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Paducah gets smaller as regional cities grow larger

BY LAUREN P. DUNCANlduncan@paducahsun.com

Paducah's population has been declining for decades, which city leaders say is primarily due to young people leaving the city and not coming back.

In 1960, Paducah had 34,500 people. Today, it has 25,018, according to a 2013 estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The city's 2007 comprehensive plan included a report that suggested the decline was caused by residents moving from the city to the county.

"The school of thought was that people were moving into the county ... that's not true," said Joshua P. Sommer, a Paducah city planner.

Between 2000 and 2010, Paducah lost 1,283 residents, while McCracken County only gained 51, dispelling the idea that Paducah's population shift was all about people moving from the city to the county. Between 2010 and 2013, McCracken County's population fell by 192 residents, according to the Census Bureau.

Sommer said the city lost the most residents between 2000 and 2010 in the age range of 20 to 44.

The 2007 report did not see the city's population trend changing anytime soon. It projected that Paducah's decline would continue until 2025 before beginning to turn around. 

In 2012, local voters turned down an option to merge the county and city, which would have combined their populations for government purposes. Sommer said the merger would have made the city the third largest in the state. Paducah is currently the 15th largest city in Kentucky.

While Paducah's population has declined over the past 50 years, other regional cities including  Bowling Green, Henderson, Madisonville, Murray and Owensboro have increased in size.

Paducah's planners cite several reasons for the city's shrinking population in addition to younger residents moving away. They include an aging population, limited space to build new subdivisions and smaller household sizes. The average household decreased in Paducah from 2.73 in 1990 to 2.09 in 2010.

The decrease falls in line with a national trend of increasing single-person households. While 17 percent of U.S. households were single person in 1970, that figure increased to 27 percent by 2012.

If the city's average household size had remained constant at 2.73, the population would be about 31,000 people.

Mayor Gayle Kaler thinks a leading factor in Paducah's population loss and declining household size is children moving away for college and not returning.

Additionally, Kaler said, the city may also have lost some older residents who moving away from Paducah to be with their children, who sometimes left years ago. 

Kaler noted her own daughter moved away for college and didn't come back. That's one reason why Kaler has been meeting with groups of young people to find out exactly what would make Paducah a more ideal place for them to live. She said she has seen some young adults show an increased interest in Paducah.

"We are getting some young people back into Paducah," she said. "I'm seeing some positive signs of that, which makes me really happy."

Attracting business

Job opportunities and business development are key to growing a population. Chad Chancellor, president of Paducah Economic Development, said Paducah's population slide has made it difficult to attract businesses to the city.

"Paducah's population size is the No. 1 thing we're selling against," he said. "A lot of people think it's that Kentucky's not a right-to-work state, but the declining population is a bigger issue."

"We're asked all the time: Why is your population decreasing?" he added.

Chancellor said the fact that Paducah feels bigger, largely because of its status as a regional retail hub, can make a difference with business prospects, "but only if we've already gotten them to third base. Many times we can't get them from first to second because we're seen as too small."

City Manager Jeff Pederson said there are many reasons for a business to locate to Paducah, including supplier options and whether a company owner believes the city would be a good place to live. 

"It's not a singular issue," he said. "Size is not everything ... good companies are going to put a lot of consideration into the needs and interest of their employees."

City Commissioner Allan Rhodes said while Paducah's population has become static in recent years, the city has done well to attract companies and expand retail sales. 

"I don't think Paducah has ever had as many businesses as it has now," he said.

Quality of life

For many residents, the city's population decline is not a concern.

"Paducah has so much more than (other) cities our size," said Paducah resident Ron Cowherd, who returned with wife Janice to western Kentucky from Indiana in the early '70s. "It's very arts conscious. It's easy to get around; nothing is very far. I've seen big city life... my son and daughter live in New York City and hardly know any of their neighbors."

He grew up in Hopkinsville, his wife, in Paducah. The couple met at Murray State University.

"Anyplace else just doesn't feel like home," he said.

Spencer Underwood, who lives just east of Paducah in Reidland, said he likes to visit big towns like Nashville and Louisville, but wouldn't want to live there. Paducah, which offers plenty of great restaurants and amenities of its own, he said, also allows for easy day trips to both Nashville and Louisville, and St. Louis too.

"It's in the middle of everything," he said.

Many city leaders pointed out that Paducah's low cost of living - recently estimated to be 83 percent of the national average - and quality of life should remain the focus of discussions about attracting young people.

Rhodes said he finds it frustrating that Paducah hasn't grown. He said while low taxes and affordable living are key to attracting young people, it's also important the city uses its resources wisely to make Paducah a town people like.

"What's really important is: how do we really make our city more livable?" he said. "We cannot be dispirited because we haven't grown."

Sandra Wilson, president of the Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce and a city commissioner, said Paducah's population loss hasn't caused a problem in business relations. She said the loss of young adults and young families has been the city's major struggle.

Wilson noted that Bowling Green has attracted young people through its restaurant offerings and nationally recognized Sportsplex, and Owensboro has developed a highly appealing riverfront.

"Those communities are investing to attract young people," she said. "We have to have jobs, we have to have affordable, attractive living, and the amenities."

Housing options

The city has been working to make the housing and space it has more attractive. That's why the city planning department has initiated several policies that are incentives to attract residents to Paducah.

Steve Ervin, city planning director, said the city wants to see more development, but as far as vacant space, Paducah is essentially "built out." He explained that since 2003, the city has signed on to several annexation agreements and in-fill agreements. The latter provide reimbursement to developers who build housing on scattered lots throughout the city.

Between 2003 and 2007 the city approved four annexation agreements: Grove Phase I, Plantation Subdivision, Olivet Village Subdivision and Grove Phase II.

Between 2005 and 2013, in-fill agreements included Lakewood Villas, Westwood Hills and Greenway Village. The city heard a request for Lakewood Villas II earlier this year.

Thanks to the incentive programs put in place between 2003 and 2013, Ervin said, 517 units will be created. Those units are projected to house about 1,271 people, just shy of the population loss Paducah saw between 2000 and 2010.

Other incentives include the Lower Town and Fountain Avenue revitalization projects. Since 2008, 26 residences have been built in the Fountain Avenue neighborhood, Sommer said. The most recent plan has been the Upper-Story Living Initiative.

Additionally, the city is pushing to demolish dilapidated structures, which will create space for new housing units.

Contact Lauren Duncan, Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8692 or follow @laurenpduncan on Twitter.

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