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Chapter Three:
Next Up for Owensboro and Daviess County: A New Narrative That Stokes the Fires of Innovation

by Keith Schneider
October 17, 2011

  1. Undertake a New Community Strategic Plan — From 2006 to 2008 Owensboro completed several strategic planning initiatives in and outside government. They led directly to the focus on downtown development, the Gateway Planning Group’s inventive master plan, and the realignment of city government staff and services to reflect the fast-changing fiscal environment.A new strategic planning initiative is needed in 2012 and 2013 to coincide with the opening of the convention center and to propel the city and county to the next stage of its progress as a center of opportunity.
  2. Cultivate and Recruit Women to Serve as Elected and Appointed Leaders — As we noted in Chapter One of Civic Pact, 11 women serve in elected leadership positions in the city and county, 10 more than in 1991 when the Peirce Report was published. Still, almost 52 percent of Daviess County’s adults are women, and that percentage is not reflected in elected positions in the city or county governments or on the important government advisory boards. All largely remain white, middle-aged, and male.A visible departure from this trend is the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce. Three of the last four chamber chairs have been women, including the current chair, Shirley Cecil, the chief marketing officer and vice president of Republic Bank.Still, only a handful of women run for seats on the city commission or county fiscal court. In the last nine years, just three women gained city commission seats including Pamela Smith-Wright, the current mayor pro-tem. Just one woman ran for mayor over the last several years and lost. One woman ran for the fiscal court, and also lost.In interviews, women in Owensboro offered a number of views about the causes of the region’s anachronistic hierarchical and male-dominated governing approach. But all agreed on the negative consequences.Owensboro is missing the leadership abilities of more than half of its adult population. “We’re losing the female approach to problem solving,” said Martha Clark, a retired accountant and co-founder of Impact 100, a prominent philanthropy. “Some people might say we don’t have enough qualified women. I don’t buy that. There are as many qualified women as necessary to run for office and to serve on these boards, and are willing to serve.”
  3. Strengthen the City’s Internal and External Marketing and Communications — Owensboro and Daviess County are in desperate need of a strong governmental communications and public education office. More focused and persistent outreach is vital to show visitors and citizens why a publicly-funded program of education, downtown development, innovation recruitment, and events makes sense in strengthening the economy over the next generation. The region also has to develop better promotional videos that express the city’s dynamism. Think Lady Gaga not Pat Boone.Highlighting community assets and achievements is important to share with tourists and business prospects, but also with residents. Owensboro needs to promote civic pride, and shape a stronger sense of community. A place to start is in the city and county high schools, which could develop mandatory civics courses that include sections on community identity and leadership.As we’ve reported in A Civic Pact, Owensboro and Daviess County are establishing the region as a center of sophisticated and smart civic action. New investment is leading to growing numbers of new businesses and the expansion of existing employers.Owensboro decided on a development strategy that is working. The city and county broke away from the national vector of decline to soar in a different direction. How that happened, and the effects it’s had on workers, business owners, and community vitality are the necessary facets of a nationally significant civics lesson. They also form the basic ingredients of Owensboro’s new brand.Words matter. Public agencies need to get serious about straightforward communication; getting the messages aligned with where the interests and fears of voters are, and where the city now lies. Otherwise, Owensboro descends into the same well of grumpiness as much of small-city America. So far, Owensboro has shown an unusual capacity to build on its assets. Both the attitude and the assets have to adapt.
