On Wednesday, May 23rd, Owensboro’s Public Responsibility in Designing Our Environment (PRIDE) Symposium welcomed Lieutenant Governor Jerry Abramson who spoke to the gathering concerning the city’s upcoming beautification plans. PRIDE of Owensboro-Daviess County “has been actively contributing to the aesthetics of our community since 1999,” according to literature distributed at the symposium.
PRIDE President Catherine Shelton told SurfKY News that the symposium, which was hosted by Western Kentucky University’s Owensboro Campus, was focused on first impressions. “We have an opportunity with our bypass extension, [highway] 60 moving out towards the Natcher Bridge, which in the future will hopefully be connected to I-67. We are just talking about corridors and impressions you make with people coming through your community,” said Shelton who is also an adjunct instructor for WKU. “[Western KY] University was nice enough to let us use their facility for the symposium.”
Shelton also noted some of PRIDE’s recent projects including their biannual pride day, one in spring, one in fall, encouraging individuals, groups, and organizations to improve their landscapes, the planting of bulbs at the courthouse, and cleanup efforts along roadways. In addition, the community organization gave out four $250 grants this April to nonprofits for design and beautification of their environment.
The symposium’s focus was on practical steps for making a difference. In addition to featured speaker Lieutenant Governor Jerry Abramson, the conference abounded with dignitaries including Mayor Pro Tem Pam Smith-Wright, Judge Executive Al Mattingly, State Senator Joseph Bowen, former Governor and US Senator Wendell Ford, State Representative Tommy Thompson, and State Representative Jim Glenn.
In his welcoming remarks, Judge Executive Mattingly emphasized the importance of “activist citizens: People who not only mouth the things that they want, but people who go out and make those things happen . . . No group is better prepared to serve their community than what we have right here today.” He went on to commend and thank PRIDE and volunteers with the organization who have participated in beautification projects around the city of Owensboro.
After the break for lunch, Emcee Keith Sharber introduced the Lieutenant Governor: “Lieutenant Governor Abramson served as Mayor of Louisville for 21 years, and during his tenure as Mayor, Louisville was named America’s Most Livable Large City by the US Conference of Mayors . . . we are delighted to welcome him and have him here in Owensboro today.”
In his comments, Abramson addressed the importance of the public/private partnership that is a result of pride in one’s community. “We didn’t have that kind of pride when I first got elected back in ’85.” He recalled that, as he spoke to his constituents to find out what they envisioned for the future of their city and that of Jefferson County as a whole, he heard a desire for Louisville’s private sector to do a better job of taking control of their own destiny. “This is a team approach,” he said. “The government (even back then) simply can’t do everything.” Abramson recognized Owensboro citizens as being among the most engaged participants in community improvement that he has seen. “You’re very special in that regard,” he told the crowd, pointing towards beautification efforts such as the Riverfront Project.
Abramson contrasted the perception of economic development when he took office in the ‘80s to what it means today: “Economic development was simply, ‘What are you going to give me to come to your community to invest and create jobs?’ It has changed so significantly since that time.” In regard to first impressions, he pointed out that, in an age of technology and speedy transportation, people largely have the ability to choose freely where they want to live. “The question becomes, ‘What makes your community different?’”
Answering that question, he pointed to two major factors: Quality of life and having a skilled, educated, and thriving workforce. He asserted that cities must determine which issues are the most important in terms of creating a high quality of life, attracting new residents and keeping the ones you have—sending the clear message that “you are open for business, and that you are rolling out the red carpet to make people feel at home.” He said that the combination of an active, involved community and the city’s location on the waterfront gives Owensboro a “special” and “unique” opportunity for growth and success.
Abramson emphasized that, as a community, residents must embrace educational institutions, supporting them and demonstrating to others their importance to economic vitality. “. . . you can turn to folks and be able to say that not only is this a great place to live . . . but, at the same time, we understand the importance of education, and we’re making the appropriate investment and support for those who need a helping hand . . . .” He said that teaching community stewardship, especially to young children, would ensure that future generations take pride in continuing efforts implemented today.
