Surrounded By Water, Ohio River Valley Experiences Economic Resurgence

One of the centerpieces of Owensboro, Kentucky's Ohio River development is the exquisite fountain in the city's new shoreline park. Photo/Keith Schneider
One of the centerpieces of Owensboro, Kentucky’s Ohio River development is the exquisite fountain in the city’s new shoreline park. Photo/Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY. — Randy Simes, an urban planner in Cincinnati with a keen sense of observation, founded UrbanCincy.com in 2007 to report on the transitional neighborhoods, evolving culture, and reviving post-industrial economy of his native Queen City of nearly 300,000 residents.

But it wasn’t until he posted before-and-after-pictures from Google Street View last May, comparing changes in well-known Cincinnati street corners from 2007 to 2013, that Simes’ neighbors and colleagues embraced his boosterish view that the third largest city on the Ohio River really was on an economic roll.

The comparative photographs illustrated how diminished, deteriorated, troubled, and low-functioning sections of the city had, over six years, sprouted new offices, new housing, new parks, and fresh opportunity.

“It’s the most popular page on the site by far,” Simes said in an interview. “In some places the difference was really jaw-dropping. These kind of changes have been going on here for awhile now. It’s really interesting because a lot of locals didn’t realize it was happening.”

By no means is Cincinnati’s slow awakening to economic promise and cultural transition unusual in the recovering cities in the six-state Ohio River Valley. It’s a story residents see unfold daily and ought to know.  But to really accept its authenticity will take somebody else to tell them.

And for good reason. For 40 years the narrative in the cities and shoreline counties served by the river was such a terrible tale of job losses, urban decay, and population decline that almost all of the 981-mile river corridor served essentially as a national economic sacrifice zone. Real work, the day-to-day toil and time that people invested in making things, and that defined for decades how communities viewed their relevance, disappeared seemingly overnight in the 1980s.

A region that in the middle years of the 20th century set world-class standards of income growth, manufacturing technology, working conditions, and middle class prosperity had by the end of century been driven by globalization, obsolescence, deindustrialization, and wage decline to the bottom of the national heap. In the 1990s just about the only new industrial installation constructed on the Ohio River was a hazardous waste incinerator built next door to an elementary school in East Liverpool, Ohio.

With the free fall in the Ohio River Valley states came a general weakness in America’s overall economy and disillusion in the national spirit.

A new century, and a lot of courageous collaborations by municipal leaders, business executives, and university administrators, has turned the page on the region’s prospects.

 Twenty big locks and dams, including this one near Evansville, Indiana, keep barge traffic moving that carries 225 million tons of cargo annually on the Ohio River, the busiet inland waterway in the United States. Photo/Keith Schneider

Twenty big locks and dams, including this one near Evansville, Indiana, keep barge traffic moving that carries 225 million tons of cargo annually on the Ohio River, the busiet inland waterway in the United States. Photo/Keith Schneider

Continue reading “Surrounded By Water, Ohio River Valley Experiences Economic Resurgence”

Olmsted Locks and Dam, Despite $Billions in Overruns, Keeps Rolling Along

The Olmsted Locks and Dam, 17 miles from where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi, is the largest inland navigation project in U.S. history. Photo/Keith Schneider
The Olmsted Locks and Dam, 17 miles from where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi, is the largest inland navigation project in U.S. history. Photo/Keith Schneider

OLMSTED, Ill. –- Engineers constructing the mammoth Olmsted Locks and Dam spent the summer of 2014 lowering colossal concrete blocks in place on the bottom of the Ohio River.

Submerging each piece, which form the base of a half-mile long dam that is largely underwater, is an exacting convergence of digital measurements, floating cranes, groaning towboats, and divers working in murky waters that takes over two weeks to complete.

Like everything else about the two locks and the dam that reaches from Illinois to Kentucky at one of the Ohio’s widest points, the 120-foot-long, 2,562-ton blocks are outsized. Completing Olmsted has involved solving wicked structural and assembly challenges prompted by its experimental design. It’s meant fabricating one-of-a-kind heavy lift cranes that crawl on land and float on a barge.

It’s also caused engineers and skilled craftsmen to candidly accept the criticism that comes with a steadily rising price tag that appears to have stabilized at $US 3.1 billion, and to endure a nearly 30-year construction schedule that no one anticipated.

Still, those are not the only distinguishing features of the Olmsted project, the largest and most expensive inland water navigation installation ever built in the United States. What sets the Olmsted project apart is its uncanny ability to attract consistent funding in an era when most of the other water infrastructure projects in the United States are so desperate for money they generally are not built or are years behind schedule. For example:

— The Army Corps of Engineers, which constructs and manages inland water transport infrastructure, including the Olmsted Project, has a $US 66 billion backlog of projects.

— The American Water Works Association, a trade organization, released a study in 2012 that found that due to deferred maintenance, replacing and modernizing the more than one million miles of water supply pipes in the United States will require an investment of $US 1 trillion over the next generation.

