By Bud Grimes
Residents in the Twin Cities of Fulton, Ky., and South Fulton, Tenn., know about hard times.
The area was once a key railroad-shipping hub for bananas and the home to two garment factories, but recent decades brought factory closures and shuttered businesses.
Enter Jeff Campbell. Successful careers at Federal Express and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. allowed him to return home and bring hope for better days through a project called “Let’s Paint the Town.”
Born and raised in Fulton, Campbell and his brother were the first college graduates in six generations of Campbells. His parents, John Joe and Betty Joe, ran a small family business and struggled financially to educate their sons. Campbell attended the University of Kentucky for two years and then came to UT Martin to complete an accounting degree in 1979.
After graduation, his career quickly took him into the corporate world. He worked 18 years for FedEx in Memphis and later became chief information officer for Burlington Northern in Ft. Worth. In 2008, he decided to take early retirement and return home to care for his aging mother. Her health unexpectedly declined quickly, and she died in February 2009, leaving Campbell to ponder his future.
One Saturday morning, he drove downtown, crossed the old railroad tracks and noticed, “this weed-infested, broken concrete, sand vacant lot” next to Evans Drug Co. He told the owners he would build a small park in memory of his parents, if they would donate the property. Campbell Plaza soon occupied the site. He then approached the Rotary Club for support to build Civic Park a block away. In six weeks, the group raised $35,000.
This was only beginning. In spring 2010, Campbell and Thea Vowell, director of the local chamber of commerce, traveled to Princeton, Ky., to learn more about “Let’s Paint the Town,” a program then-Fulton Mayor Dan Voegeli had heard about.
They were impressed, and Voegeli promptly tapped Campbell to lead the project. A town hall meeting was held, with expectations that maybe 75 would attend. Instead, 200 came and raised $6,000 for the project that night, and “Let’s Paint the Town” was off and running.
Approximately 4,000 volunteer hours and 47 buildings later, a fresh, new look for the Twin Cities has emerged. Only six buildings are left to paint, including the classic Meadows Hotel building that dates to 1897.
Sherry Elliott, owner of Cissy’s Flowers and Gifts, is still amazed at the number of volunteers who showed up to paint her building. She expected only a few, but about 30 people volunteered. “I mean, it just almost brought me to tears,” she says. “We’re people wanting to make a difference.”
Current Fulton Mayor Elaine Forrester agrees that “Let’s Paint the Town” has changed things for the better. “I talk to people all the time that said, ‘Oh my goodness. I can’t believe what you’ve done to downtown,’” she says. “You know, a coat of paint does wonders.”
Campbell says the program is more than painting old buildings. Four businesses have opened since the program began. Campbell and some partners invested in the Keg Bar and Grill, now an area favorite. In total, private investment and “Let’s Paint the Town” are valued at more than $500,000.
When a Saturday of painting has ended, Campbell goes home to take a nap and later returns to the freshly painted building, cold beer in hand, looks at the building and thinks to himself, “You know what? Today we made a difference.”