A+ Leadership spoke to City commissioners Tuesday about their implementation project for downtown Owensboro economic development and affordable housing. The local consulting company is spearheading the project through the efforts of former Downtown Development Director Fred Reeves and former City Commissioner David Johnson.
The City used $80,000 from a Riverport Authority dividend to hire A+ Leadership for the job of executing the City’s third phase of a downtown initiative with the aim to create more housing and residential interest in downtown living.
Reeves told commissioners on Tuesday that A+ Leadership’s focus for this year-long project would go beyond housing in the downtown area. In all, A+ Leadership has developed a list of eight focuses they’d like to execute in helping execute the growth of downtown Owensboro: Housing options, parking, walkability, retail, partnerships, downtown events, way finding signage and branding.
“Housing won’t happen without the amenities and other attractions around it,” he said. “People aren’t going to move downtown to live unless there’s some other exciting things you want to be around.”
When Mayor Tom Watson asked for examples of these amenities and attractions A+ Leadership was focusing on, Reeves mentioned the idea of bringing a grocery store and convenience stores downtown.
“Kroger does have downtown models, but you’ve got to have enough people living downtown to go to the grocery store,” Reeves said. “We have a number of properties we’re not getting the maximum effect out of.”
Reeves and Johnson said they would meet with City officials every two weeks to discuss their ideas — many of which, Reeves admitted, City officials might not agree with. And if that’s ever the case, he said, then A+ Leadership will simply move on to the next idea.
Commissioner Pamela Smith-Wright asked Reeves if it would be possible to implement a fast-food restaurant, such as a McDonald’s, downtown.
“They have downtown models — most of those are in metropolitan areas,” he said. “It would depend on who’s got the franchise. It might require you to have some kind of incentive to get it started. It’s a very complex operation — there’s a lot of intermingling parts.”
Reeves said this project would require A+ Leadership to partner with a variety of individuals and businesses to create a downtown Owensboro as envisioned by City leaders.
Johnson said the project would work as long as all of the stakeholders involved came together.
“The most important components of that are going to be the Economic Development Corporation, Fred and I, the City, the Chamber, the tourist commission,” he said. “The one thing we hope we can do is bring people together.”
The scope of A+ Leadership’s work is primarily the housing issue, Johnson said, adding that his team would look at market rate housing options to see where people could afford to live on a median income.
“That can be young people, middle-aged people or even people who are older,” he said.
Looking at vacant lots to repurpose into housing will be one of the group’s strong focuses, as well as looking closely at Article 21, which has caused concern for a lot of people who want to see downtown grow, Johnson said. Article 21’s main focus is to create constant movement in downtown Owensboro and stimulate private investment, but some of the article’s specificities have been a turnoff for developers.
The parking issue will be another focus of Reeves’ and Johnson’s, though Reeves called the downtown parking issue a “perception” thing for people who complain about having to walk too far.
“I went to Walmart on purpose the other day. I parked in the middle of the lot on purpose,” he said. “It was 350 steps to get to the store. So I think you can park downtown and walk 350 steps to get a meal.”
Other issues A+ Leadership will focus on include replacing wayfinding signage, which Johnson said couldn’t be read in its current state, as well as creating a winter destination event for the months of December, January and February.
“Having a successful downtown is vital to attracting new people,” Reeves said. “That’s your living room is your downtown. If you’re going to have successful businesses, or if I want to bring in an executive to Owensboro, you want to show them the RiverPark Center, the Convention Center.”
Watson agreed, even saying that cities larger than Owensboro often start with a consulting firm and then hire a full-time recruiter to bring new business to a revitalized area.
“I think this is the foundation for what we will end up doing at some point in time,” he said.