'Way out there'

Photo by Greg Eans, Messenger-Inquirer | geans@messenger-inquirer.com The Willow Tree Owner Jacinta Smith stands Tuesday among the many items available at the business on Commonwealth Drive. Smith has had the business since 1994.

In the spring of 1994, Jacinta Smith opened The Willow Tree on Commonwealth Court off Kentucky 54 behind Ole South Bar-B-Q.

"At first, people said, 'Why are you way out there?' " she said.

But nobody is saying that now, as Smith celebrates her 25th year in business.

"I've been on this street the whole time," she said. "I was farther down until we built this place in 1999."

"This place" is a big gift store that looks like an older home.

That's because it is a home.

The Willow Tree is on the first floor.

Smith lives on the upper floors.

"I built this place so my children could come home after school and not be alone -- and I wouldn't need a sitter," she said. "I really wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, but that didn't work out."

The Willow Tree was supposed to have been built in a garden center on Kentucky 81 -- on the other side of Owensboro.

"But that fell through and I came out here," Smith said. "God took something negative and made it positive. I'm so glad I'm where I am. There's no way I could have known that Kentucky 54 would be what it is today."

She was among the pioneers on what's now the county's biggest shopping and dining area.

But pioneers always struggle.

It wasn't until 2014 when a traffic light was installed at Kentucky 54 and Commonwealth Court that business really took off, Smith said.

"It took years to get that traffic light," she said. "But when we finally got it, things really took off. People just had such a hard time turning across all that traffic."

A state traffic study in 2014 found that 33,700 vehicles a day were using that section of highway.

In the beginning, Commonwealth Court was mostly just rural land with a couple of businesses on it, Smith said.

Today, vacant land there is hard to find.

In 2005, Walmart opened what was then its largest supercenter in Kentucky on Kentucky 54.

And the following year, Kohl's opened in a shopping center across from Commonwealth Court.

That's when Kentucky 54 really began to boom.

"Things really picked up after they came in," Smith said.

Then, the Great Recession hit in 2008-09.

"There have been a lot of struggles, a lot of ups and downs," Smith said. "But today, we have people who come over from Evansville and Newburgh. I really appreciate people shopping at locally owned stores and not just chains."

The Willow Tree's name was decided on when it was supposed to go into the garden center.

"It just feels peaceful to me," Smith said of the name. "So, I kept it when I decided to come over here."

The store features several thousand items of home decor, jewelry, candles, handbags and similar gifts.

"We sell a tremendous amount of funeral items, too," Smith said. "We have everything across the board."

She dreamed of a place like this during the 12 years she worked at Ragu -- now Mizkan America Inc. -- and the seven years she cared for a family member.

But the dream finally came true.

And now, Smith is celebrating 25 years in business -- a rare accomplishment these days.

"I'm very pleased with how it's gone," she said. "But I still have a lot of new customers who come in and say, 'I didn't know this was here'."

Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday.

Smith said she's currently working on a website and a gift registry for the store.

Keith Lawrence, 270-691-7301, klawrence@messenger-inquirer.com.

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