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City can learn from Owensboro

By STEVE WILSON Executive Editor

If Owensboro were a stock, I would be buying it.

When I shared that sentiment in a phone conversation last week with the city's mayor, Ron Payne, he quickly agreed.

"I'd buy it, too," he said. "We've made a substantial investment and turned the corner on reinventing our town. Owensboro is poised to really take off."

I called Payne to talk about Owensboro's recent development, which stands in sharp contrast with Paducah's ongoing contraction.

As we reported last Sunday, Paducah's population has steadily declined in recent decades while other western Kentucky cities, including Henderson, Bowling Green, Madisonville and Hopkinsville, have grown.

But none presents a bigger disparity than Owensboro.

Sixty years ago, Paducah and Owensboro both had populations around 33,000. Today Paducah has dropped to about 25,000 and Owensboro is pushing 60,000.

While admiring what Owensboro has done, I don't mean to sound down on Paducah. I'm not. This town has many virtues, as community columnist Bob Hopper itemized on this page Saturday. But Owensboro is clearly on a roll, and we would be foolish not to take notice.

Its growth has been fairly steady over the years, abetted by a tax policy that facilitated annexations. The city's more recent string of successes, however, promises bigger gains. They include:

n A massive riverfront development that has transformed the downtown area. Payne pushed a controversial tax hike in 2009 that doubled the insurance tax rate from 4 to 8 percent (Paducah's rate is 6 percent) and provided $80 million for the project. That amount has now been more than doubled by private investment.

n On one end of the riverfront is a handsome, $50 millon convention center that opened this year and is off to a fast start, hosting 11 conventions in its first six months with 18 more booked in the coming year. Paducah's convention center, handicapped by no nearby hotel, has a grand total of one convention - the annual Quilt Show - booked in the year ahead.

n A new, 155-room Hampton Inn sits on one side of the Owensboro Convention Center and another hotel is under construction on the other side. (Paducah will break ground soon on a Hilton Garden Inn next to the convention center.)

n On the other end of the riverfront is RiverPark Center, a thriving civic and performing arts venue with more than 700 events each year.

n The city, which hosts a bluegrass music festival that draws 20,0000 people annually, was recently added as the northern-most point on the Americana Music Triangle, a 1,500-mile driving trail especially popular with foreign tourists. The triangle's primary stops are New Orleans, Nashville and Memphis.

n A $12 million International Bluegrass Music Museum, replacing a smaller one, is expected to break ground later this year.

n Owensboro last year was one of 10 towns in the nation named an All-America City.

This past week, the city made international news. A potential "miracle drug" given to two American aid workers in Africa who were infected with the deadly ebola virus was produced by an Owensboro company, Kentucky BioProcessing, from genetically modified tobacco plants.

Much of the credit for the city's resurgence goes to Payne.

"He's the most outstanding mayor I've known," said Bob Morris, publisher of the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer and a Paducah native.

"He's provided visionary leadership, and he doesn't get distracted by politics or naysayers. We're in awe over what's happened downtown. There is pride and excitement in this town like I've never seen before."

Payne, 68, is serving his sixth year as mayor. A certified public accountant, he previously worked as the city's finance director and city manager. During his first term as mayor, he donated his entire $30,000 salary each year to the Owensboro Museum of Fine Art.

So what's his advice for Paducah?

"Partnerships, partnerships, partnerships," he said. "You need to be united - city, county, chamber, entrepreneurs - and pull in the same direction.

"You need to adopt the corporate model: In order to make money, you have to invest money. You've got to find ways to develop things that make people want to live there - things that make the community special and set you apart."

Payne said his vision for Owensboro was influenced by several trips to Europe "and those great cities where people come together. We lost that in our cities when we built the malls and people moved away from downtown. We've done things now that are bringing them back."

More than anything, Payne urged Paducah's leaders to "step out front and lead. You can't lay back and wait for somebody else to do something. You've got a wonderful historic downtown. You have the same great river we have. Your elected officials need to bring people together and ask what they want the community to look like and get on it.

"You've got the canvas," he said. "People need to start painting."

Reach Steve Wilson at

swilson@paducahsun.com.

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