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June 2012
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Let's bolster Paducah's comeback

By BOB HOPPER Community Columnist

Paducah is on the move again. The future seems bright. But first a brief look back by this lifelong Paducah-lover happy to be back home.

The lights were once very bright on Broadway with the marquees of four downtown movie houses. Dozens of stores and restaurants were open at night. The downtown streets and sidewalks were packed like a small town version of those in busy big cities.

It wasn't all pretty; there was way too much racial, class and gender discrimination; but it sure was lively. Many of the old industrial plants were still in operation making shoes, shirts, dresses, hosiery, radio speakers, radiators and locomotives.

But later Paducah, like many other cities, fell victim to de-industrialization and what disgruntled urbanists like myself called "the malling of America.'' Downtown seemed dead. Many residents of older neighborhoods fled to the suburbs.

There was as yet no Four Rivers Center, no Seamen's Church Institute, no Maiden Alley Cinema. There was talk of leveling the Columbia Theater for yet another city-killing parking lot. Lower Town was only slowly making a return from its near death experience. The Executive Inn was having its own NDE.

It looked bleak. But what a difference a few years can make. Standing on the foundation laid by generations of fine local artists, our city is now drawing creative people from all across the nation, and indeed the world, to live and work here.

The best could still be ahead with the emergence of the Paducah School of Art and Design in Lower Town. And downtown, PAPA Gallery and the Yeiser Gallery are still offering a feast for the eyes. The National Quilt Museum, one of several excellent museums downtown, keeps drawing visitors from around the world.

The annual quilt show is a huge boon to the area. With our global recognition as a crafts center, the return of the excursion boats and the new convention hotel, Paducah may host more major expositions and conventions.

The restored Metropolitan Hotel stands proudly in the Upper Town neighborhood that produced Louis Armstrong's mentor Fate Marable. What a huge success story! What a lesson in perseverance! What great soul food dinners!

Our Paducah Symphony Orchestra is a treasure with its outreach programs taking the joy of classical music from the Carson Center out into the community. Our Market House Theatre continues to showcase the talents of our veteran actors and to train budding thespians, writers, directors and designers.

Maiden Alley Cinema offers fare seldom available in cities of our size. Building on that success, the Paducah Film Society and the Columbia Club are now working toward restoration of the Columbia Theater where for decades Paducah went to the movies, even if some were forced to use a separate entrance and sit only in the balcony.

With more retail, restaurant and entertainment options downtown there will be more demand for upper-story living. It's happening in progressive cities like ours all over the country. We were late in the game but are catching up. More residents will bring even more businesses.

Empty buildings await gutsy developers with urban design know-how and niche-marketing savvy. They can make common cause with the city and lenders to bring even more buzz to Broadway and other downtown streets.

The Avondale-Arcadia business district is surging with new life with Midtown Market, Broadway Pub and the Independence Bank. Soon the refurbished Coca-Cola Building will add to the vibrancy. Love those lights!

The fighting over the riverfront is abating, and a greatly improved and expanded park is on the horizon. We can learn a lot from Clarksville, Owensboro and Chattanooga and should not hesitate to do so. A great river city needs a world-class, family-friendly riverfront park. Heaven knows we've waited long enough.

Our river and rail industries are thriving. Locomotives are still being built and repaired on Kentucky Avenue. Home-grown, high-tech businesses are expanding.

Smart young people are now finding Paducah lively enough for them to stay here. More will do so with continued growth in forward-looking companies, especially if the city continues its progressive strategies toward a healthier, cleaner, greener, and more culturally and educationally rich community.

The Greenway Trail, Noble Park with its ever-improving amenities, and recycling are huge pluses, especially for bright, informed young people desiring a great quality of life for themselves and their children. So are our excellent schools and our proximity to natural beauty: our rivers, lakes and forests.

Let's salute our lively young adults and learn from them as they become our new leaders and visionaries. We need their creative intelligence, their spirit and their energy. We can't afford to lose them.

We need better ideas and a wider vision to move beyond a scarcity mentality that has too often stifled community investment. In recent months, there have been announcements of hundreds of new jobs. Let's make that thousands. Let's once again make Paducah one of Kentucky's employment success stories.

The growth-retarding, county-versus-city mindset of the past has often been an embarrassment to watch. Turf war resulting from our antiquated divided government has not served us well. Our population growth has been stagnant for years. Others have left us behind. Let's change that.

One more thing. Look around the Fountain Avenue neighborhood and then tell me that government can't do anything right. It would have been tragic if our city had let this beautiful old neighborhood continue to decay. Instead it's an inspiring success story.

Let's build on that success so the renewal of our city and county can spread from neighborhood to neighborhood. Yours could be next!

Bob Hopper is a Paducah native who spent most of his career in broadcast news in St. Louis, New York City and Washington D.C. After retiring from the Associated Press, he returned to his hometown. Reach him at bob.brenda@comcast.net.

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