July 19--"I'm bullish on Owensboro," Keith Schneider told a group of about 50 people who came out to hear the first report from "What's Done, What's Next: A Civic Pact" on Wednesday at Owensboro Community & Technical College.
"I'm more bullish on Owensboro than Owensborans are," he said. "But I'm not blind. People here are having a tough time" financially.
For a city trying to compete worldwide for investment, Schneider said Owensboro is awfully white.
"You need more Jewish people, more Asians and more gays," he said.
In 1991, John Hager, then owner and publisher of the Messenger-Inquirer, brought syndicated columnist Neal Peirce to town to take an in-depth look at the community.
This year, Hager's Public Life Foundation of Owensboro has brought The Citistates Group, a network of journalists, speakers and civic leaders, to town to study how much the community has changed and in what directions it needs to go.
Schneider, a special correspondent for the New York Times since 1981, presented the report Monday on how the community has changed in the past two decades.
He said he's planning a story for the New York Times on Owensboro's downtown development and is pitching a story to his editors about the Community Campus program.
Owensboro, Schneider said, "is in a good position (for the future), but you and the rest of America need to be in a better position."
The United States, he said, "doesn't set the velocity of change in the 21st century. China does."
Having a lot of downtown on-street parking "is not a strength," Schneider said. "And you've got lots of parking." 'The city's population grew by 6.9 percent over the past 20 years, he said. The county grew by 10.9 percent, the state by 17.7 percent and the nation by 24.1 percent.
Significant problem with population
"You've got a significant problem with your population," Schneider said.
"The whole country is struggling to figure out what normal is now," Curtis Johnson, Citistates' CEO, told the crowd. "The long period of American exceptionalism is now at an end."
Gabrielle Gray, executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum, said fans attending ROMP last month told her, "We are the coolest place in Kentucky."
But Owensboro is off the beaten path and has to be a destination, she said.
Hugh Haydon, chairman of Kentucky BioProcessing, was head of the Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corp. and president and chief executive officer of what is now the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce at different times in the two decades.
At one time, he said, the community touted itself as a place with cheap electricity and cheap labor.
But, he said, "at some point, there was a recognition that even if we're successful, we lose."
Haydon said that led to a strategy of trying to create better paying jobs in the community.
"It's more important," he said, "to attract young people to a community than it is to keep your own."
"One of the things that surprised me was the disgruntlement about Owensboro," Schneider said. "Part of it is that we're a grumpy nation at the moment."
Madison Silvert, executive vice president of the Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corp., said part of the problem is "a narrow world view" among some people in the community.
Scheider told the crowd that "the quality of your leadership is very good."
The report notes the development of a new $385 million medical center east of Owensboro and the growth of U.S. Bank Home Mortgage to 1,600 employees by fall
"Last year, the city and county added 1,100 new jobs, a 2.3 percent increase that led all Kentucky metropolitan areas in job growth," it said.
Challenges lie ahead
But it also noted challenges that lie ahead.
More than 80 percent of adults in the region are not college graduates.
"Median household incomes -- $43,000 last year -- are higher than the Kentucky median income, but...are still not high enough to provide adequate support for a family," the report said.
It found that 15.2 percent of Daviess Countians live in poverty. That's lower than the state rate but 6 percent higher than the national average.
The county's lack of diversity -- more than 90 percent of Daviess Countians are white -- "could hurt Owensboro's competitiveness in encouraging investments from overseas and especially from China, the fastest growing industrial economy in the world," the report said.
It adds that "almost everyone a visitor meets in town either has a college-educated son or daughter or knows someone with a high-achieving son or daughter, that couldn't find a well-paying job in Owensboro."
Another challenge, the report said, is that "five of Daviess County's top ten employers are public institutions and account for over 4,200 well-paying jobs with benefits."
It adds, "It's likely that sector will steadily shrink over the next generation....(T)he emerging and possibly permanent economy will also put a cash collar around organizations like OMHS and River Valley Behavioral Health."
But the report notes that Owensboro has lost only 5.3 percent of its manufacturing jobs in the past two decades, when other communities were losing far more.
And it pointed out that the new Community Campus offers a curriculum and training program to match high school students with job training and future employment in local businesses.
The second and third reports on the community are scheduled for August and September.
The report is available at www.civicpact.org.
Keith Lawrence, 691-7301, email@example.com