Why did Victoria business leaders visit Paducah, Ky.?

Gabe Semenza

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

The alleys lead visitors to more stores,  restaurants and theaters.

The alleys lead visitors to more stores, restaurants and theaters.

Light snow fell in December, downtown street lamps glowed and dozens of children skated to Christmas music on the outdoor rink.

Robby and Tami Burdge soaked in the scene. They cuddled on a wooden bench, looked at each other and shared a sudden idea.

What if Victoria could be like this?

The Victoria business owners had for years traveled to Paducah, Ky., to visit family. They witnessed the city's downtown transform from a district riddled with crime and dilapidation to a beacon for families and business.

Upon returning home, the Burdges gathered nine other Victoria business leaders with one goal in mind.

"To show folks what is possible," Robby Burdge said.

To do so, the Burdges funded a $10,000 grant to pay for travel to and accommodations in Paducah.

The dozen or so business and municipal leaders toured the city in late March. They met with counterparts there for ideas about how to fuel a similar transformation in Victoria.

Some said their eyes were opened. Others said the trip validated what they already knew: Revitalization takes persistence, focus and plenty of money.

"Paducah was just amazing," said Randy Vivian, president of the Greater Victoria Area Chamber of Commerce. "When people come together for the good of the community, you can really see what happens."

"What I saw was enough to push for Victoria to do the same," said Victoria County Judge Don Pozzi. "Absolutely."

"I didn't see anything there that Paducah has or did that this community couldn't do just as well," added Dale Fowler, president of the Victoria Economic Development Corp.

The city applied in recent months to become a Main Street city, a program of which Paducah is a member. Plans to apply for the program were in place for years, but the Paducah trip seems to have inspired dozens of Victoria business leaders to foot half of the program's $130,000 yearly tab.

Because Victoria won't know until late October whether the state accepts it into the downtown program, municipal and private leaders have yet to outline detailed future plans.

It's unclear just how much public and private money is needed to turn Victoria into the mini-Mecca that Paducah became.

It's unknown if banks will offer downtown financial assistance programs. Will the city buy vacant property and give it away for free - as was done in Paducah - so long as investors renovate?

Paducah spent hundreds of millions of public dollars during the last 20 years. In turn, private dollars poured in tenfold, they say.

What is clear is recent action in Victoria's downtown:

– A public-funded $40 million sidewalk and infrastructure renovation.

– $4.6 million in private investment, from the renovation of the O'Connor Proctor Building to the purchase of Huvar's Grocery Store and more.

– A $750,000 marketing and branding campaign, plus plans for new festivals and events in coming years.

"It didn't happen in Paducah overnight and it won't happen here overnight," said Louise Hull Patillo, a local businesswoman and the likely chairwoman of the future Main Street program's board of directors. "I believe in 10 years you will see a significant difference in Victoria. Building by building, it's going to happen."

While supporters await word about whether the state accepts Victoria into the program, the public-private partnership's application offers a glimpse of potential future action.

Business leaders propose five top goals:

– Develop a public-private partnership to create a renaissance in downtown.

– Encourage investment by developing and retaining new businesses and tourism.

– Capitalize on momentum to showcase the city's architectural heritage.

– Re-invent the downtown business climate via marketing and opportunities.

– Enhance and promote the walkability, shopability, liveability and overall quality of life.

"In many ways, Victoria has a leg up on Paducah - at least where we started," said Steve Doolittle, Paducah's director of downtown development. "You have office workers already downtown and a small mix of retail and restaurants. I'd say all that's going on is a good sign for Victoria."



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