Saturday, August 2, 2008

Why the city and county should buy the Executive Inn property

By Darrell Higginbotham, President, Independence Bank, EDC Board Chair and Rod Kuegel, Farmer, EDC Board Chair-Elect

Much has been said recently about the fate of the Executive Inn property. Some of the talk concentrates on methods being used to secure the 16.5 acre riverfront site, but very little is said about why it is so important that the property be acquired by the city and county governments.

We do not think the city or county governments should be in the business of re-opening or operating the hotel. The current hotel structure is not in serviceable condition and it should be razed. However, it is a rare opportunity for any community to gain control of 16.5 acres, nearly one-third of a mile, of river frontage. Fortunately, the infrastructure is in place to make the most of this opportunity. Recently, the Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corporation in partnership with the Downtown Development Corporation, engaged the services of the Gateway Planning Group, a nationally recognized firm based in Ft. Worth, Texas, that will create a long-term implementation strategy for the rebirth of our downtown.

The urban planners and economists from Gateway Planning refer to the 16.5-acre site as “the cornerstone of downtown redevelopment.” The Board of Directors of the EDC, a group representing major employers and key private sector partners in the region, wholeheartedly agree, and urge the community to rally behind the city and county governments’ efforts to acquire the property.

What our governments recognize is that communities with thriving downtowns are able to attract the talent and workforce necessary to excel in today’s economy. Simply put, downtown redevelopment, including redevelopment of the Executive Inn site, is crucial to our region’s economic vitality.

Development of the property as a public/private partnership will attract private investment that would not otherwise invest without certain public amenities. Once in control of the property it would be in the community’s best interests for the governments to act swiftly, decisively, and prudently on how to best develop such public amenities, while welcoming all private investment that could add to the endeavor. The city and county would then be able to retain the few acres they need for public projects while selling the rest to private developers.

By the fall, our community will have a site plan for the 16.5 acres and adjacent properties that may include a convention-caliber hotel, multi-purpose indoor event center, potential office, retail and other mixed-use space. The professionals from Gateway Planning will work with city, county, and economic development officials to evaluate and analyze the qualifications for developers interested in developing amenities on the property.

Given this opportunity, we are concerned at what might happen if we do not gain control of the property. Some may say that the community should just wait for a private investor to purchase the property. Yet we cannot be assured that a private investor will support the objective of downtown redevelopment or even redevelop the property at all. Without public involvement, the regional market will be diluted with smaller, limited service hotels that will further deter the development of a convention-quality facility. However, if acquired, the convention and visitor business combined with other potential amenities offered through the site plan will lead to a solid return on investment, not unlike that of a large employer for which public dollars are routinely leveraged.

This is a classic example of where it is prudent and, in fact, highly appropriate for local governments to leverage public funds to attract high quality private investment to meet the goals of the region. The importance of this issue goes beyond downtown and the Owensboro city limits; it is an investment in the future of the entire region that will no doubt pay dividends for decades to come.

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