The Paducah Chamber of Commerce regularly recruits a platoon of community and business leaders to travel to Frankfort and Washington to press the flesh with lawmakers and make sure the city's needs are known.
I've been on several similar trips in other cities in my career and found them predictable (lots of perfunctory head nodding) and largely unrewarding (not much that was sought ever materialized).
So given the chance to join a chamber-organized bus tour to several cities last week, I wondered if it would be worth signing up. I'm glad to report it was. This trip was about learning, not lobbying, and several things we saw and heard were eye-opening.
The group of 49 visited Bowling Green, Elizabethtown, Owensboro, the Port of Indiana in Mt. Vernon, Ind., and Henderson. I counted four big takeaways:
(1) E-town hits a home run. The 150-acre Elizabethtown Sports Park is one of the largest such complexes in the country. Completed in 2012, the park boasts it "offers features that would make the pros proud," and that's no lie.
It includes 25 lighted venues -- 13 baseball/softball diamonds and 12 multi-sport fields. Most have natural grass, and a few have synthetic turf. Other features include a three-mile walking/jogging trail, three large pavilions for pre-game or post-game gatherings, four playgrounds with cool water misting stations and six concession stands. The fields we visited were immaculately maintained.
The $29 million project was financed with a 2 percent restaurant sales tax approved by the city. The tax is generating $2.2 million a year, far more than needed to cover the $1.2 million annual bond payments.
Because Paducah is placed in a different class by the state, it can't impose a restaurant tax unless a local option bill becomes law. That measure did not make it through this year's General Assembly.
The sports park generated about $14 million in economic impact last year -- a figure expected to grow as more youth sports tournaments are booked.
(2) Bowling Green gives kids a great program. Leaders in Bowling Green and Warren County like to talk about more than $1.3 billion in major construction projects over the past five years, but during our stop they spoke most enthusiastically about the success of an education initiative called The Leader in Me.
The program is built around the principles in Steven Covey's 1989 best-selling book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and a more recent one by his son called The Seven Habits of Healthy Kids. The habits include Be proactive, you're in charge; Begin with the end in mind, have a plan; Put first things first, work first and then play; Think win-win, everyone can win; Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
Trainers work with teachers and administrators to bring these principles into the classroom and the daily lives of students. The goal is to give the kids life skills that will also serve them well as adults.
Changes already seen in many schools have been remarkable. In one elementary, the number of disciplinary incidents dropped from more than 250 two years ago to only 50 the past year.
The Leader in Me is gaining advocates across the country with more than 1,600 schools currently enrolled. Bowling Green and Warren County started with the program in elementary schools, and it is now being implemented in middle and high schools. It's not cheap; the Bowling Green chamber foundation is raising $3 million to pay the bills. But everyone we spoke with described the program as transformative and worth every nickel.
(3) Owensboro remakes its riverfront. Last summer Owensboro was one of only 10 towns nationally to be named an All-American City. The designation recognized a five-year building boom that included more than $1 billion in capital investments and a 1.4-mile downtown riverfront district that has to rank among the most impressive in the nation.
Mayor Ron Payne explained how it all hinged on passage of a controversial tax hike in 2009, doubling the insurance tax rate from 4 percent to 8 percent (Paducah's rate is 6 percent).
The riverfront now includes a sprawling, six-acre park that features a handsome playground you might expect to find at Disneyland, fountains and a cascading waterfall. On one side is a massive, $48 million convention center. On the other is a new performing arts center. A new Hampton Inn (with an excellent restaurant) sits in between, and another hotel is being built nearby. Several cafes and bars are short walks away.
Musicians perform regularly, drawing hundreds of people and dozens of boats that float near the shoreline. Payne said the town was determined to make the most of its greatest asset -- the Ohio River -- and it has done just that. .
(4) Cooperation makes all the difference. Surprisingly, what most grabbed me and many others on the trip the most wasn't a project but an attitude. In every city we visited, we heard about the crucial difference made by teamwork and civic engagement.
In Bowling Green, Mayor Bruce Wilerson and Judge-Executive Michael Buchanon joked about how they liked each other "or at least pretended to most of the time." But they clearly have mutual respect, and as Buchanon put it, "A solid working relationship between the city and county is absolutely vital."
In Owensboro, Payne and Daviess County Judge-Executive Al Mattingly said the town's dramatic rebound would never have happened without the city and county "standing together shoulder to shoulder." One other factor they cited was the work done by the Public Life Foundation of Owensboro, set up in 1996 with a goal of increasing civic engagement. The foundation helps take the politics out of community planning, they said, and builds consensus.
When this trip was being planned, some suggested traveling to more distant and bigger cities such as Chicago and Kansas City to find fruitful ideas that could be planted in Paducah. Instead, the chamber opted to save the airfare and check out some exceptional things closer to home. It was a sound decision that stands to pay real dividends.
Steve Wilson is executive editor of The Paducah Sun. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.