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June 2012
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City steps up downtown revitalization

BY CORIANNE EGANcegan@paducahsun.com

Paducah prides itself on a vibrant, historic downtown. Rows of multi-story brick buildings and streets compliment the small-town local businesses that populate downtown and Lower Town.

But like any commerce center, Paducah's downtown is ever-changing. Businesses come and go. Buildings are sold or renovated. And the city this year is taking new steps to help more stores open their doors. 

Ideas for downtown Paducah have always been on the table. Most recently, those ideas took the form of the sweeping, 120-page Renaissance Area Master Plan. The RAMP wasn't well-received by the public. City leaders urged residents to see the RAMP with open eyes, noting it wasn't set in stone and only offered planning suggestions for the future, but it ultimately was adopted as an advisory tool and put on a shelf at city hall.

The RAMP had its desirable suggestions, such as adding to downtown's "walkability" and putting in better directional signage, lighting and landscaping. Where it stalled was in larger, more substantial changes, like putting in a two-story parking garage along the riverfront and adding pre-fit retail space when many of the city's downtown buildings already stood vacant.

Earlier this year, the city also moved to disband the Paducah Renaissance Alliance, the city department responsible for downtown events and small business recruitment. Instead of one department, the city changed pace and hired two aficionados, a downtown events coordinator who works through the Parks Department in Molly Tomasello, and Melinda Winchester, a development specialist working with the Planning Department.

Historic buildings, large undertaking

Broadway is lined with massive, 100-plus-year-old buildings that tower above the street and provide the ambiance city leaders are so proud of. But those buildings take plenty of upkeep and maintenance. In Murray, similar buildings have collapsed recently, shutting down city streets and hurting some local businesses. In the past year, parts of buildings and walls have collapsed, but Paducah has not had any emergency situations.

Fire Prevention Division head Greg Cherry said all occupied buildings with restaurants in them are inspected annually. Other types of businesses are checked less often. Vacant buildings are watched from the exterior, mostly. But Cherry said the city takes ladder trucks downtown to check roofs and exteriors, then gets in touch with owners to facilitate repairs. If those repairs aren't emergency related, building owners could get as much as 60 days to fix problems.

"As long as they are making a good faith effort, we allow it to take the time it needs to take," Cherry said. "We know you can't build a new building in 30 days. As long as they're making progress, that's a good sign. Our goal is to get the property owners engaged. If the building has been vacant for awhile, the repairs can be pretty extensive."

Cherry said for the past year and a half - since the fire department took over inspections and created the Fire Prevention Division - inspectors have worked to develop relationships with building owners. When repairs are being made, and buildings are being rehabbed, they are now part of the process.

"There's a building downtown that is going to be revived soon, and we have spent time with engineers and contractors already," Cherry said. "We may not be perfect, but we are being fairly aggressive."

What's ahead

for downtown

Winchester has been in her position since March 6 and hit the ground running. She walks the streets of Paducah almost twice a week. She's still introducing herself to property owners, business owners and the movers and shakers of downtown. This week, she's meeting the city's Board of Realtors. Her specialization is historic tax credits, and most of the downtown buildings fit the bill for some sort of financial assistance.

"Now we have someone on staff who can help people visualize what we can do with a space, someone who has experience and can explain all of this," Winchester said. "I have been busy in the last few weeks showing buildings in downtown and Lower Town, and there's interest."

The city also has a roof stabilization program, which has been in place for almost a year. The planning department has seven pending applications for the program as of Friday. Building owners can bring in three approved bids from contractors in the city, and they are reviewed and scored based on need and feasibility. It's a competitive program, especially since funds are limited.

As for the vacancies, Winchester cautions that open store fronts don't always mean they're hopeless. There are plans for rehabilitation all around downtown, she said. She's working on a spreadsheet to organize downtown and Lower Town's available properties and for-lease openings.

Her job also will focus on business recruitment, and in the past month three small businesses - Simply B, a new antique store and the Vape House - have come downtown.

"I am hoping to attract whatever will compliment downtown," Winchester said. "Any family-oriented, service-type businesses, restaurants. Anything that will help make the downtown area thrive."

Planning department head Steve Ervin also noted that the city is considering an upper-story living initiative. When the buildings have residential occupancy, repairs get made and street-level retail could follow. He noted that a granting process could help with some of the financial burden. Ervin expected the city to start that conversation in the next six months.

Winchester is also organizing a new downtown event, Showcase Paducah, which is slated for mid-July. The event started small as a way to create exposure and to bring in outside investors, she said.

Winchester is systematically introducing herself to the people she will serve, and getting the word out that she is ready to help.

"People know I am here," Winchester said. "I started meeting with chamber and Paducah Economic Development, I've met with business owners and have been encouraging business owners to get together and get some ideas out there. I've talked to the Lower Town Neighborhood Association. People hear I am here, and there's an energy starting. We all have the same goal and that is for downtown and Lower Town to thrive and for Paducah to be successful."

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