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Central Challenges

If the community that consists of Owensboro and surrounding Daviess County is going to make itself a more desirable place to live and “hack it” in the harshly competitive world of the 199Os, it will have to face up to a challenging set of shifts—some psychic, some civic, some economic and social.

A new, broader concept of regional citizenship will have to be nurtured. Ugly and counterproductive city-rural antagonisms will have to be alleviated. Power sharing will have to be opened up. A dramatically enlarged role for women in local leadership must be created. The Messenger-Inquirer—and its critics—will have to reach some understandings.

On the economic front, the focus of job development will have to switch from fishing expeditions for the increasingly rare big catch to something closer to aquaculture—nourishing smaller, more numerous, homegrown fish. The environment will have to rise higher on peoples’ lists of concerns. We will propose a “safe growth committee” to evaluate industrial deals on economic and environmental grounds. We’ll suggest a stronger focus on agriculture as a base for economic growth. Owensboro must pledge itself to an intensive campaign to recreate a downtown with character and attractiveness, a true meeting place for the region’s people and visitors from afar. Developing a fully accessible, lively waterfront must be a top priority.

On the social front, Owensboro-Daviess County can strengthen itself by reaching out more aggressively to support and “deal in” sometimes estranged communities, from the children and parents of troubled families to senior citizens to the area’s small but significant African-American community. Finally, we’ll suggest it’s time to create a strong community foundation to support the multiple civic adventures of the coming years—first because “risk capital” is critical to community progress, second because strong corporate supporters (Texas Gas, for example) could be buffeted in an increasingly tumultuous international economy.

The reader may detect an undercurrent of sharp criticism as we make some points. We acknowledge that. On the other hand, there are a lot of things about Owensboro-Daviess County that strike a visitor very positively. Chief among these is the community’s capacity to turn goals into reality. In the mid-1980s the Citizens Committee on Education sparked the creation of Owensboro Community College, opening opportunities for the region’s residents to gain sophisticated new workplace skills. The creation wasn’t easy. There were fears of negative impact on Brescia College and Kentucky Wesleyan; community leaders disagreed about the location; big state dollars had to be collared.

But the competing visions were resolved; a new institution was born; a handsome campus took shape. And college participation by Daviess County’s young people has soared from 45 percent to 61 percent.

RiverPark Center, when it opens in 1992, won’t merely be home to Owensboro’s symphony, theater, dance group, and a new bluegrass museum. Nor will the 1,500-seat auditorium and 300-seat theater just be spaces for use. What the center will represent is the caring and commitment of Owensboro people to the distinctive shared culture of their community—Bach to Balanchine to bluegrass. The $9-million fund-raising effort to make it happen is simply extraordinary for a city of Owensboro’s size.

If Mayor David Adkisson thinks of the downtown riverfront district as the community’s living room, then RiverPark Center’s three-story atrium overlooking the Ohio River will indeed represent its picture window.

Of course, visitors have to be impressed by the immense outpouring of public support that complemented the industrial recruiters’ work in landing the Scott Paper Company plant last year. The “We” in the newspaper’s jubilant banner headline—”We got Scott”—referred clearly to the whole community.

Could this be the same community that managed, in 1990, to rip itself apart on a city-county merger issue, revealing rather scary urban-rural animosities, a yawning gulf between political elites and regular folks?

As we listened to leaders from across the city and county—bankers and farmers, entertainment moguls and neighborhood activists, industrialists and environmentalists—a string of remarkable contrasts sprang into focus.

Take the familiar Owensboro-Daviess County lament about isolation: “The interstates don’t come here. Our only bridge is on its last legs. The big planes don’t fly in here any more. It takes hours to get to a big city. We’re cut off. We need better and bigger roads and bridges.”
The visitor hears a lot of those sentiments, and they sound like complaints. Yet in the next breath, the very same people will turn the tables and tell an astoundingly different-sounding story:

“This is a safe community. We don’t have to lock our doors. This is a family-oriented town, a churchgoing town. It’s a terrific place to raise kids. There are no porn shops. No places to buy adult videos. No dangerous street types here. This is the way we want it.”

Not everybody agrees; some (especially young singles) complain the community is too safe. They say there’s not enough street life, diversity, excitement. Like all humans, Owensboro people may want the impossible—the advantages of quick connections with the world, but without the social consequences that come swirling in its wake. Here’s a town where one hears a lot of expressions of fierce independence—a community that many residents claim is the best place to live in North America. Back in the 1920s, when industrial might was prized above all else, Owensboro called itself “the Chicago of the South.” Today its “Rooster Booster” events draw up to a thousand people for monthly breakfasts. Another side of the community is deeply suspicious of new ideas. Back in 1963, Owensboro voted not to accept federal urban renewal money.

“There’s a sense around here that right or wrong isn’t relevant, it’s how we do it,”’ one civic leader told us. “Owensboro,” he continued, “is a very comfortable place to be, especially if you can ease into the feeling of the place, if you can accept what most of the people accept.”

A veteran journalist in town reminded us that the statue on the Courthouse lawn memorializes a Civil War soldier who wore a gray, not a blue uniform. Owensboro-Daviess County and its surrounding territory, he said, were Confederate then and remain fundamentally conservative today.

From a leading entrepreneur in town we heard: “People around here get worked up over anything that’s changing, and they get mad at the people who cause it.” But all’s not hopeless, he added. “Later on, they’re proud of the result.”

Owensboro-Daviess County’s fundamental challenge, as we sensed it, is to meld its skepticism, its reluctance to change, with recognition that no city, anywhere in America, is going to be safe against buffeting economic and social change in the years ahead. Since the Scott announcement, the Owensboro-Daviess County area has lost more jobs in the aluminum industry alone than all the jobs that the Scott plant promises to bring.

The community college was a great accomplishment for the 1980s. But the acid test will be whether it can prepare constantly increasing numbers of people from the Owensboro-Daviess County region, the underprivileged as well as the affluent and senior-college bound, the rural as well as the urban, for the fearsomely tough job requirements of the years ahead.

The RiverPark Center could be a white elephant, not a center of community pride and accomplishment, if it’s not managed as well as it was conceived, if bluegrass development isn’t pushed forward with verve and imagination, and if the surrounding downtown can’t be made a more welcoming place. It could become the cultural mecca of western Kentucky and southwestern Indiana—but only with the right leadership and foresight.

Next: Home-Grown: The Key to the Economic Future

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