America’s best small town comebacks

Story highlights

Once down on their luck, these historic towns have become attractions again

Coronado, California, has more than just its famous namesake hotel going for it

In Frederick, Maryland, it's hard to believe Carroll Creek Park was originally a flood-control project

New Iberia, Louisiana's, renaissance has yielded a Great American Main Street Award

CNN  — 

Everyone loves a good get-back-up, Rocky-style story.

But inspirational tales don’t always have to star a guy in shiny shorts – or a big city like Philadelphia.

Sometimes the best against all odds tales are real ones, taking place in unsung towns, led by regular citizens energized to resuscitate once thriving destinations just as they appeared flat on the mat.

Even big, star-studded cities face struggles and off decades, but what’s kept Main Street, USA alive amid interstates, mega-malls, national chains and closed stagecoach routes? The heart and hard work of historic rebound towns like these.

Coronado, California: The little peninsula that could

Then: A storied SoCal getaway for adventure-seeking aristocrats and their servants stretching back to the Victorian era, Coronado suffered in the late 20th century with a 35 percent vacancy rate along its historic main drag, Orange Avenue, leaving locals wondering how to prevent this pretty peninsula on the far side of San Diego Bay from drowning.

Now: One of the country’s most successfully revitalized coastal resort communities draws crowds of vacationers and window shoppers over the boomerang-shaped San Diego-Coronado Bridge onto streets lined with flowers and fully restored classical revival-style buildings.

Wow: The iconic Hotel del Coronado (aka “The Del”) remains one of the world’s grandest landmarks and most resilient beach hotels, with a who’s who guest list of celebs and dignitaries several generations long.

Paducah, Kentucky

Paducah, Kentucky: Small town with big art

Then: In the 1980s, historic Lower Town was 20 square blocks of once-beautiful homes blighted by crime and neglect. Its commercial center sat 70 percent vacant.

Now: More than $100 million in investment later, those same blocks are home to a vibrant arts and small business community that’s now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. With brick- and tree-lined sidewalks that attract more than $200 million in annual tourist income, the town underwrites an Artist Relocation Program that’s drawing resident artists and international visitors, and is considered a national model for utilizing the arts for municipal resurrection.

Wow: Held each May, the Lower Town Arts & Music Festival was recently tapped among the state’s top spring festivals, featuring Western Kentucky’s best art, music, theater and food.

New Iberia, Louisiana: Reborn on the bayou

Then: Founded by the Spanish in 1779 (originally called Nueva Iberia) and home to five brick factories in the 1890s, this vintage bayou town’s main street was a barren row of boarded-up shops not long ago, with its decaying landmark art deco theater, the Evangeline, looking like the sad inspiration for a forgotten Jim Carrey movie.

Now: New Iberia’s latest renaissance has yielded a Great American Main Street Award and a revitalized commercial district featuring hot (and hot) Cajun eateries, rows of new shops and the beautifully restored Evangeline (now Sliman) Theater – home to Louisiana Live Cajun and “swamp pop” concerts.

Wow: High points of a town tour include the pin-up antebellum mansion, Shadows-on-the-Teche, and the original Tabasco factory and 250-acre Jungle Gardens on Avery Island, just seven miles down the road.

Frederick, Maryland

Frederick, Maryland: After the flood… cute shopping!

Then: Once a hospice for Civil War casualties, this proud Colonial-era city endured late 20th-century battle fatigue after getting sidestepped by a new interstate, losing its retail core to outlying shopping malls and being hit by a massive flood in the mid-1970s that turned nearly 100 acres of its historic downtown into a temporary swamp.

Now: Frederick is revived, with a nearly chain-proof red brick commercial district lined with indie shops, destination restaurants and weekenders from D.C. and Baltimore (bo