Monday, September 27, 2010

Downtown Owensboro revitalization taking shape

Twenty-one months after the $79.4 million "placemaking initiative" to revitalize downtown Owensboro was launched, work on most of the major, big-ticket elements of the project is still in the planning stages. But officials in charge of this community's largest-ever public/private civic improvement project say everything is on course for completion by late 2013.

Some major elements, such as Riverfront Crossing and the new Smothers Park, are expected to be finished much sooner than that -- less than two years from now.

The latest plans call for a $27 million convention and events center on the former Executive Inn Rivermont property, with part of it overlooking the Ohio River. As it looks now, the events center will be last component of the redevelopment plan to be finished. It will be flanked by a $20 million, 150-room Hampton Inn and Suites hotel, somewhere west of the state office building at Second and Frederica streets.

Meanwhile, the 60,000-square-foot former state building, which the city purchased for $1.1 million, is no longer slated for demolition but is now under consideration as the new home for an expanded International Bluegrass Music Museum and Center.

The bluegrass museum's board meets this week in Nashville, and the proposed museum move will be discussed, member Terry Woodward of Owensboro said. Owensboro Mayor Ron Payne said city officials will be in Nashville on Monday to talk to IBMA board members about the proposal.

The original concept of a market square plaza on the block north of the Daviess County Courthouse has also undergone a change. Now, it will be known as Rivermont Crossing with an the emphasis on open spaces, walkways and restaurants instead of an open-air market.

Perhaps the most obvious change wrought by the initiative is the disappearance of the Executive Inn Rivermont, which was imploded last year and hauled away during the first half of this year.

The other great change downtown is actually not a part of the downtown revitalization, although it is hard to separate it from what the final product will be. The river wall work is primarily a federally funded ($36 million) project that got under way in the spring of 2009. When it is finished early next year, a much larger Smothers Park will be constructed on top of it. The river wall project is in the finishing stages, project manager Ted Lolley said.

"We're pouring the concrete cap (on the outer promenade wall) to support the fascia panels and handrails," Lolley said Wednesday. "The wall panels you will see from the river are being constructed except for the decorative ones. We're waiting for the forms for them. I think we'll be hanging panels by the end of next month."

The steps for the cascading waterfall feature are about one-third completed at the foot of Frederica Street, Lolley said. Handrails along the wall will be attached next spring after all the wall panels are in place.

The contract for Smothers Park and Riverfront Crossing have been awarded, and work in both areas has begun, even though the river wall project continues.

Fred Reeves, the city's downtown development director and the person most closely associated with all aspects of the redevelopment project, said a completion date of late 2013 is on target. "With the very professional actions of the city staff, everything is going well," Reeves said Wednesday. "I could not be more pleased with the way things are going."

Budget still evolving

The project budget has changed significantly since it was introduced in early 2009, and it will probably undergo more changes as the initiative continues to evolve, city officials say.

Owensboro City Manager Bill Parrish likes to compare the project to building a house -- after the decision to build is made, the various features are re-evaluated and costs are shifted, but the overall concept remains the same.

"We have a conceptual plan," Parrish said. "As we get closer, we'll see how much contingency funds will be left."

Savings in one area can be applied to cost overruns in other areas if they occur, Parrish said. City elected leaders might also decide to direct more funds toward parts of the project as needed, he said.

Unforeseen developments have led to some changes in the overall plan. When the downtown master plan was adopted by Owensboro and Daviess County governments in January 2009, the city had not yet purchased the closed Executive Inn Rivermont. When that happened, the overall plan changed with the sudden availability of 17 acres on the Ohio River. Eventually, the decision was made to place the convention and events center on the former Executive Inn property to take advantage of the proximity to the river.

Subsequently, the city purchased the state office building. Originally, the plan was to demolish the state building and build the convention and events center on that site.

The city will pay $59.4 million of the project's cost. The county will pay the remaining $20 million, with all of the county money dedicated to the building cost of the convention and events center, which will be turned over to the city to own and operate. Funding for the project is provided by increases in the city and county insurance premium taxes, approved by both local governments.

Here is the latest budget for the entire project, as outlined by Parrish; J.T. Fulkerson, the city's director of finance and support services; Tony Cecil, the city's operations manager; and Reeves.

* Rebuild Smothers Park (after the river wall project is finished), build Riverfront Crossing (including land purchase) and rebuild Veterans Boulevard from Frederica Street to the RiverPark Center -- $24 million.

* Executive Inn Rivermont purchase ($5 million), cost of demolition ($1.4 million) and related expenses -- $6.8 million.

* Purchase the state office building -- $1.1 million.

* Changes to downtown traffic (converting Second and Fourth streets to two-way, building a roundabout on the west end) -- $5.9 million.

* Convention and events center (city and county project) -- $27 million.

* Project management and engineering fees, utility relocation -- $4 million.