  4. Establish a Joint City-County Office of the Ombudsman — Provide businesses and developers a surer path through the permit approval thicket in city and county government, and simultaneously provide citizens with greater access and opportunity in decision-making. The intent here is to improve certainty, speed decisions, and enhance fairness for investors and citizens. There is much work to do to thin out the cross-cutting permitting process while also providing the fairness and access that citizens expect. The city and county can help do that by establishing an Office of the Ombudsman, jointly overseen by the city and county, that employs at least two professionals to advocate internally to assist executives and citizens.The Office of the Ombudsman also is charged with ensuring that the city and county hold more effective and better-attended public meetings prior to and during the consideration of big civic decisions. While it is understandable that government officials are anxious to move as quickly as they can to open and finish deliberations on important projects, avoiding full-throated public dialogue often slows the process. Opponents have ample opportunity to exert their veto power in active citizen campaigns, administrative appeals and, in rare cases, court action.Owensboro’s public officials need to do a better job of communicating their intent and taking public review and comment as a necessary and valued part of decision-making. Owensboro is fortunate enough to have the Public Life Foundation as a respected and impartial communications asset. The foundation’s staff is expert in convening forums, meetings, and public events, as they did in August 2011 when the foundation worked with the city to hold three forums to explore the various design and cost features of the new convention center.The Office of the Ombudsman should work with the foundation to hold public meetings and make sure that Owensboro’s citizens are informed and comfortable with the steps city and county government make to strengthen the economy and quality of life. The result will be a more open, transparent, efficient and effective public process. Good decisions will reach their conclusion more quickly, and poor projects can be jettisoned before they achieve momentum.
  5. Establish and Fund the Owensboro Promise — Modeled after the very successful Kalamazoo (Mich.) Promise, the Owensboro Promise provides every graduate of the six Owensboro, Daviess County, and Catholic high schools scholarships for tuition and fees to attend a two- or four-year college in or outside Kentucky. The scholarship program provides additional incentives to encourage high school graduates to attend Owensboro’s two- and four-year colleges. But the scholarship is not intended to limit choice.The intent is to provide local high school graduates the opportunity to pursue two- and four-year degrees at any qualified out-of-state or international university. If Owensboro is a cool enough place, with a thriving culture of young adults consumed with energy and creativity, its local students will want to return home after their education.In addition, the community has a big opportunity to expand the Owensboro Promise nationally and internationally and fully fund scholarships for top students from outside the region to attend college in Owensboro. The idea is to provide funding to recruit the finest and brightest high school seniors in the nation and world to be educated in Owensboro. They would be offered four-year undergraduate degrees plus a graduate degree (masters or PhD) for free. In exchange the community would secure a contractual agreement for the student to stay and work in Owensboro and Daviess County for a minimum of five years.This is long enough for a healthy percentage of the scholarship students to become enmeshed in careers in the community, marry, have children, and become fully engaged in community-building. It also would contribute to Owensboro’s new brand as an immensely attractive place for high school and college students, and young adult professionals and workers.The Citizens Committee on Education has been working on the idea of an Owensboro Promise for several years and has proposed funding it through utility bills though Owensboro Municipal Utility says it doesn’t have the technical capacity to implement the program.That should not prevent Owensboro from pursuing a big and innovative higher education scholarship program.There are other ways to develop the Owensboro Promise through philanthropy. Owensboro has a long experience in administering the $16 million John B. and Brownie Young Memorial Scholarship, which this year will award $900,000 to 408 high school graduates in Daviess and McLean counties, said Martha Clark, the accountant who administers the program through BB&T Wealth Management. The scholarship is based on need, and students qualify by graduating in the top third of their class. Typical awards, provided to Owensboro graduates only for the first year of college, are $1,000 to $2,000.Clark said in an interview that although rules governing the Young Scholarship have been in place since the 1960s, it could be useful to leverage the history and performance of the older scholarship program to make the case and raise funds for a new regional scholarship project.Clark also is the co-founder of Impact 100, a five-year-old philanthropy that has awarded $1.24 million in large grants to worthy community projects. The fund raising expertise of the Impact 100 board and membership would be valuable in assisting the development from private donors and foundation funds of a stable fund balance large enough to finance the Owensboro Promise.The idea of a big scholarship program merits close attention. The Kalamazoo Promise was established in 2005. In its first five years it awarded $21.3 million in tuition and fees to 1,924 city high school graduates, or more than 80 percent of those eligible. About a third of the students attended two- and four-year colleges in Kalamazoo, which also has benefitted from higher public school enrollment, higher rates of high school and college graduation, and more business activity. The Kalamazoo Promise fund balance, contributed by anonymous donors, is estimated at $80 million to $100 million. Kalamazoo schools graduate under 500 students annually, or a little less than half of the number of graduates from Owensboro and Daviess County high schools.
