In the past decade, private and public investments downtown have topped the $300 million mark.

And a $30 million to $40 million hotel/apartment complex is expected to begin construction across the street from the Owensboro Convention Center early next year.

But despite all that development, a dozen or more storefronts in the core of downtown are setting empty today.

And RiverPark EyeCare will be moving from 221 Allen St. to the 2900 block of New Hartford Road in May, looking for room to expand and for more parking than downtown offers.

The Gateway Planning Group Inc. of Fort Worth, Texas, which created the masterplan for downtown development a decade ago, says in a new report that downtown might be seeing "rent blight."

"It was reported that rising property values and renovation costs have driven up rental costs, perhaps beyond what small businesses can absorb," Gateway said in a follow-up study commissioned by the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce.

"Some readjustment may occur as part of the transformation of downtown," it said. "Some businesses have survived in past years based on low rents. In order to compete with other retail destinations, downtown retail must be managed in a similar way that a shopping center or mall is managed."

The report says, "It seems evident that downtown development and redevelopment could be better facilitated if there were a 'point person' that would be focused on downtown. This position would guide business owners and developers through the review process and proactively recruit businesses to locate downtown."

The chamber is pushing for such a person to work with businesses interested in a downtown location.

Joe Berry, the city's last downtown project manager from 2011 to 2014, said he was constantly busy in that job.

"You have to have a laser focus on downtown," he said.

On Tuesday, the Owensboro City Commission held the first reading of a budget amendment to spend $80,000 on consultants to help develop a downtown livability plan.

Mayor Tom Watson said the goal is to figure out how to create more residential space and then entice people to live downtown.

"The concern is how you mesh all this together with a lifestyle that everybody would be comfortable with and create density down there," he said.

200 apartments coming

Jack Wells and Matt Hayden are expecting to start construction in the spring on a 10- to 12-story hotel-apartment complex across from the convention center that will have about 200 apartments.

When Scott Polikov, president of Gateway Planning Group, spoke to the chamber's Rooster Booster Breakfast in August, he said the masterplan his company and the community created a decade ago "has really transformed" the community.

But more needs to be done to keep the community on the cutting edge of progress, he said.

Dave Roberts, chamber chairman, said, "The chamber recognizes that, nationwide, communities our size are effectively shrinking. We also recognize because of the placemaking work our community has done over the past decade, we are defying the trend because of strategic growth and investment from the private and public sector."

But, he said, "In order to sustain and continue this trajectory, we must capitalize on these investments -- which is what a Phase II Placemaking plan would be all about."

Candance Castlen Brake, chamber president, said, "Much of the success that occurred downtown after the placemaking plan was adopted happened because there was an active downtown point person who devoted 100% of their time to assisting businesses and developers, helping investors walk through regulations, working with developing incentives and marketing plans and pushing things forward."

She said, "We have proposed that this happen again so we start moving forward. The downtown placemaking has been a great tool in talent retention and recruitment. But we can still do so much more."

The new Gateway Planning report says, "Land values and rents have gone up speculatively (not justified given median incomes and local economy); retail on Second Street is struggling a bit; a lot of vacant tenant spaces creates blight; (there is) limited appetite for the public sector to take on more of the burden of providing more incentives; (and) parking is a concern, especially while attracting new office/employment."

City Commissioner Larry Conder and his wife, Rosemary, own 11 downtown buildings.

They were among the pioneers of downtown redevelopment, buying and renovating buildings as far back as 2007.

"Some of the energy downtown has waned," he said recently. "We have to make sure we keep the ball rolling. Three or four years ago, We Are Downtown (a group of downtown businesses and residents) was taken over by the city. We need to bring it back."

The Gateway Planning report says high rents may be keeping businesses out of downtown.

"My rates haven't gone up," Conder said. "They're still $12 a square foot. Only one of our apartments is open and it's only been open since Nov. 1."

Two of the Conders' storefronts -- the former Bee Bops and Nona's Downtown Market -- are empty, he said.

"We need to have a destination business downtown," Conder said. "A place like Steamer Seafood in Bowling Green or a Malone's in Lexington. That would make downtown vibrant. If we have something like that, the spaces around it will fill up."

The latest Gateway report -- like the first -- says Second Street should become a two-way street again and efforts should be made to reduce speeds in the core downtown area.

More attention to Third Street

It says, "West Third Street lags behind West Second Street and the lack of improvements is noticeable. But the street has potential because of its historic structures and vacant lots which could be good sites for future development.

The report says, "The city owns several properties on Veterans (Boulevard) across from the Riverfront Center. These properties should be considered for private development in the near future. Efforts should be made to encourage development of the remaining privately-owned lots. This will help activate the waterfront and facilitate the connection between the park and the historic core."

On the west side of Frederica Street, it says, "The need for parking for office space is hindering development of vacant parcels. In order to keep downtown as the business center of Owensboro, the parking issue needs to be addressed. A better mixture of uses (residential and office) would help make parking more efficient by allowing shared parking arrangements."

The report says, "The east end of downtown, while remaining stable, has not yet reached its full potential. However, its attractive early 20th century warehouses and commercial buildings give it a unique character that make it a perfect venue for creative businesses focusing on music, art and design. There are several vacant lots within the area that afford an opportunity for new housing for those that want to be close to the creative heart of Owensboro. While the heavy industry that borders the area to the east might be seen as a constraint, it also adds to the character of the area."

Downtown, it says, needs more "small-lot single family homes, townhouses, duplexes and small apartment houses. For many, this is a desirable housing product that lies between the single-family suburban house and the more urban apartment/condo over a downtown commercial space. These housing types are great for creating walkable family-friendly neighborhoods. Residential real estate agents suggested that there is a pent-up demand for this type of housing in the $200,000 range."

More signage is needed downtown to help visitors find places of interest, the report said.

"This should start out on the highways as visitors approach downtown," it said. "In addition, pedestrians also need guidance as they navigate downtown on foot."

The Gateway report says, "As the number of local and non-local visitors to downtown Owensboro grows. it will be more imperative to have a parking strategy in place. While parking is necessary, if unmanaged, it can intrude on the urban experience and lead to a more suburban character."

It also suggests moving the Judicial Center and the Owensboro Museum of Science and History.

"The Judicial Center has been targeted for a new building and location for several years, and the time seems right to study alternative downtown locations as part of the master plan update," the report says.

"In addition, the Owensboro Museum of History and Science is utilizing a building that seems too large for its needs," it says. "It was discussed that this building may be better utilized as part of a privately developed mixed-use project that would bring more energy to the corner."

The report says, "It is important that downtown retain its position as the center of professional services business. It appears that downtown has lost some office space to suburban areas. The relocation of the state office building to accommodate the Bluegrass Museum led to a further reduction of downtown workforce.

It adds, "After approximately 10 years in operation, it is a good time to evaluate the effectiveness of the Downtown Design Review Board process. Are the standards being applied as intended? Is there enough assistance to potential applicants prior to submittal?"

The chamber also suggests evaluating the review process as well as developing a retail/branding strategy for the city and branding strategy for the entertainment district along with beautification projects.

Keith Lawrence, 270-691-7301, klawrence@messenger-inquirer.com

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