Is Paducah, Ky., a glimpse of Victoria's future?

Gabe Semenza

Sept. 4, 2010 at 4:04 a.m.

Part of the Main Street Program has included adding brick paved streets in downtown Paducah to create the Market House Square. ABOVE: Famous Louisiana mural artist Robert Dafford painted murals in downtown Paducah that tell a piece of the city's history.

Part of the Main Street Program has included adding brick paved streets in downtown Paducah to create the Market House Square. ABOVE: Famous Louisiana mural artist Robert Dafford painted murals in downtown Paducah that tell a piece of the city's history.

PADUCAH, KY. - If you want a peek at the potential future of downtown Victoria, visit Paducah, Ky.

Many of your business leaders did.

Here, in this small Kentucky town, private investors and city chiefs turned a rundown downtown into a mini Mecca. Retail, restaurants and residents now thrive where hopeless historic buildings once loomed.

Evidence of the city's downtown revitalization appears everywhere: From landscaping and lighting, to trafficked sidewalks and storefronts.

Victoria business leaders canvassed Paducah to learn what counterparts there did to fuel this notable transformation. Now, they say Victoria can do the same.

What makes Paducah a crystal ball for local Main Street supporters? The two cities share important similarities.

This likeness, however, also includes groups that oppose spending municipal money on Main Street.


At the corner of Broadway Avenue and Sixth Street, Steve Doolittle and his staff of four work full time to develop Paducah's downtown.

Renovated and preserved historic buildings surround them on all sides. Colorful, vertical banners - each which read, "Paducah: Community Pride" - hang from decorative light poles that adorn streets in every direction.

Doolittle is the downtown development director for the Paducah Renaissance Alliance, which is part of the national Main Street program. In addition to developing downtown, the group oversees the adjacent LowerTown Arts District and riverfront development project.

This day, Doolittle fields questions from two Ohio chamber of commerce leaders, in town to learn what Victoria leaders learned. Doolittle points to the similarities shared by the two cities.

Like Victoria, Paducah:

– Is at a geographic crossroads in the middle of much larger metropolitan cities.

– Operates as a port city, although Paducah's port is on a river and not a gulf.

– Lost much of its downtown when developers built a mall on the outskirts during the early 1980s.

In many ways, Paducah was 10 years ago what Victoria is today - a city fighting for an identity, but on the brink of finding it in abundance.

"All malls look and feel the same," Doolittle said. "Best Buy looks like Best Buy wherever you go. It's our downtowns that make us unique. The downtown is your community's front door."

Doolittle moved to Paducah in 1990, the year after a hard-charging, newly elected mayor turned the city's focus toward its front door.


Twenty years ago, Paducah Mayor Gerry Montgomery stared at her downtown's busted up roads, sidewalks and buildings, and vowed to clean it all up. The 70 percent vacancy rate had only encouraged warehouses and crime to move downtown.

"It was a war zone down here in 1989," Doolittle said. "Clearly, it wasn't safe at night."

Montgomery began to revitalize downtown just as city planners focused on new land-use studies, subdivisions and growth - much of which centered on sprawl near the mall.

The mayor first joined the city to the national Main Street program. Then, she fixed curbs, gutters, sidewalks and streets. Next, she turned to code enforcement, lighting and landscaping. Finally, the city developed parks, parking lots and running trails near the Ohio River, which flows only blocks from Doolittle's office.

By 1996, the city's 16-foot-tall, drab-gray floodwall - built in the 1940s to protect the downtown - became an attraction rather than an eyesore. Famous Louisiana mural artist Robert Dafford painted on the wall more than 50 murals, each which tell a piece of Paducah's history.

Even graffiti artists show Dafford's work respect. They've steered clear of the wall, which spans several blocks.

Investors and entrepreneurs eyed the aesthetic changes as reason to relocate - even if downtown was home mainly to lawyers, bankers and accountants. People believed they could make money again downtown.

First, restaurants moved in. Then, so did the shops and residents.

Two years ago, Vicki Sims, owner of an outdoors store, moved her business from near the mall to the downtown.

"I liked the idea of returning to nostalgia," Sims said. "The mall, which I call 'Generica,' caters to the teenage crowd. Since moving here, we have more sales, more customers and more exposure. The city helps us a lot. We're all working together for the same goal."

