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Friday, June 14, 2024

Southern Renovation

The decision was made years ago — the implementation, too — but the success continues in Paducah, Ky., where a once-deserted downtown now beams with life and culture. The city-backed Artist Relocation Program attracted a plethora of painters, quilters, and musicians to LowerTown, a near-downtown area of stately, historic manors in disrepair. The expectation was (perhaps) 20 artists would move to LowerTown to reap the benefits of tax incentives. In that regard, Paducah officials missed the mark: Today, more than 50 relocated artists live in the Kentucky town, and tens of millions of dollars have been invested in the arts neighborhood. From national arts groups to civic organizations such as the American Planning Association, Paducah’s program has received awards and praise. The town two hours south of Evansville has a population of around 26,000 but offers plenty of attractions.

Downtown venues such as the Yeiser Art Center shine as a showcase of visual art, and the Maiden Alley Cinema, a theater playing classic movies and indie flicks, is a respite for film lovers. The Carson Center, an 1,800-seat European-style auditorium, is the destination for concerts, musicals, and plays. The National Quilt Museum celebrates its 20th year in 2011. The River Discovery Center, housed in downtown’s oldest standing structure, revels in interactive exhibits such as a pilothouse simulator. A major announcement for a multimillion-dollar development along the riverfront is expected this spring. The changes could bring 100,000 visitors to Paducah a year.

If the goal seems lofty, it’s not. “The thing about art is that it is very fluid,” says Rosemarie Steele, the marketing director of the Paducah Convention and Visitors Bureau, “and so Paducah is ever-changing.” Nearly 20 years ago, as a Paducah community development director, Tom Barnett helped the city implement the Artist Relocation Program, and Steele credits it as a springboard for progressive community development. “He and Mark Barone (a local artist) put the program together, and they laid a very good foundation,” Steele says. “Once we had those artists here, the program became a product for us.”

In 2008, Barnett was hired as Evansville’s executive director of metropolitan development. His projects here include the Front Door Pride program, a continuation of his predecessor, the late Gregg LaMar. Through home renovations and construction, the program aims to revitalize a blighted urban area near Downtown. Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel credits Barnett for refining the project and renewing a focus on the establishment of mixed-income neighborhoods. “While there have been a few bumps in the road,” says Weinzapfel, “the progress we have been able to achieve in the two years since Tom came aboard has been remarkable.”

Late last year, such programs took a backseat when Barnett’s salary received public scrutiny over a dual-source payment from a contract with the City of Evansville and a private contract with the Growth Alliance for Greater Evansville, a public-private business incubator. With the matter resolved from a December city council meeting, Barnett’s body of work continues to thrive here and in a worthwhile daytrip to Paducah.

As spring weather approaches, business leaders take time off to visit Paducah, says Steele. The extra incentive is due to an increase in open hours for galleries and workshops. “In this economy, people are investing in their creativity,” she says, “especially the corporate types. It takes them away from everyday projects and restores their creative spirits. Then, they’re inspired to return and be creative.”

To learn more about Paducah, visit www.paducah.travel.

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