Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Vision for Downtown Owensboro

by Nick Brake, EDC President/CEO

One of the most asked questions these days is: “What are we going to do with downtown Owensboro?”

For me the answer lies in reinventing downtown as a “boom” town. By this I do not necessarily mean a place with abundant big box retail space, or a tourist destination for conventions. The Gateway Commons development is going to be a great destination for that niche. By “boom” town—I mean an “urban village” with residential developments for two very important groups to our future—boomers and boomerangs.

First, let me be clear with the labels and language. By “boomer,” I mean baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. Much has been written about this group. There are a lot of them and the first one retired this month—droves of them will soon follow. Many of these retirees are looking for a good location— a vibrant place with four seasons, comfortable, safe, and affordable. They bring an abundance of wealth, talent, and opportunities to contribute to the community as leaders, volunteers or even entrepreneurs. As our medical center grows, Owensboro offers a host of advantages to “boomers.”

Boomerangs are the second group. By this I mean a young professional between the ages of 25 and 45 with a connection to the region and looking to return—hence the name boomerang. This is a highly sought after demographic because they are typically well educated, but unlike the boomers there are not enough of them to go around. Communities are competing furiously to attract them. The “work/ life” calculus of this group is much different from the boomers. Where the boomers readily followed job opportunities or corporate marching orders— three out of four young professionals, in studies published by Rebecca Ryan, Richard Florida, and the Wall Street Journal, say a cool city is more important than a good job. In most cases this age group finds a cool place to live and creates their own job opportunity or thanks to modern technology they have a job that enables them to work from anywhere. While there are differences between both groups, the commonality is that both are looking for the same thing, an urban lifestyle with lots of amenities and a vibrant community where they can make a difference.

We have an opportunity to make our region a magnet to attract both of these groups. Downtown Owensboro is a key. Cities all over the United States are developing “urban villages” dedicated to providing adequate living spaces in the urban core. This approach, which urban planners and geographers call new urbanism, is designed to contain a diverse range of housing and jobs all within walking distance. This exact phenomenon is happening in downtown Louisville and on the riverfront in both Cincinnati and across the river in northern Kentucky.

Downtowns are becoming significant tools for economic development. Increasingly cities are coming up with a slew of innovative ideas and incentives to retain hometown entrepreneurs and attract new ones. Many are using anchor developments in downtown areas such as mixed use residential space, retail, and restaurants to draw talent and people. From the young professional boomerang returning home to the retiring baby boomer, metropolitan regions are creating attractive locations in the middle of the action, walking distance from all conveniences and “third spaces” for people to gather in public. Downtown Owensboro has the potential to become a “boom” town for people to live in a safe, comfortable, urban lifestyle with a vibrant arts and entertainment district and beautiful river.

Great downtowns fill cities with life—the kind of life that attracts people. On the heels of the $40 million investment in the riverfront, the Greater Owensboro region has a dynamic opportunity for a renewed downtown. This redevelopment and revitalization will not succeed or fail on the strength of any single project or venue; rather it will be the product of a long-term sustained commitment prioritizing a downtown vision as a vitally important space for boomers, boomerangs, and citizens of all ages to live, work, and play.

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