Framing the Issue
About 30 years ago, businessman Bob Green opened the Executive Inn Rivermont in downtown Owensboro. The people of Owensboro and Daviess County had been good to Green. For many years, Owensboro Municipal Utilities purchased the coal his company mined near Panther in Daviess County. His construction company built area parkways.
The “Big E” was an energizing venture for Green, and he viewed it as a way to give back to the community. The project was the talk of the town, and local citizens monitored the construction with cheerful eagerness, if not astonishment that such a place would adorn our downtown riverfront.
The Executive Inn was also a positive, high-profile development, cushioning the hard times inflicted on the downtown retail core by Towne Square Mall which opened not long after the hotel.
The Executive Inn featured a six-story atrium, a performance showroom extending over the Ohio River, a riverside pool and deck, space for convention meetings and exhibits, retail shops and more. Seemingly overnight and for the first time, Owensboro became a competitive convention destination with the hotel and the celebrity entertainment it introduced. Fans packed the hotel on weekends. Country music star Charlie Rich opened the hotel, followed by the likes of Red Skelton, Frank Sinatra, Jr., Dionne Warwick, Loretta Lynn, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Paul Anka and many more.
Responding to this success, Green expanded the hotel to 644 rooms and added another exhibition center. Citizens appreciated the hotel, but they were disappointed that the additions did not live up to the aesthetic appeal of the primary building, that the river bank was left unmanicured, that a planned marina was never built, that there was hardly any exterior landscaping, and that the complex did not relate well to the surrounding downtown.
Nonetheless, the community clearly treasured the Executive Inn and recognized its importance to our local economy.
In 1991, Bob Green was killed in an automobile accident in Indiana. Not long thereafter, it was apparent that he had been subsidizing the hotel, which had not been sustaining its earlier success. Moreover, hotel-convention center competition intensified across the state, and the Executive Inn was in need of some major renovation.
Over the next several years, the hotel (and community) endured a series of foreclosures that resulted in acquisition by absentee owners who were not always reputable. One of the owners, with connections to the Church of the Avenger in Florida (a white separatist organization), used the hotel in an investment scam that led to the conviction and imprisonment of a key figure in the group.
Prospects were encouraging when Illinois businessman John Bays bought the hotel in 1999. Bays made substantial interior and exterior improvements, and his commitment and determination made him popular. At the same time, it was clear that he was positioning the hotel to add a riverboat or land-based casino if the state legislature authorized gambling as a consequence of a local referendum.
After the state legislature failed to act on expanded gaming legislation in 2005, Bays sold the hotel to Minnesota/Owensboro Executive Inn LLC. The new owners closed rooms and then faced the cleanup after a fire in a west wing. They now offer 400 rooms.
Efforts continue to move gaming legislation through the Kentucky General Assembly, led by state Sen. David Boswell, an Executive Inn employee. But without the support of Gov. Ernie Fletcher, the initiative has not gained effective momentum. Democratic candidates and Republicans who hope to unseat Fletcher are divided on the issue.
How long will the Minnesota group wait for gaming legislation to pass? Will the influence of the horse industry restrict expanded gambling to race tracks? If legislation authorizes local communities to vote on whether to allow gaming, will voters in Owensboro-Daviess County approve it? If some number of casinos is authorized statewide, can the hotel submit a competitive proposal when up against major corporations that now dominate the gaming industry? There are lots of “ifs” that some would say threaten the prospects of the Executive Inn.
Executive Inn occupancy rates and convention business appear to be decreasing, but the hotel continues to offer entertainment and weekend packages. The new owners report that they are planning additional facility upgrades, but local officials acknowledge that they still hear complaints from occupants about the condition of the hotel.
Nonetheless, the Executive Inn is still a vital element of our local economy and tourism infrastructure. It is still one of our largest employers (250 employees), a major contributor to county government through the room tax, the largest provider of hotel rooms and the only one to offer significant support space for complementary events. Without it, we could not attract conventions, sports tournaments, festivals and other events.
At the same time, if indeed the hotel is losing money and the prospects for a casino are dim, can the owners justify investing the large sums required to ensure that facilities are appealing, distinctive and competitive?
Convention centers are typically developed by local or state governments as “loss leaders” - facilities that are not expected to make money but are justified by the investment, sales and jobs created through nearby hotels, restaurants and more. Because of the Executive Inn, Owensboro-Daviess County leaders have not perceived a need to develop a municipal convention center. Many consider that an advantage for our community; others point to the benefits of a publicly owned and controlled center that can coordinate events involving multiple hotel properties.
Our community is currently considering an ambitious package of municipal projects: arena-events center-convention center, ice rink-recreational complex, parking garage, state office building, baseball stadium-outdoor concert venue, parking garage – all to complement the $50 million federally financed Riverfront Master Plan. The plan includes a retaining wall at Smother’s Park downtown to accommodate an extensive improvement and expansion of the park, a riverfront walkway to link downtown with English Park, where boating facilities are under construction.
It is hoped that these public projects will stimulate considerable private investment: office, hotel, residential, retail, restaurant and entertainment additions to our downtown.
Discussion QuestionsWith this in mind, how should we, as a community, respond to this pivotal challenge?
This option suggests that the future of the Executive Inn should be determined exclusively by the skills, capacity and decisions of its corporate management. The marketplace should shape the hotel’s future.
This option would likely involve a three step process: 1) the state legislature would approve expanded gaming that would not be restricted to race tracks (and the governor would not veto it); 2) local voters would adopt a referendum to allow gaming; and 3) a state gaming authority would select the proposal submitted by the Executive Inn and/or local governments.
This option assumes that the Executive Inn will not succeed in the long-term and that the property should be acquired by local governments, a public agency, a public-private community development group, or a private philanthropic group. The property would then be sold or discounted for purposes of developing a portion of the community’s downtown master plan.
Which option, or which combination of options, do you (underline you) support? Are there other or better options?
learn moreRiverfront Master Plan
Share Your Views
Mayor Tom Watson
Commissioner Cathy Armour
Commissioner Candance Brake
Commissioner David Johnson
Commissioner Al Mattingly
City Manager Bob Whitmer
Daviess County Fiscal Court
County Judge-Executive Reid Haire
Commissioner Jim Lambert
Commissioner Bruce Kunze
Commissioner Mike Riney
Downtown Development Commission
Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corporation
The Executive Inn Rivermont
April 17, 2007
While you have so very much, the city still needs to be on the alert to clean up and paint up existing houses and businesses, to be aware of the need to run a strict zoning and planning board to keep the placement of homes and business compatible with each other,
The big deal is bringing in suitable corporations who can offer quality jobs to a work oriented, well educated populace. Without jobs, the death knell is quietly being sounded to maintaining the next generation of leaders.
But I have every confidence the good and wise people of Owensboro, who recognize problems in a timely manner, will solve this problem as they have in the past.
I wish all goodluck in this vital process.