PRESTONSBURG – When Fred James, Prestonsburg’s first Tourism Director, leaves his position on November 30, a void of experience and accomplishments will be left in the wake of his departure.
James announced his retirement seemingly as an afterthought during Tuesday’s meeting of the tourism commission. Like an important addition to color one of his famous stories about Eastern Kentucky, it was something he just remembered. His announcement came as he hurried out of the room to greet a tour group. Something he has been doing for over a quarter of a century.
James began working in state government after college in Frankfort, before coming to Prestonsburg where he was brought in to be city administrator in 1986 by Mayor Ann Latta. James was appointed director of the newly formed Tourism commission in 1990 where he has continued to serve.
“Accept for about a year and a half with, then Secretary Ann Latta, in Frankfort. I’ve been here ever since,” said James.
He was there at the beginning as the Kentucky Opry was just getting started, and the Mountain Arts Center, a building Fred calls “the gem” of Prestonsburg, was only a dream.
“I really cherish the memories of being the city manager,” says James. “Meeting Billy Jean Osborne. And serving as a roadie for the very first Kentucky Opry, and helping to establish that in the community through concerts, travel, everything that we did while I was city manager and tourism director.”
He remembers being on an old strip mine overlooking Prestonsburg with Ann Latta, and Henry Lewis Mayo discussing the possibility of putting in a golf course. “That was quite an achievement for this city.”
According to James, the tour groups that he has helped bring into the area during his career have left between three hundred and five hundred thousand dollars. Among the sites that bring tour groups in, James says the number one location in Eastern Kentucky is the Loretta Lynn homeplace in Butcher Hollow.
“Other than that, the number one structure is the Mayo Methodist Church. It is marvelous. It’s spectacular. There is no other structure as grandiose,” says James. “Many groups choose to delay their departure, if they have weekend travel; they choose to go to Sunday morning church.”
In Prestonsburg, Fred says that the East Kentucky Science Center draws the biggest response from tour groups. “They are truly amazed that it is what it is.”
James adds that people on the tour groups love the history of Prestonsburg. Information about the old riverboat stops, the Bank Josephine, the Samuel May House are all embraced with fascination.
“We have developed into the number one group travel destination in Eastern Kentucky,” says James. “That is the most unique achievement that we have made.”
There are so many people to thank, says James. Specifically he points out the various tourism commission members who have helped him over the years. “These are probably thirty-five or forty people over the course of 25 years. Tremendous people,” said James. “They volunteered their time, and I really cherish their support over the years.”
Fred says that he will continue to volunteer his time and efforts on a small level; the Road to Fame, the Tuesday Night Songwriters Night, the Folk Festival. “Those are things I still want to be part of.”
James says that the next big thing in tourism to come to Prestonsburg and Eastern Kentucky as a whole, is the outdoor tourism. “It’s slow as molasses. But the development of outdoor adventure. Outdoor recreation. Outdoor tourism,” says James. “The process is slow because it is so costly…. I’m really looking forward to seeing that develop.”
Currently James, and his assistant Misha Curnutte, have been busy relocating the tourism office from the old post office building downtown into the Mountain Arts Center.
Since James stepped into the role of tourism director, he says tourism expenditures have gone from seven or eight million dollars in 1992 to sixty-three million dollars in 2013.
“Besides not having a sandy beach, we probably have more to place on our attractions list than any other fourth class city in the state of Kentucky.”
With a lot more free time coming his way, James says he intends to devote a lot of it to painting, a pursuit he says he enjoys a great deal. “I’ve also got three grand kids playing nine different sports, so I stay busy.”
The tourism commission members said Tuesday that, with a two month window to work with, they would be seeking applications to find James replacement immediately.
Reach Jackson Latta at (606) 886-8506