* Contingency fund -- $10.6 million.

* Total -- $79.4 million.

Arts academy plan sees changes

The budget no longer has money allotted for an arts academy. If the bluegrass museum moves into the state office building, the arts academy will move into the bluegrass museum's former quarters in the RiverPark Center, with local school districts possibly footing the bill for minor remodeling.

Originally, a $5 million free-standing arts academy was envisioned as the anchor for the east end of the project to offer a theater degree involving three local higher education institutions -- Kentucky Wesleyan College, Brescia University and Owensboro Community & Technical College. It would also have a program for high school juniors and seniors who would focus on studies in visual or performing arts while completing high school.

Hall Contracting of Louisville, one of the companies completing the river wall from Frederica Street to the RiverPark Center, was awarded a $19.4 million contract to build Smothers Park, Veterans Boulevard and Riverfront Crossing. The city spent about $1 million to purchase property in Riverfront Crossing, and the city will also purchase about $4 million worth of equipment and furnishings for Smothers Park.

Riverfront Crossing is planned to have a restaurant on the site of the former American Bounty restaurant on St. Ann Street. EDSA, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., planning, landscape architectural and urban design firm, is designing Riverfront Crossing. Michael Huston of Gateway Planning, the firm that designed the redevelopment scheme, is working with EDSA to design the building for the restaurant. Plans call for a two-story building a little wider than the old American Bounty.

There is no money yet in the budget for extensive modifications that will be required to the state office building. The board of the International Bluegrass Music Museum will be expected to shoulder some of those costs, city officials said, but it will be November before any of those decisions are worked out.

Designer sought for events center

The events center steering committee is in the process of selecting an architectural firm to design a convention and events center. Twenty-six firms responded to a "request for qualifications" issued by the committee.

Daviess County Judge-Executive Reid Haire, chairman of the committee, said the group expects to select the company that will design the events center in mid-November. Designing the center will take six to nine months. The next step would be to hire a building contractor. With a build time of as little as 18 months, the events center could be done during the fourth quarter of 2013, Payne said.

CityVisions and partner consulting firm ConsultEcon of Boston have recommended a building containing up to 138,350 square feet and featuring a 40,000-square-foot, dividable convention space, four ballrooms totaling 14,000 square feet, a dramatic "river room" overlooking the Ohio River on the former Showroom Lounge platform and a lecture hall with tiered seating.

If the cost of the convention and events center starts climbing higher than $27 million, it will be up to the City Commission to decide whether to provide more funding, Parrish said.

"If you consider that the events center is the main effort (of downtown revitalization), and if money is freed up in other areas, it may be prudent to put more money into it, but that is a decision for elected leaders," Parrish said.

Payne said the overall project is moving "extremely" well. The only real unknown is the final cost of the events center, he said.

"We'll have to see how the bids come it, but from everything I'm seeing, people have been getting great prices," Payne said. "Hopefully it will stay within the ($27 million) budget. But even if it comes it a little more than $30 million, I will be tickled."

Hotel, bluegrass museum linked

In July, downtown hotel developer Malcolm Bryant said he was waiting to see if the International Bluegrass Music Museum's board will approve moving the museum into the state office building before he finalized plans for the $20 million Hampton Inn & Suites he's planning next door.

"This is something that will just really be beneficial to downtown if we can do it," Payne said of the bluegrass museum's move. "It could be the star attraction, but we won't be in a hurry. Our priority is with the construction that is under way."

Payne said he would be shocked if the IBMA decides not to support the moving of the bluegrass museum. "All indications are, they are very supportive," he said.

CityVisions is developing space and use plans for the state office building as a bluegrass museum, including what should be done to the exterior. CityVisions will also design outdoor performance space where the state parking lot is now.

The city wants the museum to become the "International Bluegrass Music Center," something more than a museum.

Current plans show Bryant's hotel being built on the site of the old county jail -- on St. Elizabeth Street between Second Street and Veterans Boulevard. But Bryant has said it may need to move closer to the river to create a "wow" factor, by moving it where the Executive Inn's Expo Center was located. At that location it would overlook Mitch McConnell Plaza.

Asked about the current status of the hotel, Bryant emphasized the importance of tourist attractions in the downtown area to support private investment, specifically mentioning moving the bluegrass museum.

"I know that everyone is in agreement that the events center and hotel must be well done and succeed in a very competitive world," Bryant said in a statement Thursday. "We are confident that we are moving in the right direction for Owensboro to have the best riverfront for our size community on the Ohio River. The public entity is helping to set the standard of quality that can help the private investors succeed. I know that we can set ourselves apart from the competition with the direction we are moving. The new location of the events center and hotel should be a destination in itself with our beautiful river view. However, the events center will not, by itself, bring enough tourists to our community to allow the private investors to succeed. And thus, the bluegrass center and other wowing tourist attractions must be pursued for us to compete on a regional level."

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