Thursday, February 17, 2011

Magazine examines Owensboro's economic development

Published: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 12:15 AM CST
By Steve Vied, Messenger-Inquirer
Owensboro's high-profile, high-dollar efforts to spur its economy and rebuild itself -- from downtown revitalization to the building of a new hospital and a sprawling bank mortgage service center -- are the subject of a lengthy article in the January edition of The Regional Economist magazine.

The magazine is a publication of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Freelance writer Susan C. Thomson, a frequent contributor to the magazine, was in Owensboro in November gathering information and taking photographs. Her article examined Owensboro's economic history and how things have changed from the days when General Electric employed more than 6,000 people and Green River Steel prospered.

Published as one of the magazine's regular community profiles, the article carried the headline of "Federal Funds, Tax Increase Help Owensboro Shore Up Its Economy." Thomson began the piece with a description of the $40 million federally funded downtown river wall project, which is nearly finished. It was designed as an effort to control erosion caused by the flow of the Ohio River through a giant bend at Owensboro. It notes that Sen. Mitch McConnell secured the funding in 2005.

From there, the author moved to 2008 and the unveiling of a downtown master plan and 2009, when city and county governments approved 4 percentage point increases in the local insurance premium tax rates, with the additional revenue dedicated to funding a $79.4 million downtown revitalization program.

Thomson quoted Nick Brake, president of the Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corp. saying that growth of existing companies is contributing to local growth. To illustrate his point, the article described the steady expansion of U.S. Bank's Home Mortgage division, which began as a local startup business. It also had information about First Security Bank's local expansion.

Brake said the article was an accurate and positive review of economic developments in Owensboro. The moves by U.S. Bank Home Mortgage and First Security Bank are what probably caught the magazine's attention, he said.

Brake said the EDC is currently involved in aggressively marketing the community. Articles like the one in "The Regional Economist" can help because it complements what the EDC is trying to do, he said.

"It's good coverage and certainly an accurate depiction," Brake said.

According to the article, a combination of state and city incentives, "speedily arranged," resulted in an offer by the city to build an 81,000-square-foot building and lease it back to U.S. Bank for 20 years at below-market rates.

The first phase of that building is nearing completion at Tamarack and Carter roads in the MidAmerica Airpark. Eventually, 500 jobs will be created at the call center.

Bob Smiley, executive vice president of U.S. Bank Home Mortgage, said the article is good for his company and good for Owensboro-Daviess County.

'The article centered on the good things in Daviess County," he said. "From the standpoint of a direct benefit to us, as we expand, the more people know about Owensboro, the better for us. Within our organization, Owensboro is on the map. But a lot of people don't know about us."

Smiley said he appreciated the article's focus on downtown revitalization.

"To me, the most important thing is the revitalization of downtown," he said. "All that's going on downtown is a huge draw for this area. It really told the story of what Owensboro has to offer. I think (Thomson) really did capture what is coming to reality."

Mayor Ron Payne said the article is more evidence that positive news about the city is getting out. He noted that a recent Lane Report, a Kentucky publication, is devoted to economic activities in Owensboro.

"All the activity that is happening here is radiating throughout the country," Payne said. "This (Thomson's article) is more of the same. That is why it is so important that we finish what we have started."

Tracing the growth of OMHS (then Owensboro-Daviess County Hospital) back to its 1995 merger with Mercy Hospital, the article stated that the hospital has increased employment by 1,200 since then and will add another 300 jobs by the time the $385 million replacement hospital opens between Pleasant Valley Road and Daniels Lane, and then add another 200 or so jobs after that, according to CEO Jeff Barber.

The article stated that U.S. Bank and OMHS had "serendipitously evolved over the years into job-creating powerhouses" with current combined employment of more than 4,400.

A significant portion of the article was devoted to the emergence of plant-based pharmaceuticals research at OMHS-owned Kentucky BioProcessing, bought with the help of a $6.4 million loan from the state's tobacco settlement fund. The plant in the MidAmerica Airpark received a $17.9 million U.S. Department of Defense contract and has grown from six workers to 32.

The article also described these developments:

* Construction of the U.S. 60 bypass extension, using equal parts state and federal funds.

* Downtown revitalization and the progress of the convention center and the 150-room downtown hotel that will sit next to it.

* First Security Bank's decision to keep its headquarters in Owensboro and expand its downtown headquarters (aided by state incentives).

* Larry and Rosemary Conder's campaign to fix up downtown buildings.

The entire article and seven photos accompanying it can be seen in the magazine's online edition at