Owensboro: What Works and What Doesn’t

by Keith Schneider
June 15, 2011

Twenty years ago, in a strikingly perceptive series of articles in the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson concluded that Kentucky’s third largest city had the proven capacity to set and achieve big community goals, but that its path to a stronger economy and better quality of life was impeded by related challenges – “some psychic, some civic, some economic and social.”

This year the Public Life Foundation of Owensboro asked Peirce, Johnson and their Citistates Group to return and prepare a new study that 1) reports on Owensboro’s progress since the 1991 Peirce Report and 2) lays out a fresh path to success for the community in the 21st century. Background on the new project, What’s Done, What’s Next: A Civic Pact, is available here.

I was fortunate to be asked by Neal and Curtis to be the project’s lead researcher and writer.

Three Chapters

The project, which occurs from May to October, will produce a report in three chapters, each of which will be posted online. The findings of each chapter also will be made public in presentations at separate events in July, August, and October.

I’m excited about the project because it is an all-too-rare opportunity to 1) assess an American community during the first years of a new century and 2) suggest ways to succeed in an era of challenge and change and competition unlike any it has faced.

I’ve spent six days in Owensboro over the last month or so, and interviewed over a dozen people at length. Though my reporting is far from complete I’ve developed a clearer sense of what makes the community tick, and how it sets priorities and works to achieve them.

Owensboro, very plainly, is no slouch when it comes to identifying and closing on big goals. To wit: Without making any judgment yet on its negative or positive features, the city and county in 2009 voted to approve a tax increase to raise public revenue for the riverfront redevelopment. That decision was made in the deepest recession in eight decades and amid a storm of voter disgust for tax increases.

Early Conclusions

I’ve also begun to develop nascent conclusions about Owensboro’s weaknesses and how they could be overcome. It’s clear to me, for instance, that Owensboro’s residents, particularly young people, are not nearly as aware of the community’s many economic and cultural successes as they could or should be. There’s a pronounced civic grumpiness in Owensboro that is tied, no doubt, to the state and national economic downturn. But the all-too-common civic frown also incorporates deeper dimensions that seem entirely local.

Too many young people, based on my conversations and the overwhelmingly negative comments about Owensboro that appear on newspaper and television comment sections and Facebook, see the city and region as a social and financial dead end. One result is that a good number of the region’s talented young people leave.

One of the important goals in this project is to understand why that is happening in a region that is marketing itself so aggressively as a good place to live and do business. A second goal is to suggest ways to develop and apply a new formula of civic energy and engagement that holds people to their place in Owensboro.

Given the community’s recognition of the need to add new assets, and its ability to raise money and actually develop those new features, something still appears to be missing? We need to discover what that is. Why aren’t more people in Owensboro satisfied, even thrilled by where they live?

Owensboro leaders I interviewed, and young people I met, say it is not enough for Owensboro to be a great place to raise a family and an even better place to retire. We want to help Owensboro identify what else is needed in the community’s success formula. And we want to suggest ways to strengthen how the region identifies and gains access to the new ingredients.

We really want to know your thoughts. Get in touch with me at kschneider@citistates.com. Thanks — Keith Schneider.

Public Life Foundation of Owensboro
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