  6. Establish the Owensboro Young Achievers Program — Many of Owensboro’s most talented young adults choose to pursue their lives outside of the region. Give those people a chance to be part of Owensboro’s future and to stay connected. The idea here is to encourage top graduating seniors in Owensboro’s high schools to compete to be recognized among the Top 20 young adults in the region.The Top 20 distinction would not be merely academic, but would also include athletes, entrepreneurial students, community-minded students, and other young people that excel. A panel appointed by the city and county governments choose the Top 20.The elite nature of the honor would attract applicants, who seek such distinctions for their college applications and resumes, and for first jobs. Events would be established to honor the awardees and to encourage the group to both establish goals for community enrichment and commit their time to helping achieve them. Very quickly, the Owensboro-Daviess County Top 20 would attain state and national stature, and become an event and mission-oriented program that keeps awardees plugged into community projects. It also invites Top 20 honorees to periodically return to Owensboro for events that build the group’s cohesion and the community’s visibility. The point of the Top 20 project would be to keep smart and effective area high school graduates engaged in improving their home town, from wherever they live.
  7. Foster Local Foods and Develop More Recreational Infrastructure to Improve Public Health — Rising rates of obesity are a serious health and economic risk in Owensboro and nationally. Insurers are steadily moving toward coverage programs that reward employers and employees that are normal weight and penalize high-weight organizations and employees, just as there now is a ratepayer bias against smokers.In addition, healthier cities are noting their success as a marketing advantage in promotional campaigns.A number of steps to improve public health are needed:
    1. Establish an Owensboro pure healthy foods campaign in the region’s restaurants that also serves as a civic brand. Award cash prizes and incentives for menus that are lowest in fat, calories, highest in taste and value. Healthy Horizons, a volunteer group supported by OMHS, promotes wellness, anti-smoking programs, fitness, nutrition, etc. The Farmer’s Market organization surely would be interested in such a program and may be doing similar things.
    2. Provide technical and financial assistance to encourage pure healthy home grown foods and build a garden market sector to supply local foods to schools, institutions, restaurants, markets. A non-profit organization to lead and coordinate this new sector will help speed its development. Local food production could be a $150 million industry employing hundreds in production, distribution, education, and marketing. And such a new garden market sector reduces costs in the high-priced energy and transportation era unfolding now.
    3. Build a farmer’s market downtown on the Ohio riverfront.
    4. Establish bike lanes on city streets and promote bicycling as a reasoned, healthy, low-cost transportation alternative. Expand the greenbelt to 45 miles, and connect city and county parks with bike and walking paths. Include age-appropriate bike safety instruction in both elementary and secondary schools and make it imperative that drivers cannot get a license in Daviess County without knowing the rules of bicycle traffic and safety. That change alone would improve safety and reduce bicycle-related accidents.
    5. Build a lake and public swimming beach as a new piece of recreational infrastructure, an important new installation in an era of rising summer temperatures. The lake would be a vital addition to two public pools and six private club pools that exist today in Owensboro.
    6. Establish public education programs to teach children and adults how to prepare healthy foods so they taste good, and bring those prepared healthy foods into schools.
    7. Turn to the Green River District Health Department to establish metrics — size of garden market sector, sales of local healthy foods, declines in sales of fast and fried foods, improved academic performance, changes in rates of obesity and associated diseases — and promote the results regionally and nationally.

    Access to recreational resources, education attainment, improved public health, quality natural resources, and access to pure healthy food are at the top of the 21st century list of what makes communities competitive and livable.

