MT. STERLING, Ky. (LEX 18) — Melissa Badger’s Tomatoes & Flames restaurant is staffed up during the pre-lunch hours. Brick oven pizzas are being slung all over the place. Business has picked up, and for Melissa, not a moment too soon.
“We’ve been extremely busy. Even though we still have the pandemic going on people seem more comfortable lately coming out and dining out,” Badger said.
She is one of four owners who took over the place only a few months ago.
Surviving the pandemic hasn’t been easy in this town, and required some help from City Hall, but they’ve made it through to what seems to be the other side.
“I think Mt. Sterling has survived this pandemic about as well as any community in the state,” said Mayor Al Botts.
Botts played a big role in that, rallying support from his City Council members to get local business owners the financial assistance they needed during the pandemic’s peak months.
“We gave out close to $30,000,” Mayor Botts said. “We would’ve loved to have given more, but what it did was help businesses make a couple months rent, or make some utility payments and help them get through the tough times they saw,” Mr. Botts continued.
Renee Cunningham moved her formal gown shop from Florida, to Mt. Sterling three years ago for family reasons. From January through March of last year, she was really glad for having made that move.
“We were off to a record-breaking, amazing, mind-blowing year,” she said of the business she was doing. But it all dried up once COVID-19 crashed the wedding. Cunningham’s business sagged as proms were canceled and weddings had to be postponed.
“Who would’ve thought in one moment the world would’ve gone silent,” she said.
Cunningham’s reputation and prior success helped keep her going until restrictions were lightened. But something happened during the last 15 months that no one could’ve predicted; something good came from this pandemic, at least in this town.
“My job is to get other people from other places to come to Mt. Sterling,” said Tourism Director, Tracy Pearse. “But during the pandemic, we really did tighten it up and talked to our community about the importance of shopping and dining local,” she continued.
And you know what else happened? The people here figured something out about their hometown.
“Try your own town, you might like it,” Pearse joked.
Turns out they did like it. Because there was no reason to leave town, the pandemic offered a chance to get reacquainted with the place while lockdowns were in place, and especially once some of those were relaxed.
“We’ve got movie theatres, bowling alleys, a little bit of everything,” said Barry Frazier, a member of the Chamber of Commerce Board. “(We’ve got) everything a big town has, but on a smaller scale and the people love it.”
Renee Cunningham needed only three years and one pandemic to figure that out.
“This place is community-strong, and I’ve never had that anywhere else,” she said.
Probably circles back to something Tracy said about this community.
“I’ve always said our best asset is our people.