To fuel and build upon the momentum, the city bought 55 vacant or foreclosed buildings and homes, and often gave them away for little or nothing. Investors received cheap buildings and agreed to renovate and re-open.

Since 2006 alone, private investors poured more than $84 million into downtown buildings, and another $40 million in cultural assets. During the same time, the city invested an additional $30 million.

"The money spent here in the downtown is small in comparison to the public money spent on areas near malls," Doolittle, whose budget is funded 80 percent by tax dollars, said. "The cost of new roads, off-ramps, police, water, sewer and planning near the mall are what stretch the public dollar."


Today, Paducah garners national attention for its downtown vibrancy, diversity and activity. The downtown birthed a new economy and culture.

Since 1990, Doolittle estimates private groups invested $10 into downtown for every $1 the city spent. In 20 years, the city spent a few hundred million dollars, he said.

"We didn't have to cut programs or increase taxes," Doolittle said. "It was a mix. The city just dug it out of its pocket, its investment fund, from a portion of payroll taxes. We also used direct appropriations from the state, federal grants and private donations."

Only 26,000 people live in Paducah - 76,000, including county residents. Kentucky law changed in the mid 1980s. When it did, cities could no longer annex adjoining county subdivisions unless the move is voluntary and initiated by residents.

Despite its small-town feel, Paducah's downtown seems like a place reserved for much larger cities. Even its brick-paved alleyways are lit at night and lined with tables for outdoor dining.

"We like the atmosphere down here. It's old-fashioned but new," said Nora Patterson, a 65-year-old downtown shopper from Missouri. "It's all part of this ambience we really enjoy."

While Paducah's restaurants, river and retailers draw a great many visitors to the downtown, it's the city's arts community, museums and festivals that help to keep them there.

Artists from across the country - Denver, San Francisco and Corpus Christi, for starters - moved to the downtown's adjacent arts district, known as LowerTown.

Paducah launched in 2000 the Artist Relocation Program, which became a national model for using the arts for economic development. Seventy-five artists to date bought or took ownership of cheap or free homes and renovated them into studios and living quarters.

Incentives to artists include:

– A live-work city rezoning.

– Financial and other help moving.

– Business startup help and marketing.

Artists and entrepreneurs invested $30 million into the nearby neighborhood, and now maintain 20 downtown art galleries.

Scott Morris, a retired prison guard from Missouri, moved to Paducah in recent years to live a lifelong passion. He paints in galleries by day and under street lights at night. The city blocks off the downtown one night a week so families can watch artists at work and listen to live music.

Jeff Spicer is perhaps the city's most well-known artist.

"If your goal is to become a tourist destination, the visual and performing arts are crucial," Spicer said. "Anytime you can engage the art community, you create new life in your town."

These efforts produced a jobs engine. The arts became the downtown's second-largest employer.


Most downtown merchants and visitors praise the city's efforts to better the district and quality of life - but the area is no utopia.

Some downtown employees say the great allure is lost on them, forgotten because they remain busy propping it up. Other business owners say the city's efforts do little to improve business.

Visitors who walk more than 10 blocks west of the river witness a gradual increase in the number of vacant and boarded buildings.

Tom Sanders, a 68-year-old antiques store owner, owns six of those buildings. He can't leave the downtown because he can't sell his buildings and compete with the city on prices, he said.

"I don't think it's much better down here than it was before," Sanders said. "The recession hasn't helped anybody and I don't think antiques are as popular as they were 10 years ago. Still, when the city closes the downtown at night, it doesn't help me. Partygoers don't shop."

Victoria, too, has its fair share of people who oppose local tax dollars spent on the downtown in this economy.

But if the city wants to grow, attract new blood and stem the flow of young people who leave for bigger places, Paducah leaders say now is the time to act.

John Spurlin is a 25-year-old Paducah native who lives and works in the city's downtown. After high school, he left his hometown to explore more exciting areas.

The revitalization project, however, prompted him to return.

"I remember the downtown being a place where my mother told me not to go. It was sketchy, a little edgy," Spurlin said. "Now, we've got a really great music and arts scene. No matter where you're from, it's up to you to create a better community."



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