RUX Member Spotlight: Brandon Coan
Brandon Coan is a founding member of the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange, representing the RUX 2014/2015 cohorts. His RUX project work has focused on the revitalization of the historic Daniel Boone Hotel in downtown Whitesburg. An active member of the Louisville philanthropic community, Brandon has also turned his attention to ensuring the sustainability of the RUX program.
Brandon is a Louisville native, local lawyer and active community member. In 2016, Brandon was elected to a four-year term representing the people of Louisville’s Highlands area (District 8) on the Louisville Metro Council. He has served as a director on the boards of Louisville Public Media, the Kentucky College of Art and Design at Spalding University and Louisville Grows, among other Louisville nonprofit organizations. Brandon serves on Kentucky’s Working Group for Next Generation: The Future of Arts & Culture Placemaking in Rural America. Brandon’s wife Summer Auerbach is the Second Generation Owner of Rainbow Blossom Natural Food Markets. Brandon is a graduate of the University of Michigan and the University of Kentucky College of Law.
How do you tell your story of Kentucky?
I was born and raised in Louisville, and lived here until I went away to college at the University of Michigan. When you’re a kid you don’t think about how your experience of place is different from other places. Going away to college in a diverse, liberal Midwestern town in Michigan was the first time I experienced any negative connotations to Kentucky. When classmates asked me where I was from, I explained that I was from Kentucky, but I was from “Louisville, Kentucky.” I realized then that being from “both” was hard to grasp – for others, and for me.
I come from an upper middle class family in the city, so I don’t have the same kind of identity as Kentuckians that grew up on a farm or in a hollow. I’m from a city that happens to be in Kentucky. I have always loved the city of Louisville. I loved the people, the laid back culture, the beautiful woods and creeks, the Derby, BBQ, college basketball. My Kentucky identity is tied up in the culture of the city I’m from, and the physical and historical characteristics of the state. That was my view of who I was and where I was from up until I went to law school at the University of Kentucky at age 25. I was right on the heels of having worked on John Kerry’s presidential campaign for a year. When he lost his campaign, I went to the University of Kentucky.
When you go to medical school, no matter where you go, you’re studying the same human body. Going to law school at University of Kentucky was very interesting because the story of law in Kentucky is specific to the politics of Kentucky. I found that I didn’t agree with the majority of my classmates (who were from all over rural Kentucky) on just about anything. Their life was not like mine, we didn’t have the same experiences, I hadn’t been to their towns. On issue after issue and class after class I was the ideological minority, which was a new experience for me. University of Michigan and University of Kentucky were opposites. It put the contrast between Louisville and the rest of the state in much sharper focus.
In fact, I felt alienated by – and even in opposition to – Kentucky. I graduated from law school in 2008, moved back to Louisville and continued to concentrate more on the city and less on the state. I got even more deeply ingrained in my community and was inspired to build my life here.
How has RUX made you feel more at home in the state of Kentucky?
When I learned about the RUX in 2014, what really excited me was the opportunity to visit Appalshop and experience Whitesburg. In Law School I had found friends from other parts of Kentucky who also really liked the outdoors, and my belonging in the same Kentucky they did had become about outdoor recreation. I had heard about Appalshop from them. I’d heard about Summit City through the Louisville music scene, so I was thrilled to start our weekend there.
I knew that there were smart and thoughtful people all over Kentucky, but I wasn’t connected to them. I was intrigued by this place in Eastern Kentucky that was a center of activism in what I had perceived to be a desert of progressives, so I got in the carpool with my wife and other Louisvillians and drove into the Appalachian Mountains to Whitesburg. I felt like I got a feel for the place, but the most satisfying part of the experience was meeting these people that really excited me.
When I had moved back to Louisville, the only thing about rural Kentucky that I ever thought about was mountaintop removal. Even though I thought I cared about the people affected by Mountaintop Removal, I had only cared about them in the abstract. When I went there and got to know people, I came to really care about the people and the place. I found these little things that made felt deeply connected to my own experiences. I came to care about the Whitesburg Main Street in the way that I cared about community development projects in Louisville. I came to realize that meeting other people in Kentucky in the places where they live, in re-meeting Kentucky, helped me to overcome the perspectives I’d developed in law school and fall back in love with the state of Kentucky.
RUX helped me to realize that a constitutional law class wasn’t the best place for me to base my ideas on what other people in Kentucky were like. I hadn’t been to their towns, experienced their cultures, or understood their backgrounds. Those people weren’t at home either. It was a divisive environment; we didn’t get to know each other as people. In class, you get to see how other people lean on issues but you don’t understand why. The beauty of RUX is that it gave me context.
