Thursday, July 8, 2010

Owensboro's New Riverfront and Convention Center

A consultant's proposal for downtown Owensboro was met with praise and general agreement Tuesday by members of the Owensboro City Commission and Daviess Fiscal Court.

The plan calls for these steps:

* Construction of a downtown Owensboro convention and events center on the former Executive Inn Rivermont site.

* Conversion of the state office building into a new International Bluegrass Music Museum.

* Placement of a hotel immediately west of the state office building.

"One thing we wanted to do was get the wow factor back," said Owensboro Mayor Ron Payne. "When this is done, we're going to have the wow factor back. What is really exciting is it's in our reach. We can make it happen."

"I think it's an excellent recommendation," said Daviess County Judge-Executive Reid Haire. "I love the recommendation, and I hope the steering committee accepts it."

The Downtown Events Center Steering Committee, of which Haire is the chairman and Payne is a member, is the group with the authority to approve the recommendation. The plan was delivered by Barry Alberts, managing partner of CityVisions, the Louisville consulting firm the steering committee hired to help it plan a $27 million convention and events center. The steering committee meets to talk about the proposal this morning.

What Alberts laid out Tuesday at City Hall makes extensive use of the city-owned Executive Inn property for the events center, with a dramatic "river room" built on the former Showroom Lounge platform that projects over the Ohio River. Meanwhile, a $20 million, 150-room Hampton Inn & Suites hotel to be built by developer Malcolm Bryant is proposed for the old county jail site at St. Elizabeth and Second streets.

Earlier proposals involved demolishing the state office building and putting the hotel in its place, connected to the events center just to the west of the hotel. But as Alberts pointed out, the availability of the Executive Inn property opened up new possibilities to take greater advantage of the river by moving the events center closer to it.

"The city was courageous and did a smart thing to take down the Executive Inn," Alberts said. "We had the luxury to looking at a really large piece of property for a hotel and convention center."

Alberts said the recommendation would do the following:

* Optimize access to the edge of the river.

* Provide a strong connection between the Executive Inn site and the heart of downtown.

* Maximize the connection of the events center to the river.

* Provide space for outdoor events and festivals.

* Take advantage of the Showroom Lounge piers.

* Maximize access and visibility of the hotel.

* Instead of trying to cram the events center into the existing grid, we'll move it to the river," Alberts said. "We will actually bring the events center to the river."

Converting the state office building into a new bluegrass museum adds a third facility to the events center/hotel mix, Alberts said, one that is needed to create critical mass and attract visitors to the area. The idea also saves the state office building from destruction and saves the money that would have been spent to take it down, Alberts said. That money can be used to change the appearance of the building and redo its interior.

City Commissioner Candance Brake endorsed the idea of an events center close to the Ohio River.

"It's a wow from the river and a wow from the bridge," she said. "It's something we can all go to and something we have to have."

City Commissioner David Johnson, a member of the steering committee, praised the concept and called it a good example of why consultants can be valuable resources. City Commissioner John Kazlauskas said it was important for downtown redevelopment to be done right.

"This is a good footprint," he said.

County Commissioner Bruce Kunze expressed pleasure with the reuse of the state office building and told Alberts he had done a great job. Commissioner Mike Riney called it a good plan that accomplishes and embodies everything that has been envisioned for downtown.

"I'm pretty happy with everything," he said.

County Commissioner Jim Lambert called it an excellent plan.

Bryant said the positioning of the hotel between the new bluegrass museum and the events center is workable for him as long as the museum and the events centers are executed correctly.

"We've got some design work to do," he said.

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