The Lieutenant Governor then turned to the subject of “gateways.” He compared the opportunities in Owensboro to some of the initiatives implemented in Louisville during his term in office there—opportunities not only to impress visitors but to increase quality of life for residents. During “Operation Brightside,” a 1986 effort to encourage businesses, organizations, and individuals to take pride in Louisville, he said that over 11,000 people took to the streets to clean up the city’s neighborhoods. He returned to the theme of public/private partnership and said that getting the private sector involved in the operation was instrumental in its success. Recognizing the expressways and the airport as two of the main gateways in and out of Louisville, efforts turned to beautification of those areas. Flowers were planted in the green spaces in and around the roadways. The initial 100,000 daffodils that were planted have now grown to 1.6 million flowers greeting visitors.
Simple efforts like these matter, according to Abramson, who gave an example of how powerful first impressions can be. A European tobacco executive visiting Louisville was so impressed by the cleanliness and beauty of the city that he sent the then Mayor a check to help continue beautification efforts. “He sent me a check for $50,000,” said Abramson. The money was used to landscape the expressway area around the airport. “There was a huge patch of rock and dirt, and it was just unattractive. So we took that $50,000 and gave it to the airport. They completely landscaped the area . . . as you come out of the airport now, as you come into our community, just as you come in off of the expressway, you have this beautiful sight that has all of this green, all of this color, all of this landscaping. It is just so special and sets a tone. I can’t tell you how many times I have spoken, especially to people in either Europe, LA, Chicago, or Atlanta, who come into our community and remark how beautiful it was and how clean it was.
This was no accident, according to Abramson who highlighted the need to “broaden the base” of local involvement and pride. In his final comments, he implored the symposium to “push the envelope every time you can” and to not accept mediocrity, which tends to fill the gap when people sit back and are not proactive. “Architecture, open spaces, landscaping—those make a difference in the community. Those send out a message about how you fell about your home town . . . carry the message. You’ve got to go out and preach the gospel.”
The symposium then turned to panel discussion including remarks from Paul Kissinger of EDSA, the Fort Lauderdale design firm responsible for the Riverfront Master Plan; Dr. Bill Tyler, active participant with the Western KY Botanical Garden; Kevin McClearn, Chief District Engineer with the KY Transportation Cabinet’s District 2 office; and Morgan McIlwain, Lexington, KY landscape architect retained by PRIDE to plan aesthetic improvements along highway 60 East from the Natcher Bridge to Owensboro (pictured right, left to right).
Speaking first and at length was Kissinger who began by echoing Abramson’s sentiment of not accepting mediocrity. He said that quality of life is rooted in pride in one’s community and pushing policymakers to act in the interest of progress. Supported by a multimedia presentation, Kissinger underscored “Corridor Planning:” Integrating people, cars, development, and places. He said that by recognizing people as the primary focus of planning, a “sense of destination” can be achieved. He used the analogy of Disney World in Florida: “When you drive onto Disney’s property, you know you’ve arrived somewhere.” Everything from the landscaping, to the pavement, to the signage, and to the lighting lets visitors know they have arrived somewhere. He said that, by using markers at the boundaries of the community corridors, this can be achieved in Owensboro.
Kissinger’s presentation focused on the technical aspects of corridor planning including the players, codes and regulations, market and economic study, challenges, funding, and site conditions. He said that for many, taking on planning of this large, city-wide scale can seem overwhelming, but it is important to keep a “big picture” perspective while diving in and taking “bite size” portions. In his estimation, Owensboro is already “20 years ahead of most cities.”
In his closing comments, Kissinger underscored the need for “crystallization” of community consensus. He observed that, often times, the masses become disappointed in projects because they become hijacked by the “vocal minority.” It is the responsibility of “the silent majority,” he said, to stand up, work the room, and make their voices heard. This will stimulate a groundswell of support and make the processes of funding and initial design much easier and less contentious.
McIlwain added that planning for the transition from rural to industrial and ultimately to urban areas of the county and “putting it all together” is critical. He echoed Kissinger, saying that “building consensus is the tie that binds.”
McClearn then addressed the symposium, encouraging the group to engage the Transportation Cabinet eraly-on in the process of planning. He said that the cabinet has a desire to work with the community but that it is vital for them to be involved in the process from the beginning so that regulations don’t collide with design planning.
Dr. Tyler, who is an authority on daylilies and whose wife is a former President of PRIDE, stressed the importance of “now.” He pointed out that, with a project of such scope and permanence, it will be difficult to go back and undo things once they have been implemented. He said that this is a unique time in Owensboro’s history to dramatically improve quality of life in the city.
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