OWENSBORO - George Skiadas stands in front of his family's Famous Bistro at 102 W. Second St., watching the crowds strolling along both sides of the street on a Friday evening.
"I can remember when the only thing you saw out here was paper blowing down the street," he said. "There was nothing happening. I really like this. We can't even imagine what the next five years will bring."
Skiadas and his wife, Nancy, opened the downtown restaurant on June 1, 1993. And there were some lean years as downtown struggled.
But the reopening of Smothers Park in 2012 after a $68 million makeover that turned it into a "resort-quality park" and the completion of work on Second Street this year that left lots of room for sidewalk dining have brought hundreds of people downtown most nights of the week.
"I've never seen the amount of people downtown that I saw at (the May 23) Friday After 5," Mayor Ron Payne said. "People are coming here from everywhere. They come from Evansville, Bowling Green, Elizabethtown. When you say Owensboro today, people think about downtown. And it's really going to expand when we get the bluegrass center open next year. ROMP is big, but it's one weekend a year. The bluegrass center will be all year. This will all translate into economic growth."
Downtown, he said, "is truly becoming an entertainment district. On Friday and Saturday nights, you'll find musicians in Smothers Park, on Second Street and in the clock tower behind Fetta (Speciality Pizza & Spirits). We've only just begun."
There are downtown stages now on the RiverPark Center's BB&T Plaza and its Courtyard, the Overlook Stage in Smothers Park, and in McConnell Plaza
The old Showroom Lounge area is being turned into The Pier, another place for outdoor entertainment, and when the old State Office Building is razed and the International Bluegrass Music Center is built at the corner of Second and Frederica streets, it will also have an outdoor performance area, Payne said.
Downtown means entertainment
"We want people to think about entertainment when they think about downtown," he said.
"We're trying to bring people out of hotels into downtown," Tim Ross, the city's public events director, said recently. "If there are people in town for family reunions, weddings or whatever, we want to offer them more things to do and encourage them to come back."
He said, "We're seeing folks who used to live in the area coming back to see what's been happening. It seems like the downtown crowds are up so far this year. We'll have to see if that continues or it's just that people are so tired of the long winter that they're anxious to get out again. When it's ghastly hot outside, crowds drop off, too."
Every night, Ross said, "the park has a lot of people in it. But Thursday through Saturday, it's really full. Some of the merchants are hiring street musicians to entertain their customers. The last Saturday of each month, we're having Picking in the Park from 7 to 9 p.m. in Smothers Park. We want acoustic jam sessions all over the park with several styles of music. People can play acoustic music there any time, but we really want to fill the park on the last Saturday of the month."
Last month saw a small crowd gathered around a bluegrass jam session in one of the park's gazebos.
Friday After 5, launched in 1997, was the original catalyst for free downtown entertainment.
Now, there's Downtown Date Night on Thursdays; Live on the Banks, free music on the Overlook Stage on Saturdays; Bluegrass on the Banks at the Overlook Stage on the first and third Tuesday nights of each month; and a downtown cruise-in for classic cars on the first Saturday night of each month.
Michael "Blind-Dog" Gatewood, a Union County musician, can usually be found performing outside the Bistro on Friday nights and at the Skiadas family's Lure Seafood & Grille inside the Hampton Inn & Suites on Saturday nights.
In 1991, when he was known as Mike Gatewood, he was the general manager of Sunlite Music, a downtown recording studio and acoustic instrument shop.
"I wish it had been like this when I was in Owensboro trying to get Sunlite going," Gatewood said recently. "But I'm happy to see it now. The Owensboro music scene is growing immensely, by leaps and bounds."
Last summer, he said, "Ryan Rigdon and I played in front of the Bistro 10 or 12 weeks. The Bistro sponsors us."
The opening this year of the Owensboro Convention Center is bringing even more people from across Kentucky into downtown.
"We're seeing a lot of out-of-town people," Maria Kelly, owner of Nona's Downtown Market, said recently. "We've had people from Chicago and a lot of other places come in. They're all amazed at what's happening downtown."
Jack Wells and Matt Hayden built the Boardwalk Pipeline Partners building on West Second Street and are in the process of building the five-story Holiday Inn west of the convention cente
They have announced plans for Waterford Place, a five-story condo complex, just west of the Holiday Inn.
The two also talked about razing the building at 101 Frederica that now houses El Toribio and building a five-story office building there.
But a lack of available parking for office workers has put that project on hold.
"We are actively in discussions with several out-of-town restaurant groups interested in coming to downtown, for the 101 site as well as other downtown locations," Wells said recently.
More downtown parking planned
A lack of parking is also hampering other downtown development.
But Payne said recently, "A plan is in the works for a 400-car parking garage downtown. I can't say too much about it yet."
He said, however, that "office buildings will probably work better south of Second Street than on the riverfront."
We Are Downtown, a booster group formed in 2007 to bring attention to downtown, created a new Art Hop last month to bring local artists into stores and restaurants one Friday night a year.
It was so successful that the organization has decided to make it a monthly event during the summer, Natasha Gaw, We Are Downtown's chairwoman, said last week.
"There were people everywhere that night," she said. "I heard a lot of people say they had never seen so many people downtown. All the restaurants and stores were full. I didn't even close my store (Bella Ragazza Boutique) until 10 that night. And the Art Hop was over at 9."
Gaw said the last Friday in June is during the ROMP: Bluegrass Roots & Branches Festival at Yellow Creek Park.
"We're trying to find a different night this month," she said. "But in July and August, the Art Hop will be on the last Friday of the month.
"We're seeing a lot of people from out of town. Every day, somebody in the store says, 'I'm not from around here.' "
OMG!con, a three-day convention for fans of anime and video games, is expected to bring 1,700 people to the convention center this week from Friday through Sunday, she said.
And Moonlight Ride, a nighttime bicycle ride through the city, is expected to bring 300 people downtown Friday night.