Friday, April 16, 2010

Dubuque center impresses downtown development steering committee

The Grand River Center convention center in Dubuque, Iowa, is "magnificent," and the business model that supports it is working well, according to Fred Reeves, Owensboro downtown development director.

But what Dubuque has done with its riverfront is somewhat different than what is proposed for Owensboro, he said.

Dubuque is on the Mississippi River, and the city and Dubuque County are nearly identical to Owensboro and Daviess County in population. The 86,000-square-foot Grand River Center convention center and the Grand Harbor Resort hotel/indoor water park next door were visited Wednesday by members of the steering committee planning a convention and events center for Owensboro.

The group also paid a visit to the Five Flags Center, Dubuque's downtown arena that was built in the mid-1970s.

What the group saw was impressive, Reeves said during a brief interview he provided between the last stop on the one-day tour and boarding a plane back to Owensboro.

"There are great similarities between Owensboro and Dubuque," Reeves said. "But they are about 10 years ahead of us with their downtown riverfront and convention center and hotel. All of them are fully mature. The convention center is really beautiful."

The Grand River Center and Grand Harbor Resort are removed from downtown Dubuque, in contrast to what Owensboro has planned, said Reeves. Despite those and other differences, Reeves and Owensboro Mayor Ron Payne both said Dubuque has many good lessons for Owensboro to learn.

"Like us, they decided they had turned away from their river and downtown and decided to reclaim them," Payne said. "They are about 10 years ahead of us. They dealt with some of the same issues we're dealing with. They invested about $188 million and we will invest $150 million. They have had a tremendous return on investment in their downtown with more than 2,800 jobs created since 2000."

Payne said he found it very interesting that Dubuque kept its existing arena instead of replacing it with an arena in its convention center. The proposal for Owensboro's convention center is to include an events center within the convention center.

"I think there's some possibility that we might want to maintain the Sportscenter," Payne said.

Payne said Dubuque's downtown and riverfront area is more spread out than Owensboro's, which is an advantage for Owensboro, he said. Dubuque also has to deal with a flood wall and a major four-lane, divided highway (U.S. 61/U.S. 151) that separates the riverfront from downtown, which reminded him of Louisville's riverfront.

"We'll be more concentrated and more pedestrian-friendly," Payne said. "The area of the convention center and hotel was an industrial site. They are not unlike Louisville."

Payne said Dubuque officials downplayed the effect of its two casinos on its convention center business, but acknowledged they help the 193-room Grand Harbor Resort. The land-based Diamond Jo casino is a few hundred feet from the hotel. Payne agreed that having casinos probably helps attract conventions.

The Owensboro group spent the day in Dubuque but were back in Owensboro by 5 p.m.

"I was impressed with the reception we got and I look forward to continuing those relationships," Payne said. "... We don't have to reinvent the wheel. We can learn a lot from Dubuque. I came away thinking they've done it right."

In addition to the 4,800-seat Five Flags Center and the Diamond Jo casino, Dubuque also has a racino featuring live greyhound racing, the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, named Iowa's No. 1 attraction in 2009 with its six aquariums, and the Mississippi Riverwalk, a half-mile long walkway along the river atop the flood wall.

Steve Vied, 691-7297,