Ten keys to an energized downtown
On a parallel track with the riverfront plan, we need an effective, comprehensive downtown revitalization strategy, and resources to administer it.
As a downtown resident and lifelong downtown advocate, it is gratifying to observe the progress occurring in downtown Owensboro and the prospects of even more exciting possibilities. With unprecedented ($40 million) federal government support for the riverfront and major new anchors targeted for downtown, these are exciting times for our community. But some past efforts to develop downtown have fallen short, and good things don’t always happen automatically. So while we rally around a new vision, we must also stay focused on incremental steps to improve our central business district, the heart of our community, our downtown. Furthermore, we must recognize that to administer such a program and maximize the ensuing public sector investment, we need more than voluntary membership contributions. We need support from city and county government at a level that is comparable to communities our size across Kentucky. I suggest ten areas of focus:
1. Development (Private sector)
Attracting investment to downtown is difficult. Land is sometimes hard to assemble (and expensive), parking is a challenge, and the market is sporadic for office space, retail, and more. To attract more private investment, we need a well-funded mechanism to attract downtown developers the way our Economic Development Corporation attracts investments to our industrial parks. We also need anchors. We are delighted that Southern Star Gas Pipeline, Atmos Energy, and U.S. Mortgage have major office facilities in Owensboro- Daviess County, but we would have preferred that they be downtown. The visual impact and employee support of nearby businesses would have been a tremendous boost to downtown.
2. Development (public / nonprofit sector)
Certainly every project cannot locate downtown, but all major public buildings or offices should. Every time an OMU, post office, police station, or Social Security office leaves downtown, it pulls customers from restaurants, gift shops, pharmacies, and newsstands. The new public library would have been a fabulous addition to downtown. Let’s hope the arena, baseball stadium, ice rink, International Center, Commerce Center, and other future community projects will make the greatest impact possible by locating downtown or near downtown. And when we design a major new community building, let’s insist on high standards. Allow the public an opportunity to react to several prototypes. Citizens may prefer a more attractive building even if it costs more.
We salute those who have adorned our community with a restored Breedenbach Building, Newberry-Wile Building, Thacker law office, the cluster of preserved buildings on East Second Street, among many others. But we also scratch our heads when we see beautiful old buildings treated inappropriately with barn wood, stucco, or aluminum siding, or when they are neglected and allowed to deteriorate. Downtown Design Guidelines have been adopted by both city and county governments, but the guidelines must be enforced, and we need to provide incentives to assist property owners in following them. The pay-back to the public: higher property values; fewer vacancies; a more appealing community image. Occasionally, government has an opportunity to set the standard. We commend Daviess County Fiscal Court for preserving and restoring the Smith-Werner Building on Second Street, and encourage them to do the same with properties they own close by on St. Ann Street.
4. Infill development
Downtown was once characterized by a tight cluster of buildings. As buildings have come down, they have been replaced by small parking lots or vacant properties. And many buildings that still remain contain offices, wholesale businesses, and storage that dilute the street life of our downtown. We need to encourage infill development that complements the scale and design of downtown and uses of space that restore the vitality that was once so unique and appealing about our downtown. Rather than park a few cars or create holes in our streetscape, let’s build appropriately designed buildings or add gardens, plazas, art, and street vendors. Where there are underused parking lots in and around downtown, let’s do what it takes to attract townhouses, offices, or mixed-use developments.
5. Upper floor residential
Many downtown buildings were designed for retail on the lower level and living quarters for the business owner on the upper floor. With just a few exceptions, our downtown has not seen upper floor conversions to residential. Other cities have had success with this; why can’t we? Likewise, many cities have had great success adapting former industrial and warehouse buildings for loft apartments or condominiums. These are often among the most popular living quarters in these cities and key to attracting young professionals back to downtown areas.
6. Public improvements
We have seen some splendid public improvements downtown in recent years: the RiverPark/BB&T and Executive Inn/McConnell Plazas; underground utilities and period lighting; brick pavers added to sidewalks; new benches and trash containers at Smother’s Park. New attractive bus stops were suggested recently. To supplement the riverfront plan, we need to incrementally expand these public improvements, add wider sidewalks for cafes and vendors, bury utility lines, install period street and storefront signs, build new medians, increase landscaping, and more. It would make sense to have all this designed by one firm to ensure consistency. Steps to calm or reroute traffic, especially truck through-traffic, could be integrated into such a plan.
7. Business development
An updated master plan for downtown should include specific types of businesses that could be successful downtown. This could include specialty shops or restaurants that have not yet located in Owensboro or that could add a downtown location, plus special opportunities: riverboat, floating restaurant, or the use of Yellowbanks Island. As we market our downtown to prospective tenants, we could provide an up-to-date list of available properties, square footage, building condition, parking, etc. Perhaps incentives could be developed to help lure the most appealing businesses downtown. In addition to filling available spaces, if we could document that there is tenant interest in downtown beyond the space available, developers would be enticed to build more commercial space in the area.
8. Linkage with Brescia
Brescia University’s close proximity to downtown is an asset we need to explore and exploit. The Brescia community would welcome a more vibrant downtown to enhance its student life; downtown Owensboro should benefit from the concentration of students, faculty, and administrators nearby. Perhaps this synergetic relationship could be enhanced through design (e.g., banners, lighting) and a food court or commercial strip featuring pizza, bar, jazz club, coffeeshop, or bookstore.
9. Cultural anchors
Our downtown’s future is intrinsically linked to the success of RiverPark Center, Owensboro Area Museum of Science and History, International Bluegrass Music Museum, Owensboro Symphony Orchestra, and to a lesser extent, Theatre Workshop of Owensboro and the Owensboro Museum of Fine Art, all of which are located in or near downtown. When these organizations are financially solvent, they are better positioned to develop programs to serve the community and attract tourists: arts camps, fiddling contests, Octoberfests, touring exhibits, syndicated bluegrass music production, and more. And to think even more ambitiously, imagine what an IMAX Theater in our science and history museum would do for downtown, or a year-round performing arts school connected with RiverPark Center and the symphony?
Because of the mighty Ohio River, a settlement grew up around Bill Smeathers (Smothers) cabin. Now, 200 years later, we are refocusing our redevelopment efforts in this same area. As the $40 million plan comes together – park expansion, overlooks, performance spaces, fountains, and more – there will be renewed interest in water sports, festivals, and other river activities. This return to the river will shape a new visual image of our community, attract investment, support businesses, and create jobs for many years to come.
A properly funded mechanism
Tackling a few of these areas, let alone ten, is a challenging notion, but one that underscores the many possibilities for downtown Owensboro. Good things have happened in our downtown, and will continue to happen, but more good things will happen if we provide the resources to pursue these possibilities aggressively. To make all this work, Downtown Owensboro, Inc. needs a full-time professional executive director and support staff. DOI’s membership (more than 200) provides a valuable base, but to lift DOI to an effective administrative level, additional financial support from city and county government is essential.
The local government support DOI receives currently is the lowest of any comparable city in Kentucky. DOI needs the capacity to maintain a downtown database, coordinate planning, option property, retain designers, issue requests for proposals, and aggressively seek downtown tenants and developers. Public facilities and services are already in place downtown and in our more established neighborhoods surrounding it. It is sound public policy to redevelop this area and reduce costly expansion of roads, sewers, fire and police protection, parks, and more into rural and suburban areas.