Paducah's $50 million riverfront makeover
Sunday, August 12, 2007
The redevelopment of Paducah's downtown began in 1992. Since then the city's innovative Artist Relocation Program has brought national acclaim while turning the blighted Lowertown area into a neighborhood of showcase homes and galleries. The downtown commercial district, nearly abandoned when the Kentucky Oaks Mall opened along Interstate 24 in 1982, has rebounded to a current occupancy rate of 90 percent. Condominiums, a new housing phenomenon for Paducah, are mushrooming.
Downtown, the city of 25,400 has a new performing arts center, the Museum of the National Quilter's Society, murals on the floodwall, and museums planning to expand.
Now the city plans to spend $50 million to redevelop its riverfront over the next 15 years. The project calls for a 150-to 200-slip marina, a new public boat launch, an excursion dock for the riverboats that stop by more than 50 times a year, and a new hotel along the riverfront.
Redevelopment of the city's nearby riverfront has lagged behind the progress made downtown. For generations, vehicles have been able to drive through the floodgate at Broadway down to the river. The cruising loop continues a block south and goes back outside the floodwall at Kentucky Avenue. Recreational boaters park and put in at the foot of Broadway.
Mixing vehicles, boats and the families that come to the river's edge is not ideal, city leaders have concluded. Beyond that, they view the riverfront as underused and underdeveloped.
The steamboat landing includes a promenade, an overlook, fountains, seating areas and a performance plaza that could accommodate performances by the Paducah Symphony Orchestra and formal seating for up to 2,000.
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, earmarked $5.3 million for the project in the new federal budget. Most of the $50 million will come from government sources. Locally, the city is applying to create a 291-acre Tax Increment Financing District along the riverfront that would enable Paducah to reinvest as much as 80 percent of all state taxes collected in the district.
The first construction, a boat launch, could begin in the spring.
Not everyone likes the entire plan. Five thousand people signed a petition asking the city commission not to change the riverfront between Broadway and Kentucky Avenue. In approving the overall plan in the spring, the commission decided to wait to see more of a public buy-in before authorizing any changes on the river between Broadway and Kentucky Avenue.
Jackie and William Byrd drove their Buick down to the river Wednesday. They brought their grandsons, Richard and Jack Ferrara from Nashville. The boys, 7 and 8 years old, threw sticks in the water. "They want to come here every time they visit," Jackie said.
The Byrds drove their own small children to the foot of Broadway to do the same thing many years ago. "This can't be improved any better than it is," said William, a retired lawyer.
While the plan would no longer allow vehicles to drive inside the floodwall at those points, city officials emphasize that public access to the river will be enhanced by the plan, not restricted. It calls for vehicular access to a public dock to be located north of Broadway.
Because the Tombigbee Canal links the Tennessee River with the Gulf of Mexico, Paducah is a major hub in the inland waterways. At the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio rivers, it is the country's northernmost port that does not freeze.
Marine interests were important stakeholders brought in as the project was vetted over the past year and a half. Others included the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Changes in the original plan resulted. The current concept is the third version.
Seven meetings were held to receive comments from the public. "The naysayers were asleep at home," said Tom Barnett, director of the Paducah planning department.
Despite the influx of 70 artists, Paducah has been losing population. People have been moving out into McCracken County. The city concluded that developing upscale housing along the riverfront could help reverse that trend. "If we don't change as a community we are going to wither and die," said city engineer Rick Murphy.
The project is expected to generate $100 million in public and private investment to include condominiums, retail space and parking garages. Construction phases will be predicated on the city's financial ability, said Murphy.
Developing a new downtown hotel is high on most everyone's list. Bhupinder Singh, the new owner of the 434-room JR's Executive Inn Riverfront, has promised to make a dramatic and immediate upgrade of the sprawling hotel, which a review on Travelpost.com compared the hotel in "The Shining." But, said Steve Doolittle, the city's Downtown Development director, "The city has lost patience and confidence that is going to be done."
Unwilling to risk possibly losing the annual national quilt show, which brings 35,000 visitors to Paducah, the city wants to attract another hotelier to downtown Paducah.
The city owns the land the Executive Inn sits on and, at one point, considered razing the building.
Mary Hammond, executive director of the Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the city needs a hotel that has all the amenities, including convention rooms, a bar and a restaurant with room service. She even dreams of eventually seeing the Irvin Cobb Hotel, a downtown landmark designed by the same architect responsible for the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, restored someday. The hotel closed in 1972 and now is an apartment building.
Hammond recognizes that the big changes being planned for the riverfront may be difficult for some people to accept, but said, "We are looking at putting in projects that will knock your socks off."
CVB marketing director Rosemarie Steele said the organization began actively targeting cultural tourists three years ago with a campaign spotlighting Lowertown arts, the performing arts center and the quilt museum. "We had a product," she said.
The city's new marketing theme is Art, Rhythm and Rivers. The river part is to come in a big way.
The river project "probably will change the face of downtown," said Carol Gault, executive director of the Paducah Main Street redevelopment program. She has seen an upsurge in activity since the project was approved in the spring. Currently, 150,000 square feet of space is under development downtown. More condominiums are planned -- at $200,000 and up -- and an Argentinian restaurant is coming downtown.
The Arcade Theater in the 500 block of Broadway had been on the market since 2004. It just sold and is being developed as commercial space.
Marine interests -- Western River Boat Management just decided to move its corporate headquarters from Arkansas to Paducah -- have always been important to Paducah's economy. Tom Barnett thinks the riverfront can be developed in such a way that the city's economy and quality of life will benefit. He points to the transformation Chattanooga made by redeveloping its riverfront. Once one of the most polluted cities in America, Chattanooga recently completed a heralded $120 million redevelopment of its riverfront and is known as the Scenic City.
"We're trying to have a great riverfront for Paducah," he said.
335-6611, extension 137