  8. Generate More Diversity in Civic Life and Improve Business — Economic opportunity attracts new residents and compels talented young ones to come back. One step to improving economic opportunity and simultaneously establishing more diversity is to recruit investment and development capital from Asia, and especially from China.Owensboro is well-positioned to attract Chinese capital to a beautiful river valley near the center of the United States. Moreover, it can put itself in position at the start of the nationwide race to develop relationships in China’s growing centers of investment capital and attract Chinese investors.A model for the opportunity that exists in China is Toledo, Ohio. The northern Ohio city of 287,000 residents has attracted Chinese investors who in the last 10 months have spent almost $5 million on city-owned parcels to develop a $300 million mixed-used development on the Maumee River, and just purchased a 400-room downtown hotel to convert into a $40 million business condominium for Asian businesses eager to set up offices in the Midwest. Many more projects are in the works, said Scott Prephan, a realtor and business consultant who has helped Toledo Mayor Mike Bell and his staff recruit prospects in China.Chinese investors are willing to take more of a risk than U.S. banks or venture capitalists. But they also need to be personally cultivated over time.The city and county should start an international commerce office to penetrate the Chinese market and recruit investors to the region. In an interview, Prephan offered these initial steps to get started:
    1. Organize business, government, and education leaders to work together so that there is a single focal point, and a single recruitment message. “Chinese investors look for unity in the community, one point of contact, and everybody on the same page,” Prephan said.
    2. Find and cultivate a close partner in Asia who is well networked in the Chinese business community.
    3. Develop technical expertise in Owensboro lawyers, accountants, engineers, trade experts who will volunteer their time and be paid later from fees they earn from new projects.
    4. Ensure that the recruitment project is well-funded for travel to bring delegations from Owensboro to meet prospects in China, and to host dinners and events in Owensboro for Chinese visitors.
  9. Promote New and Cleaner Energy Sources — After assessing a decade of national, state, and regional trends in technology, policy, public views, investment patterns, and costs it’s not difficult to predict that coal, natural gas, and oil will continue to be the primary suppliers of energy in the Ohio River Valley and in Owensboro. But high prices for fuel will alter patterns of consumption, and climate change is almost certain to be seen in Kentucky and the U.S. as a much more significant health, environmental, and economic threat. Temperatures are rising. Floods and big storms will be more numerous and ruinous.Clear policy steps will be taken over the next quarter century. Owensboro needs to accept the science as accurate, understand the technology, and be a leader in how to respond and not a follower. Its city-owned utility can serve as an innovator in carbon reduction technology, conservation, efficiency, solar development and other cutting edge thinking. It can do this work in partnership with local colleges and it can recruit businesses focused on developing new practices and equipment that enhance energy innovation.The Elmer Smith power station presents an opportunity. The climate change challenge raises the stakes. In this area of Kentucky both power generation and distribution are key economic factors. Why not lead in the inevitable transition?
  10. Strengthen Transportation Hubs, Build a Streetcar Line — Owensboro’s opportunities over the next two decades are significant in air, ground, and river transportation. The city and county can do more to support service expansion at the airport, which is producing more passenger revenue and attracting airline interest. Establishing the Owensboro airport as a larger regional hub enhances business recruitment and retention.The airport recently announced plans to add connections to St. Louis and Nashville in addition to the Las Vegas and Orlando flights. It also gained $2.08 million in state grants and loans to add 8,500 square feet to the 14,000-square-foot terminal.Similarly, the Riverport also has potential to be a much larger marine transportation hub and its expansion and modernization, at a very reasonable cost ($30 million to $50 million), would strengthen Owensboro’s competitiveness in national and global transportation markets for grain, metals, energy, and other cargo.A third important idea to consider is building a streetcar line that runs in a loop through downtown and north-south on Frederica Street. New streetcar lines enhance downtown development in every city that has built one in recent years. They serve communities ready to substitute public transit for private vehicles, save money for riders, and would contribute to Owensboro’s developing brand as an innovative community taking big steps to frame its future.Dozens of communities are building or thinking of building streetcar lines, and competition for Federal “small starts” funding, specifically intended to partially finance projects under $75 million, is intense. But it’s not impossible, especially for communities that have a reputation for thinking big about energy efficiency, congestion, and downtown development. Owensboro needs to get serious about this idea quickly, and begin the process of recruiting federal support for grants that can reach $50 million, or enough to fund most of the construction cost of a new three or four-mile Frederica line.Here’s another front on which Owensboro could declare its distinction. The streetcar could be remarkably catalytic. What nearly no one wants to talk about, of course, is the possibility of a serious crisis in fossil fuelsfrom any of many possible causes. Nearly all our communities are predominantly auto travel dependent.Wouldn’t it be smart for cities to take a “hedge fund” approach to investments and get themselves ready for the worst possibilities. Yes, there’s only so much money. But an Owensboro streetcar pushes the boundaries of what’s possible, and compels residents and leaders to think bigger and longer-term than they ordinarily do.