— The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, charged by federal law to safeguard the nation’s water quality, reports that “every year across the country, there are approximately 240,000 water main breaks. As many as 75,000 yearly sanitary sewer overflows discharge three to ten billion gallons of untreated wastewater, leading to some 5,500 illnesses due to exposures to contaminated recreational waters.”

My articles on the Olmsted Locks and Dam were published in August in the New York Times, and in September by Circle of Blue.
Continue reading “Olmsted Locks and Dam, Despite $Billions in Overruns, Keeps Rolling Along”

Louisville and Carmel in New York Times Articles That Confirm First Principle of U.S. Economic Development

Louisville's active downtown has been helped immeasurably by taxpayer investments that leveraged private investments. Photo/Keith Schneider
Louisville’s active downtown has been helped immeasurably by taxpayer investments that leveraged private investments. Photo/Keith Schneider

CARMEL, Ind. – James Brainard, the 60-year-old mayor of Carmel, Indiana, is not the kind of public official who deplores change. He’s just the opposite, in fact.

In 1994, this prosperous suburb just north of Indianapolis held a planning workshop, inviting its 31,000 residents to consider ideas to redevelop Carmel’s crossroads downtown, parts of which date to the city’s founding in 1830. The next year Mr. Brainard, a moderate Republican, was elected to the first of his five terms in office, running on a platform that included investing taxpayer dollars to put the development plan for the original downtown, now known as the Arts and Design District, into effect.

Two decades later Carmel is a city of 85,000 residents transformed by a construction strategy unique in Indiana and the Midwest. It stresses 1) high-wage job recruitment in a district of contemporary glass and steel buildings along Meridian Street that houses over 40 corporate headquarters, 2) construction of office, residential, and entertainment venues in two central city districts that invite sidewalk dining and strolling, and 3) replacing over 80 intersections with roundabouts to keep vehicles moving and reduce traffic congestion.

The Arts and Design District set the stage for much of Carmel’s development over the last decade. Since 2005 just over $70 million has been invested by the city and private developers in nearly 300 new residences and dozens of new businesses that encompass almost 900,000 square feet of renovations and new construction, according to city records.

In Louisville, just hours south of Carmel, William Weyland is the design and marketing spirit behind the ten-story baseball bat outside the 200,000-square foot Louisville Slugger factory and museum on West Main Street. Mr. Weyland’s company, CITY Properties Group, finished the project in 1996 and it now attracts over 250,000 visitors annually.

Mr. Weyland’s company is responsible for a string of other offbeat projects to recycle old buildings. They include a $17 million renovation, completed in 2011, of the 145-year-old, 120,000-square foot Whiskey Row warehouses on West Main Street. The project has first floor space for five restaurants, and 36 residential lofts on the upper floors.

Now, for the first time in his career Mr. Weyland, who was raised in this Ohio River city and spent much of his career as an architect and developer, is undertaking major new construction – a $20 million, 121,700-square foot Hilton Garden Inn. The 163-room hotel, which opens in October, is rising at the corner of Third and Chestnut.

It is one of three new hotels under construction in downtown Louisville, the result of a successful public-private partnership that turned several hundred million dollars in taxpayer investments into hundreds of millions of dollars more in private investments. Louisville’s downtown core is now alive with entertainment venues, restaurants, watering holes and new residences.

Earlier this summer, in articles in The New York Times, I reported on redevelopment activities in Carmel and Louisville. See:

Mayor Drives the Remaking of an Indiana City


Waking Up Louisville’s Downtown

Both articles underscored the value of the first principle in American economic development — investing public dollars in public goods to leverage even larger private investments. The United States developed as a result of this basic principle of economic well-being. Transport canals were constructed in the 19th century along with the transcontinental railroad and America’s land grant research universities. The Interstate highway system was built along with dams, power stations, irrigation networks, parks, public buildings, and universities in the 20th century.
Continue reading “Louisville and Carmel in New York Times Articles That Confirm First Principle of U.S. Economic Development”

Henderson, Kentucky’s Riverwalk Along the Ohio River Shows Value of Public Investment

Henderson's three-mile long Riverwalk spans the southern bank of the Ohio River three hours downriver from Louisville.
Henderson’s three-mile long Riverwalk spans the southern bank of the Ohio River three hours downriver from Louisville. Photo/Gabrielle Gray

HENDERSON, KY — The 981-mile Ohio River Valley, which extends from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Ill. is full of surprises these days. Pittsburgh shed its sooty industrial coat of the 20th century to emerge as a center of engineering and biomedical innovation. Cincinnati, battered by race riots and disinvestment, is building a $1 billion riverfront neighborhood and a streetcar line.

Louisville’s days as a meatpacking hub are long gone. Now it’s the growing capital of the American bourbon industry, home to one of the country’s fine urban universities, and experiencing a boom in hotel construction to accommodate all the interest in its new stature as a hub of exceptional restaurants supplied with fresh locally grown food.

