Thursday, October 21, 2010

Owensboro taking steps toward bluegrass center

By Keith Lawrence, Messenger-Inquirer
Published: Thursday, October 21, 2010 12:12 AM CDT

A feasibility study with a breakdown of the costs of turning the state office building into the proposed International Bluegrass Music Center won't be ready until March.

But Mayor Ron Payne still wants the board of trustees of the International Bluegrass Music Museum at its Nov. 6 meeting to approve in theory relocating the museum to the state office building, three blocks west of the current museum.

"All we can do now is just give them our blessing to keep going forward on it," Terry Woodward, vice chairman of the museum board, said recently. "We can't make a commitment until we have better numbers on what it's going to cost."

He added: "At this point, all we can say is we're intrigued with the idea. Certainly, we hope to be part of it. We encourage them to move forward with planning."

"We haven't found anything that would be particularly expensive," said Barry Alberts, managing partner of CityVisions Associates, the Louisville company working on the plans for the bluegrass center.

"It looks like costs will be reasonable," he said.

Payne said once he gets the blessing of the museum board, he wants to appoint a national -- or possibly international -- panel to plan the bluegrass center.

"I'm asking them (the museum board) to come up with names of people to serve on a committee to be in charge of planning the center," he said. "I'd like seven from Owensboro and five nationally."

That panel would work with Alberts, Payne said.

"Hopefully, they could start by the first of the year," he said. "I don't know how long it will take."

The panel would also work on fundraising and planning a marketing campaign for the project. "This could be the biggest thing we do downtown," Payne said.

A preliminary drawing by CityVisions shows the parking lot of the state office building covered in grass with seating space available for about 1,000 people.

"There's no place in Owensboro to listen to bluegrass on a regular basis," Alberts said. "We want to change that."

Indoor/outdoor stage

An indoor/outdoor stage is on the northeast corner -- Frederica Street side -- of the building.

Inside would be room for 250 to 400 people at a concert.

In good weather, a door on the back of the stage could be opened and the stage turned for an outdoor concert, Alberts said.

"This will be a bluegrass cultural center," he said. "It's more than a museum. We're looking at things that would complement bluegrass -- a restaurant, clothing store, an instrument store, things that celebrate the bluegrass culture. We want to highlight bluegrass as a brand."

Woodward said he's a little concerned that the parking lot isn't large enough for concerts.

"I'm not opposed to the design," he said, "but if you don't plan big enough, you can have problems later."

On the northwest corner of the building, the drawing shows a restaurant with outdoor seating.

The city wants a barbecue restaurant included in the bluegrass center -- combining bluegrass and barbecue in one location.

"We've had informal discussions about a restaurant," said Fred Reeves, the city's downtown development director. "We would like to have a barbecue restaurant downtown. It's dedicated space that the city would lease. The museum doesn't have the staff or the expertise to handle leases."

He said the architects went on the roof of the building "and they say we can do something as exotic as a rooftop restaurant if there's interest in it."

Dan Hays, executive director of the Nashville-based International Bluegrass Music Association, lived in Owensboro for 12 years when the IBMA was headquartered here.

He likes the idea of putting a barbecue restaurant in the center.

"We're food people in general," he said of bluegrass fans. "But bluegrass and barbecue share a cultural connection of being natural and real. This bluegrass fan definitely loves barbecue."

"A lot of people come here for bluegrass and barbecue, and having them in the same place would be good," said Gabrielle Gray, the museum's executive director.

Woodward said a barbecue restaurant "would draw people to the center every day and every night. We don't have barbecue downtown now."

That side of the building would be just across the street from the proposed Hampton Inn & Suites and one block from the planned convention center.

Naming rights possible

"I think naming opportunities (for different parts of the center) are possible," Woodward said. "It will be unique and one of a kind. We've never gone to Cracker Barrel, Martha White Flour, Martin Guitars with a presentation.

"They want large numbers of people and with 25,000 people a year now at the museum, we're not large enough," he said. "But the bluegrass center could attract a couple hundred thousand people a year."

"Naming rights are not only possible, but highly likely," Gray said.

"It's a difficult economy," Hays said. "But everyone is looking for creative ways to market and to brand what they are doing. We're increasingly seeing those connections (between corporate America and bluegrass) grow."

Corporations, he said, want to know what they'll gain by putting their name on part of the center.

Payne, Woodward and Reeves took a drawing of the proposed center to the IBMA convention in Nashville last month.

Reeves said he later ran into a bluegrass musician in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.

"He was coming from the IBMA convention." Reeves said. "He said there were broad smiles after we made our presentation."

"There was a tremendous amount of discussion at IBMA," said Gray, who had information about the bluegrass center at the museum's booth at the convention after Payne's group left.

"We generated more traffic at our booth with those signs than any other booth," she said. "There's been nothing but positive energy."

"People were excited that the development was happening and had a bluegrass focus," Hays said. "The vision is exciting. The ideas are exciting and made an impression. There is a significant amount of buzz in the industry."

Giant instrument on corner

The drawing of the center shows a giant musical instrument -- probably at least 30 feet high -- on the corner of Second and Frederica streets against the building.

It would be a sign, similar to the 120-foot, 68,000-pound bat outside the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory in Louisville, Alberts said.

The instrument, which would be visible for blocks, would help attract people to the center, he said.

The bluegrass museum has an Internet radio station.

Alberts wants to see it on the ground floor of the state office building with a window so people passing on the street can stop to look in at what's happening.

The drawing shows a steel structure on the Veterans Boulevard side of the block with stalls to be used by the farmers market.

Payne said the stalls could also be used for other things, such as an art festival.

The roof could have balcony seating for concerts, Alberts aid.

"It's a plain-looking building," he said of the state office building. "But we can animate it. Physically, we could redo the building in 12 to 18 months."

That would put its opening at about the same time as the hotel and convention center.

"This could put Owensboro on the international map," Payne said. "Over the next three to four years, we'll really transform downtown. The excitement is building."

"People are saying I can't wait to help," Gray said. "We'll have a lot of volunteers coming in to help. The bluegrass community is very grateful."

"People say it's time we acknowledge how important bluegrass music is," Reeves said.

"The feasibility study will look at possible grants and fundraising opportunities," he said. "We'll have a nice presentation piece to take to Frankfort and Washington when we approach them for money."

Bill Monroe, "the father of bluegrass music," was born and is buried in Rosine, about 40 miles southeast of Owensboro.

The city's drive to capitalize on bluegrass began 25 years ago when what was then the Owensboro-Daviess County Tourist Commission launched a drive to create a bluegrass festival, a professional bluegrass association, a convention, an awards show and a museum.

The tourist commission was a founding member of the IBMA that fall and persuaded the organization to move its headquarters to Owensboro the following year. It moved back to Nashville in 2002.

The museum opened on a part-time basis in the RiverPark Center complex in 1992. But it was 2002 before it opened full-time.