrate the impact the agency has had on the city. "The Seventh Street Project was one of my first and will always be a remarkable one to me," he said. "This was what people called the 'Smokey Road' area of town, and it was perhaps the most blighted area in the city.
"The neighborhood essentially was just a gang of shacks with potbelly stoves, and those stoves were the source of the residents' heat and often was what they used for cooking. Many of the shacks had outhouses, and those that had indoor bathrooms had the most primitive of toilets, ones that consisted of a bowl and a water tank above it with a string you pulled to flush the thing."
Under the $1 million project, 56 substandard houses were demolished and replaced with new houses, and Best knew early on what "good this agency can do."