Tuesday, December 13, 2011

2012 may be 'biggest year we've ever seen downtown'

By Keith Lawrence, Messenger-Inquirer
Published: Sunday, December 11, 2011 12:40 AM CST

After a decade of talk and two years of construction, the $40 million-plus redevelopment of Owensboro’s riverfront will be completed next summer.

And that will help make 2012 “the biggest year we’ve ever seen downtown,” Mayor Ron Payne says. “Downtown is about to explode.”

If that sounds a little strong, consider this:

Jack Wells’ Riverfront Jam LLC paid $800,000 for a dozen pieces of property on Cedar, Walnut and West Third streets last summer.

The property adjoins the former Don Moore Chevrolet-Cadillac dealership at 600 W. Second St. It’s south of the old Executive Inn Rivermont property where a new convention center and 151-room hotel are planned.

Matt Hayden, who is developing Highland Pointe and Woodlands Plaza shopping centers on Kentucky 54, said he has an option to buy the Moore property. He and Wells are working together.

“We’ve accumulated two blocks of downtown,” Wells said earlier this month. “We’re looking at several options. We’re hoping to start on a couple of major projects in 2012. If we don’t make an announcement on one of them before the end of the year, we should make it early in 2012.”

“If the announcement is what they’ve been talking to me about, it’s significant,” Judge-Executive Al Mattingly said.

“We’re working very closely with Jack and Matt on a couple of things that have a very good possibility of coming together,” Payne said.

Next year, he said, “We’ll open up the riverfront, break ground on the hotel and convention center and start the work on Second Street. I anticipate work possibly starting on a second downtown hotel and possibly an office building. And I think we’ll see more retail and restaurants downtown.”

Terry Woodward, who already owned three blocks of property on downtown’s east side, paid $1.2 million earlier this year for the 130-year-old Bates Building at 101 W. Second Street and the vacant lot behind it.

He announced plans to spend another $2 million to renovate the historic three-story building with upscale condos on the second and third floors and retail on the ground level.

That work should be completed by fall of 2012, Woodward said last week.

He’s not sure when, but he’s planning to build a high-rise condo on the vacant lot that fronts on Veterans Boulevard.

But first, Woodward plans to renovate the Wright Machine Building on the northwest corner of Second and Crittenden streets and move the offices for his WaxWorks/VideoWorks — and about 40 employees — into it.

The old Sears Building across the street, where the company’s offices have been since 1978, is being turned into a warehouse.

The15,000-square-foot Wright Machine Building, erected in 1905, almost became a restaurant in 1993.

That was back when Rick Pitino was in his glory years as basketball coach at the University of Kentucky.

Pitino had launched a Lexington restaurant called Bravo Pitino, and Woodward and Joe Iracane had plans to bring a franchise to downtown Owensboro. They selected the Wright Machine building for the Italian restaurant. But it never materialized.

The building still has its original tin ceilings, wooden columns and wide staircases.

“It’s really well built,” Woodward said. “If there’s ever a hurricane, that’s where I want to be.”

Larry and Rosemary Conder have invested more than $2 million in downtown renovations in the past few years.

Their renovation of the 122-year-old Inquirer Building at 101-103 W. Third St. should be completed in early 2012.

Plans call for upscale condos on the second floor and retail on the ground floor.

“We don’t have anything for 2012 that we can talk about right now,” Larry Conder said last week. “We’ve talked to several dream chasers over the last six months about projects that have fallen through. Until we have signed leases, we can’t talk about any plans.”

He said, “We thought we had a great retailer lined up for the Inquirer Building, but it fell through. We have some great plans, but we’re still waiting to see if they can be done.”

But Conder said, “I really think you’ll see some stuff happening downtown next year. It should be an exciting year.”

“I think we’ll continue to make progress in 2012,” said Joe Berry, project manager for downtown development. “It’s pretty exciting that this (the projects by Woodward and the Conders) is being done before the public projects are completed.”

He said, “We’ll continue to focus on Veterans Boulevard and the two sites in Riverfront Crossing” that are open for development.

“There’s going to be a market for retail and restaurants on the ground floors of these projects,” Berry said. “We’re getting lots of interest. People are starting to get excited.”

Smothers Park is scheduled to reopen in August after a multimillion-dollar makeover.

A new “signature fountain” being installed on the riverfront will shoot water 250 feet in the air.

“That’s the game changer,” Berry said of the riverfront work.

“We have some projects we’re working with that are in the beginning stages,” he said. “We’re steadily working toward things, but I don’t want to put a timeline on them. We’ve been in discussions with restaurant groups, both locally and out of town.”

Berry said, “A lot of groups are very excited, but they’re waiting for some of the public projects to be completed. We’ll see a finished product in Smothers Park before August.”

Work should begin early next year on the $48.4 million, 169,000-square-foot convention center that will be built on the spot where the Executive Inn Rivermont once sat.

About the same time, developer Malcolm Bryant should begin work on his seven-story, 151-room Hampton Inn & Suites just east of the convention center. The hotel has a $20 million price tag.

It will have 120,000 square feet and guests will be greeted by a wall covered with flowing water in an expansive lobby with 14-foot to 18-foot ceilings.

The hotel is scheduled to open in late 2013, about the same time the convention center opens.

While all that is going on, the city will likely be rebuilding the sidewalks and intersections on Second Street from J.R. Miller Boulevard to Walnut Street.

The concept hasn’t received final approval from the Owensboro City Commission yet. But an idea being considered is to widen the sidewalk on the north side of Second between Allen and Daviess streets and on the south side of the street between Allen and St. Ann streets to allow more sidewalk cafe dining.

Those plans call for sidewalks on both sides of Veterans and the street itself to have a brick paver surface. Streets between Second and Veterans will also be surfaced with brick pavers, if the plan is approved.

On Second, the intersections would have “bump-outs,” semi-circles on each corner to slow traffic; brick pavers along the crosswalks in each direction and landscaping with plant beds or trees on the corners,

City Manager Bill Parrish said if the plan is approved, “We would like to start work in late spring. I anticipate most of Second Street being completed prior to the opening of the hotel and convention center in late 2013.”

City Engineer Joe Schepers recently told We Are Downtown, the downtown booster group, that existing sidewalks along Second would be torn out and replaced if the plan is approved.

That will limit access to the buildings while the work is going on, Schepers said.

“There’s going to be some hard times (for businesses) in getting this done,” he said, “but it will be worth it.”

Then, there’s the State Office Building on the northwest corner of Second and Frederica streets.

State workers are scheduled to move out in the spring.

And the city is asking Gov. Steve Beshear for $18 million to turn it into an International Bluegrass Music Center, which would include the International Bluegrass Music Museum, a barbecue restaurant and both an indoor and outdoor theater.

Payne is hoping that preliminary work on that building can begin in 2012 as well.

So far, the price tag on downtown development stands at $140 million worth of public projects and $32 million worth of private development.

But the private money is expected to begin growing in 2012, officials say.