Friday, March 16, 2012

We are open for business - ground broken at convention center site

Posted: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 12:00 am

By Steve Vied
Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer

On a bright, warm summer-like morning, current and former elected officials and members of the business community gathered Tuesday at the site of the former Executive Inn Rivermont for a ceremonial groundbreaking for what Owensboro Mayor Ron Payne called the community's first true convention center.

Payne noted that when the new downtown convention center opens late next year, it will have been four years since the "Big E" was demolished.

"Spring has come early and it's such an appropriate time for this groundbreaking," Payne told a crowd of well more than 100 people. "The Executive Inn served us well. But we are replanting our convention center. ... We're sending a message to the region, the state and the nation that we are open for business."

Payne, Daviess County Judge-Executive Al Mattingly and commercial developer Malcolm Bryant were the speakers for the groundbreaking at Cedar and Second streets for the $48.4 million convention center and the $20 million Hampton Inn & Suites convention class hotel that Bryant's company, The Malcolm Bryant Corp., will build and operate next to the convention center.

The new hotel and the convention center are expected to be completed late next year. The official start of construction of the convention center is set for April 1, although site preparation has already begun. Cranes are due to arrive within the week to begin work on the hotel, Bryant said.

During his remarks, Payne said that a state firefighters association gathering with more than 1,000 participants has already signed up to hold a convention in the convention center in 2015, while the Green River Area Development District will hold its annual meeting featuring 600 people in the facility a week after it opens next fall. The center's first banquet will be Independence Bank's holiday party in December of next year, Payne said.

In addition to Payne, Mattingly and Bryant, others wielding shovels Tuesday were city commissioners Pam Smith-Wright, Roger Stacy, David Johnson and Jeff Sanford and county commissioners Jim Lambert, Charlie Castlen and George Wathen. Also taking part were former city commissioners Candance Brake and John Kazlauskas, former Judge-Executive Reid Haire, former county commissioners Bruce Kunze and Mike Riney and Darrell Higginbotham of Independence Bank. The bank is providing the financing for the hotel project.

The members of the former City Commission and Fiscal Court were in office with Payne when insurance premium tax increases to pay for downtown revitalization projects were approved in 2009, a group Payne called the "dream team."

"They got together a couple of years ago and decided to get together and make things happen," he said. "It's a great city-county team. That group took a bold step forward. Now we have a lot of work to do."

Mattingly described Tuesday's groundbreaking as a great day.

"What the city and county have done is created our own economic boom," he said. "Absent the new hospital and downtown, our economy would not be what it is. It is an example of what government investment can do. This is not a government giveaway. The $140 million public investment has already spurred $65 million to $70 million in private investment. Malcolm has stuck his neck out, and we appreciate it."

The private investment includes a $44 million project that will include a downtown office building for Boardwalk Pipeline Partners, a Holiday Inn and a residential development along the Ohio River to the immediate west and south of the convention center. A news conference is tentatively scheduled for Friday to release details of the project.

Bryant said the design of his company's seven-story hotel was important.

"There was no use wasting time and money if we didn't do it well," he said of the plans for the convention center and hotel. "Now we must turn to marketing to get the word out."

Noel Maddox of Owensboro said he attended the groundbreaking because he wanted to hear about the plans for the convention center.

"I certainly hope it means a big boom for downtown and the city," Maddox said. "We certainly need it. It's somewhat sad we lost the Executive Inn, but I'm glad to see something coming to replace it."

"It's great for Owensboro," said John Survant. "We need to get back on the map with something like this. It's a good thing."

Tree planting under way at Smothers

Three hours after the groundbreaking for the convention center and hotel, another ceremony was held a few blocks east at the Daviess Street end of Smothers Park. Payne and city commissioners Smith-Wright, Stacy and Sanford gathered to toss dirt on the roots of an Appalachian redbud tree, one of 210 trees that will be planted in the park this spring.

Of those trees, 36 will be dogwoods, 34 will be maples, 32 will be redbuds and 32 will be elms. Five sweet bay magnolias with trunks eight to 10 inches in diameter will be planted. Several other varieties will be planted.

"This is a banner day for the city of Owensboro," Payne said. "First we had the groundbreaking, and this afternoon we have been designated a Tree City U.S.A. by the Arbor Day Foundation for the 22nd year. This week we are beginning to plant 210 trees. ... We are going to have color down here all year. Can you imagine in five to 10 years what it will look like? It will be magnificent."