BOWLING GREEN, KY. – When Gary Ransdell, the president of Western Kentucky University, invites alumni to view this city’s redeveloping downtown from his hilltop campus, the response is almost always exclamations of surprise.
Just below domed Cherry Hall, one of the 108-year-old university’s grandest buildings, are nearly 200,000 square feet of new student housing, built at a cost of $24 million. There’s also a 30,000 square foot, $10 million alumni center, and a 72,500 square-foot $14.5 million Hyatt Place hotel due to open in 2015.
Next door to the Hyatt site is a $28 million mixed use development that is under construction and will house 240 more students on one side of College Street, and a separate building on the other for small businesses, restaurants, and a rooftop pool.
There’s also four new fraternity houses built at a cost of $3 million, and a 450-space parking deck flanked by 30,000 square feet of retail businesses and restaurants that are expected to open next year.
Mr. Ransdell described the projects closest to the 108-year-old university as the latest additions to the $262 million in downtown construction since 2008 that is rehabilitating Bowling Green’s central business district. All of the new structures replace deteriorated homes and ragged retail businesses that for decades formed a barrier between the university and city center.
“There’s been a shift in student density at the north end of our campus. With each new project that density increases,” said Mr. Ransdell, Western Kentucky’s president since 1997. “We’re all a bunch of bulldogs in this community. We haven’t seen a deal that we didn’t like. We want to close them all.”
Judging from the scope and progress made over the last six years, it clearly appears that deal making has evolved into a choice skill in this city of 61,000 residents, Kentucky’s third largest. Arguably the most important was the pact that the city and Warren County reached with the state to establish a 383-acre, 52-block, special development and tax district in 2007.
The district pays local governments 80 percent of the increases in payroll, property, sales and other tax revenue generated by new development within the district boundaries. Revenue is devoted to retiring construction bonds, building infrastructure, and assisting developers, including the university.
In August, while on assignment for The New York Times, I reported on Bowling Green’s successful downtown development project, which was made possible its allegiance to the time-honored American principle of devoting public funds for public purposes. It’s that principle of economic development which is under attack from the Tea Party and its adherents in municipal, state, and the federal government. One of the leaders of that anti-tax, anti-spend sentiment is Rand Paul, the Republican junior senator from Kentucky, who has lived in Bowling Green since 1993, where he opened a medical practice in opthamology.
I asked Doug Gorman, a downtown business owner and chairman of the Warren County Downtown Economic Development Authority, what Senator Paul thought about Bowling Green’s progress and how it was achieved. Mr. Gorman told me he was a close friend of the Senator and one evening, at a party the two attended, Mr. Paul pulled him aside to voice his objections to how taxpayer funds were applied to downtown development. “He wasn’t happy about it,” said Mr. Gorman. “I asked him whether he had a better way to do what we were doing? Because this is the best way we know.”
And for good reason. As I reported in The New York Times in August, this year the city’s development district, formally called the WKU Gateway to Downtown Bowling Green, will return to the city and county over $2 million in revenue. Over its 30-year life, ending in 2037, the tax district will deliver $200 million to the two governments, said Doug Gorman, a downtown business owner and chairman of the Warren County Downtown Economic Development Authority, which oversees the gateway project. “The whole point of what we’re trying to do is to get more people to enjoy our downtown, to live here and work here,” said Mr. Gorman. “If you look around now, it’s pretty clear that people get the point.”
Until the Gateway project began to unfold, Bowling Green was largely known for its university, the third largest in Kentucky, and for the General Motors assembly plant not far away, where Corvettes have been built since 1981. Earlier this year a sinkhole opened in a wing of the privately-managed National Corvette Museum near the plant, swallowing eight sports cars that were on display, and prompting significant increases in attendance.
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