I had a great time and found a project I wanted to get involved in, so then I jumped at the opportunity to go to the first RUX weekend in Paducah. Paducah had always been on my list from an urban policy perspective. I also loved the sophistication and charm of that place. Now I’m sure there are other places in Kentucky that I’ll fall in love with too. It only took knowing a few of these magical places before the whole state became a magical place again.
What have you gained from your RUX experience that you have taken back to your community?
How do you make people from totally different backgrounds and experiences and places realize that they have something in common? It feels impossible.
That’s why I think the RUX is so important. RUX works because it shows that connecting with seemingly different people is actually really easy, it’s just a matter of seeking out other people’s experiences and then inviting them to share yours. It’s a two way street, I go to your place, you come to mine. I give you something, you give me something. When you go to someone’s home, when you meet their family and go to their workplace, you’re able to put yourself in their shoes and they become real to you. You begin to understand and care about them.
I’ve been so inspired by the exchange! Once you realize the benefit of this kind of exchange, you start to want to apply it to other parts of your life. I want to bring a lot of these RUX lessons home to Louisville to begin to bridge some of the divides in the city. Every city and state in the country could benefit from this kind of exchange.
That’s also why I think our RUX project on the Daniel Boone Hotel is so important. Not only is it an incredible economic development opportunity, but it can help to make the Eastern Kentucky region more accessible to people from outside the region. It continues to facilitate the value of this exchange to more people.
Describe your RUX project. How did your project begin and how has the idea changed over time?
During the first RUX weekend in Whitesburg, I was talking to local entrepreneur Joel Beverly, and he pointed out the old Daniel Boone Hotel building and said “wouldn’t it be great if 21c [Museum Hotels] opened a hotel right there?” I knew the leadership at 21C, so I told him that I would talk to them about what it would take to bring the historic hotel back to life. This conversation was happening right ahead of the centennial anniversary of the 1915 opening of the Daniel Boone Hotel, which made the idea even more exciting.
I went back to Louisville and talked with 21c President Craig Greenberg and told him about the people in Whitesburg and their vision for reopening the Daniel Boone. Craig then connected me with Rob Hunden, one of the nation’s top hotel industry consultants, and Rob and I talked about doing a feasibility study. Rob ultimately decided that he would take a risk on this small town hotel project, but we still had to raise $39,000 to fund the study. The city owned the hotel, but neither the city nor the RUX program had the capital to invest in the study. We did some research and went with RUX staff to meet with the Kentucky office of the USDA Rural Development. While there, we learned about the Rural Business Development grants.
We decided to apply for the USDA opportunity and recruited students and faculty from the University of Louisville School of Business to help conduct a community survey as part of our application. We brought two Louisville students and the RUX videographer back and forth to Whitesburg. Nearly 600 residents responded, which was amazing for a town with a population of 1200. This data really helped to support our grant application. So, too, did my fellow RUXer – and Eastern Kentucky native and consultant – Mark Kidd, who helped administer the application on the ground in Whitesburg.
We won the grant(!), which was really exciting because it was the first grant awarded to the city of Whitesburg in more than a decade. When the Hunden consultants came to town it was a very meaningful event for the city and business community.
Fast forward to 2016, and the study came back giving us reason to be optimistic about the project. The study confirmed market demand for the hotel (although public dollars would be needed to fund the development gap), and the original architect for the Appalshop building came on as part of the project team.
As serendipity would have it, just as I was gearing back up for another round of fundraising to support a national developer search, an interested investor – Louisville-based at that! – caught wind of the project and stepped forward to undertake it. Project planning continues to this day and all signs point to a future completed project.
What have you learned from working on this project?
In many ways, this project started as an impossible dream, and the hands-on learning it took to get it this far has been one of the best educational experiences of my life. From working around the administrative challenges facing small town economic development, to winning my first federal grant, to selling a vision for Whitesburg and the region’s tourism future to anybody who would listen to me, I learned to believe that a bright Appalachian future is possible if we work together across Kentucky, the economic sectors and levels of government to invest in it.
What’s next for your project?
The Daniel Boone Hotel Project has a long way to go before opening its doors to visitors again but the wheels of business are in motion. In fact, the developer is already thinking about the potential of a number of other hospitality projects in Eastern Kentucky, and I plan to do whatever I can to help bring them to fruition, including strengthening the connection between Louisville, the Bluegrass and Appalachia.