Tuesday, June 29, 2010

CityVisions' Barry Alberts offers extensive insights on downtown riverfront revitalization efforts

When Owensboro-Daviess County officials were looking for someone with the right mix of experience and credentials to help plan and build a downtown convention and events center, Barry Alberts filled both requirements.

Alberts, a New York native, is managing partner of the Louisville urban planning consultant CityVisions. He is a graduate of Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. But it is Alberts' long association and leadership position with the resurgence of downtown Louisville that makes him valuable to a community embarking on a $79.4 million downtown revitalization project, an effort that will be anchored by the convention and events center and adjacent hotel.

Alberts is credited with being the point person on nearly every major downtown Louisville development project undertaken in the last two decades. Considering everything that has happened in Louisville, that's saying a lot.

With hundreds of millions of public and private dollars already invested, downtown Louisville has undergone a dramatic transformation. The Muhammad Ali Center, the West Main Street Cultural District, the Louisville Slugger Museum, Slugger Field, the expansion of the Commonwealth Convention Center and the 85-acre Waterfront Park have all contributed to downtown Louisville's rebirth, with more to come.

In October, the $238 million, 22,000-seat KFC Yum! Center arena is scheduled to open.

From 1988 through 1998, Alberts was the executive director of the Louisville Development Authority. For a decade after that he was director of the Louisville Downtown Development Corp. About two years ago, Alberts and a partner in the construction business formed CityVisions, an urban planning and design firm.

In March, CityVisions was hired to assist the Downtown Events Center Steering Committee in the development of an Owensboro convention and events center for a fee of approximately $200,000.

Fred Reeves, Owensboro's downtown development director, said Alberts and his company were recommended by planners Michael Huston and Jay Narayana of Gateway Planning Group, the company that produced the master plan for downtown Owensboro redevelopment.

Alberts wasn't a stranger to local officials. He had worked with Gateway on the master plan and with the Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corp. when it was seeking a company to develop and operate the downtown hotel. The Malcolm Bryant Corp. was eventually selected.

"We liked the fact that he (Alberts) was from Kentucky and our city staff had become comfortable with him," Reeves said.

With help from another consulting firm, ConsultEcon of Boston, CityVisions has already produced a 70-page feasibility study for the convention and events center and is working on operations, marketing and construction plans for the facility. Before the July 7 meeting of the steering committee, the consultants are scheduled to produce a recommended site plan for the events center and hotel, something the chairman of the steering committee, Daviess County Judge-Executive Reid Haire, wants to see happen.

Alberts said his Louisville experience taught him that public access to the river is critical.

"It's the heart and soul of the community," he said. "But you don't need acres and acres of access. You also need development, some private, some public, with services. Some cities build huge waterfront parks, but there's nothing around them. You need a lot around it. There's opportunity to do that here."

It will be important for Owensboro's convention and events center to be a facility used by the local community that also strongly engages the Ohio River, Alberts said. Proper marketing, i.e. aggressive, is everything, he said.

"The marketing of these facilities have become more entrepreneurial," he said. "Whoever does it will need to be aggressive. They will really have to sell it. The model is becoming less bureaucratic."

Establishing an adequate marketing budget and finding the right people to market the facility must be prime concerns, he said.

One of the pitfalls Owensboro must avoid, according to Alberts, is focusing only on the inside of the convention center and not engaging its surroundings. Those surroundings should include "authentic" elements that draw people to downtown, he said. Louisville's downtown attractions all have historical Louisville connections -- the Ali center, Louisville Slugger Museum, Slugger Field and the riverfront park. Owensboro should attempt the same, Alberts said. He mentioned bluegrass and barbecue as elements that could be emphasized.

"What distinguishes Owensboro? They need to be highlighted," he said. "Do things related to the culture of the city and do them well."

Something like that may already be in the works, or at least in the talking stages. There's been mention of moving the International Bluegrass Music Museum from its location adjacent to the RiverPark Center to a stand-alone museum with an amphitheater, perhaps on the Executive Inn property.

Steve Vied, 691-7297, svied@messenger-inquirer.com