Further downriver, Owensboro, KY. passed a local tax increase to invest in downtown redevelopment that yielded a new convention center, rebuilt streets, two hotels, an office building, dozens of new residential units, restaurants, and a riverfront park complete with jet fountains designed and built by the same guys who shower Las Vegas in thrilling curtains of water.

Then comes Henderson, an Ohio River city of such grace and idealized mid-continent whimsy that you almost expect to see riverboats docked along the banks and trolleys at the center of the 100-foot wide Main Street. Tall trees shade the city’s residential streets. Beautifully maintained Victorian homes keep a vigil on the river and Henderson’s business district. In the early 1990s, film director Penny Marshall arrived with Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna, and Rosie O’Donell to use the three-story brick mansion with the lovely porch at 612 North Main as the set for “A League of Their Own.”

The newest piece of Henderson’s small town landscape is its three-mile Riverwalk, which spans the rolling bluffs of the Ohio River’s southern bank. The Riverwalk, in early evening, is bathed in the pink and purple of Kentucky’s characteristically beautiful setting sun. During the day the rumble of coal trains, and the vibrating bass of the big engines of river towboats form an attractive soundtrack for a city of 29,000 that was founded in the Kentucky wilderness in 1797. The city’s Riverwalk affords such views of the Ohio, the flat fields beyond, and the thick forests on the Indiana banks that it’s possible to imagine the stunning display of flora and fauna that drew John James Aububon here in 1810 to spend nine years studying and painting.

Henderson, KY., founded in 1797, offers an amazing collection of beautiful Victorian era homes. Photo/Keith Schneider
Henderson, KY., founded in 1797, offers an amazing collection of beautiful Victorian era homes. Photo/Keith Schneider

Continue reading “Henderson, Kentucky’s Riverwalk Along the Ohio River Shows Value of Public Investment”

Owensboro Convention Center Opens With Big Party; Senators Paul and McConnell Not Among The Guests

Owensboro threw a big  party on January 31, 2014 to celebrate the opening of its $50 million Events Center. Some 2,100 city and Daviess County residents attended. Two who didn't were Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul. Photo/Keith Schneider
Owensboro threw a big party on January 31, 2014 to celebrate the opening of its $50 million Convention Center. Some 2,100 city and Daviess County residents attended. Two invited guests who didn’t show up were U.S. Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul. Photo/Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY — In February 2009, in the very depths of the Great Recession, seven of the nine commissioners elected to lead this capable city and surrounding Daviess County took a long breath, understood the political consequences, and approved a modest increase in a local tax to generate $80 million to build a new downtown.

Though just two of the seven officials remain in office, what they accomplished in a single courageous vote achieved three distinct and nationally significant objectives.

First, they created a local economic stimulus plan that, to date, has generated $250 million in downtown construction and infrastructure upgrades — $140 million in taxpayer-supported investment and $110 million in private spending. A pallid, mall-savaged 20th century downtown, short of breath and close to death, is being replaced by a beaming and inviting urban center fit for the 21st century. Owensboro today is a display of savvy design that encompasses a stunning river walk and riverfront park, a $50 million convention center, two new hotels, a $12 million office building, new housing and businesses, and streets reconstructed as handsome boulevards, with wide sidewalks to encourage outdoor cafe seating.

Second, those seven elected officials offered a pointed rebuke to the politics of austerity that grips Kentucky and the nation. The local increase in an existing tax on insurance premiums — from 4 percent to 8 percent, or around $150 a year for an average family — unleashed a torrent of new economic activity that produced hundreds of new jobs, more than any city in Kentucky, and dropped the city and county unemployment rates to around 6 percent, among the state’s lowest.

And third, Owensboro and Daviess County are building a nearly flawless case in support of the primary economic principle that built the United States — the joining of public spending with private investment to foster civic innovation, strengthen the quality of life, and generate jobs and new wealth.

Through the Convention Center's east window, a view of the LEED-certified Hampton Inn & Suites and a city in transformation. Photo/Keith Schneider
Through the Convention Center’s east window, a view of the LEED-certified Hampton Inn & Suites and a city in transformation. Photo/Keith Schneider

Spurred by two-term Republican Mayor Ron Payne, who led Owensboro’s downtown redevelopment, city leaders here are doing everything in their power to make sure that lesson hits home. Earlier this month Payne and his colleagues held a three-day, $134,000 party to stoke the new civic energy. It started on January 31 with an evening open bar, a tenderloin banquet, and a Sara Evans country music concert, all free of charge, for 2,100 evening gown and tuxedo-clad city and county residents.

The occasion, maybe the most ardent, festive, and longest public party ever held in Owensboro — nobody here remembers anything comparable — celebrated the on-schedule, on-budget opening of the city’s two newest facilities — a 169,000-square-foot Convention Center and the $20 million LEED-certified, seven-story, 151-room Hampton Inn & Suites next door. Continue reading “Owensboro Convention Center Opens With Big Party; Senators Paul and McConnell Not Among The Guests”