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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

Brave Reckonings, Then A Nap

The scenario of aspiration that opens this third and final chapter of What’s Done, What’s Next: A Civic Pact reflects what is possible following Owensboro’s brave early 21st century reckoning with the era of stalemate and stagnation that is scarring the United States.

Downtown Owensboro

Unlike decisions in Washington and most states, the Owensboro and Daviess County reached compromises on investments that already are enlivening downtown and will ultimately prove to be more valuable than most residents believe is possible.

It represents a choice city and county residents will consistently need to make between the grim consequences of austerity and the commanding logic of investment, entrepreneurism, and imagination. From 2005, when federal funds were secured for a new $40 million Ohio River retaining wall and park, to 2011, when the city commission approved the $47 million convention center, Owensboro and Daviess County seemed to tilt in favor of the latter.

But the results of the 2010 election indicate that Owensboro and Daviess County have not reached a consensus about how to win the future. By a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent Daviess County voters helped elect Senator Rand Paul, a Tea Party-sponsored critic of taxes and government spending. And the weight of the Daviess County Fiscal Court shifted to fiscal conservatives.

The city and county are now in danger of repeating the 60-year pattern that has marked big community initiatives.

Since the early 1950s, Owensboro’s views of the appropriate role of the public sector in encouraging private sector development have swayed back and forth. For instance, in the first years of the 1950s, in tremendously far-sighted acquisitions designed to advance the economy and quality of life, Owensboro’s leadership recruited Brescia University and Kentucky Wesleyan College to the city. Then Owensboro relaxed in its work to develop a more robust higher education sector until the mid-1980s, when the community college was founded.

In the late 1980s, local governments and the state spent $100 million to land a Scott Paper company plant and 350 jobs, and in the early 1990s built the RiverPark Center as an anchor for a new downtown arts and entertainment sector. But it wasn’t until a series of strategic planning efforts from 2006 to 2008 by the Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corporation, the Public Life Foundation of Owensboro, and the Owensboro city government that the region decided to blaze a fresh path to civic renewal, one that emphasized downtown redevelopment.

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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.
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