At the heart of Kenton County lies the city of Independence. At first glance, it looks like many other small Kentucky towns with its hilly green backdrop and long country roads.

But that’s just part of the picture.

Independence is one of the fastest growing cities in the state and has been recognized by Forbes magazine as one of the fastest growing cities in the nation.

NKY’s sister magazine Cincy, just ranked Independence 37th of the Top 50 Communities in Greater Cincinnati, applauding its strong home sales in 2010, which were topped only by Ohio’s Anderson Township. Public safety, schools and taxes were also part of the mix.

It’s Mayberry with more. More retail, more businesses, more appeal.

Against the backdrop of surging growth, Independence holds Easter Egg hunts at Memorial Park for the kids and a Christmas Walk from the Masonic Lodge to the Community Center — complete with a tree lighting.

The city marks July 4th with a two-day celebration, drawing 15,000 people. High school bands march down Ky. 17 and small children wave American flags. The $25,000 fireworks are completely financed by local donations. “With a name like Independence, we feel this is the one day of the year we have to celebrate in style,” says Mayor Chris Moriconi.

His challenge is balancing the rapid growth while maintaining the small-town identity.

Between 1990 and 2000, the population grew from 10,000 to more than 14,000,
crossing the 22,000 mark in 2007. There are nearly 25,000 residents now and it is still growing.

Location is one attraction. It is 25 minutes from Cincinnati, not far from the airport and a short drive to Lexington, Louisville and Indianapolis.

According to Moriconi, Independence attracts families because of its rural feel — even for those living in subdivisions. It attracts retail because retail likes rooftops; and it attracts businesses because of low property and payroll taxes.

Helping guide the the growth is the Citizens Economic Development and Finance Committee, volunteers who recruit new businesses to Independence and review city budgets.

“Three years ago, there were a lot of businesses coming to me, so the committee mushroomed into a small independent study committee called ISAC (Independence Strategic Action Committee) that looked at the future growth,” Moriconi says.

The group continues to help Moriconi plan and suggest public improvements for Independence’s commercial locations, which are split into three areas: the East, the West and the Center.

Together, the areas have communities that are conveniently located to nine schools, eight parks, a new Municipal Building, an amphitheater surrounded by a park of more than 20 acres, and a variety of booming businesses and retail shops. In just the past few months, there have been grand openings for Papa John’s Pizza, UDF/Mobil Gas, Ace Hardware, Bummy’s Coffee Shop, Dominach’s Taekwondo, Papa Murphy’s Pizza and Walgreen’s.

According to a 2005 city survey, nearly 40 percent of citizens believed the most important issue facing Independence was its rapid growth. Another 22 percent said it was traffic.

Moriconi decided to turn concerns into solutions.

“You can’t control growth,” Moriconi says. “But you can manage it.” Big development was guided in a way that preserved the courthouse area and traffic issues were addressed.

Of the three major roads running into the city (including Taylor Mill Road-Ky. 6, Madison Pike Ky. 17 and Richardson Road-Ky. 1829), Madison Pike was chosen for expansion and is being converted from a two-lane road to a four-lane highway.

According to city administrator Dan Groth, Moriconi provides the city with the right kind of solutions. “He really cares for Independence,” Groth says. “He takes the good of the city and takes care of it.”

It’s tough to imagine that just 40 years ago, Independence’s population was a mere 1,715.

For decades, the Independence area was mostly farmland, with the exception of a small commercial center around the courthouse, which was built in the 1840’s and later replaced in 1912 by the current Kenton County Courthouse.

When suburbs and commercial areas started to pop up, there was concern the small-town feel would be lost. Luckily for Independence, the city has found ways to retain its welcoming community feel.

According to Groth, finding a balance between conservation and growth is key to a strong community.

Independence has a lot of potential, he says. “We want to grow, but we also want to keep that small-town feel.”

Moriconi agrees.

“We want to preserve the past, but prepare for the future,” he says.