  11. Put a Brake On Sprawl — As Owensboro is discovering, proximity is an old principle of community development that in this century is steadily gaining exceptional economic value. Compact patterns of development cost less to maintain, are more convenient, and produce more efficiency in community operations. The outward centrifugal forces that in the 20th century pushed homes and businesses far from downtown centers are now operating in reverse. This is now the case in Owensboro, where more square feet of housing, retail, and office space is being built within city boundaries than in the county, according to the Owensboro Metropolitan Planning Commission.A number of factors are at play here. But it is entirely accurate to report that the cities most determined to re-establish the downtown and neighborhood-centered pedestrian-friendly patterns of development that existed in the early decades of the 20th century are more competitive in an era of rising energy costs, declining personal and community wealth, busy schedules, and desire for community.Owensboro needs to continue the campaign to replace its love affair with big surface parking lots with a marriage to homes and businesses, recreation, and education infrastructure that is reachable on foot, on a bike, public transit, or a very short car ride.
  12. Promote Events and Bluegrass Music — Just as Cooperstown, N.Y. depends on the Baseball Hall of Fame for branding and the livelihoods of hundreds of its residents, and Cleveland has gained from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Owensboro’s identification as the center of Bluegrass music represents a formidable opportunity. The development of the convention center helps. The momentum to redevelop downtown also helps the city and county make the case for state, and potentially for federal funding to assist in the design and development of a new music center that houses the International Bluegrass Music Museum. The location of the old state office building makes sense.Whether the existing structure can accommodate the music center museum or provide a compelling architectural statement for the city’s downtown redevelopment plan needs to be subjected to community engagement. It’s a good idea for Owensboro to work with the Public Life Foundation to schedule public listening and comment sessions as the idea gains traction in the community.Owensboro needs to know if a new music center and Bluegrass Museum is a high priority for public investment. If it is, what other projects will it bump off the wish list?

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Chapter Video

Chapter 3 Video

Recommendations for More Success

  1. Undertake a New Community Strategic Plan – A new strategic planning initiative is needed to propel the city and county to the next stage of its progress as a center of opportunity.
  2. Cultivate and Recruit Women to Serve as Elected and Appointed Leaders – Almost 52 percent of Daviess County’s adults are women and that percentage is not reflected in elected positions in the city or county governments.
  3. Strengthen Internal and External Marketing and Communications – More focused outreach is vital to show citizens why a publicly-funded program of education, downtown development, and innovation makes sense in strengthening the economy over the next generation.
  4. Establish a Joint City-County Office of the Ombudsman – Thin out the cross-cutting permitting process while also providing the fairness and access that citizens expect.
  5. Establish and Fund the Owensboro Promise – Provide every graduate of the six Owensboro, Daviess County, and Catholic high schools scholarships for tuition and fees to attend a two- or four-year college in or outside Kentucky.
  6. Establish the Owensboro Top 20 Young Achievers Program – Provide the most talented young adults the chance to be part of Owensboro’s future and to stay connected.
  7. Foster Local Foods and Develop More Recreational Infrastructure – Healthier cities note their success as a marketing advan- tage in promotional campaigns.
  8. Generate More Diversity in Civic Life and Improve Business – Recruit investment and development capital from Asia, and especially from China.
  9. Promote New and Cleaner Energy Sources – Owensboro’s city-owned utility should serve as an innova- tor in carbon reduction technology, conservation, effi- ciency, solar development and other cutting edge thinking about energy production and consumption.
  10. Strengthen Transportation Hubs, Build a Streetcar Line – Owensboro’s opportunities over the next two decades are significant in air, ground, and river transportation.
  11. Put a Brake On Sprawl – Replace the love affair with big surface parking lots with a marriage to homes and businesses, recreation, and education infrastructure that is reachable on foot, on a bike, public transit, or a very short car ride.
  12. Promote Events and Bluegrass Music – Design and develop a new music center that houses the International Bluegrass Music Museum.
Public Life Foundation of Owensboro
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