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Owensboro, Ky., a must-visit place, shows a town taxing and spending with vision

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Owensboro Mayor Ron Payne details the city’s plans, already underway, for its riverfront development.

Louisvillians are rightfully criticized for thinking our town is the be-all, end-all portion of the Commonwealth.

Great place, no doubt, but as I discover nearly every day, there’s so much more to the Bluegrass than what happens inside Jefferson County.

A perfect example of how little I know about Kentucky is what’s happening in Owensboro, just two hours away in Daviess County.

Nearly three years ago I called Karen Miller, executive director of the county’s convention and tourism bureau, to learn a little more about its annual International Bar-B-Que Festival (this weekend, May 11-12, in fact) and wound up learning much more about the town.

I promised to call back and schedule a visit, which I did last December.

Not only was I amazed by what I found, I learned that the New York Times had penned a piece on Owensboro’s ongoing economic boom two weeks prior to my arrival.

The New York Times.

In Owensboro and writing about it positively.

Things I doubt any other Kentucky publication had written about.

As Kentucky’s fourth-largest city, its population is about 57,000. But with the whole of Daviess County factored in, it jumps to near 96,000 and is growing steadily. Yet the sizable city remains cut off from a major interstate, a change Mayor Ron Payne hopes is forthcoming.

“We’ve built all these four-lane roads in anticipation of the construction of Interstate 67, which would run straight from Indianapolis to Owensboro and then Nashville,” Payne said, excitedly, when I spoke to him in late March.

As his finger traced the route on a large map, he added, “The highways are in place on each side of the river, so all that needs to be done is to connect it to Indy.”

Two blocks from Payne’s office is the city’s riverfront, a significant and evolving construction site. Call it a revitalization or new creation, the riverfront is amid an extreme makeover/birth that will transform it into a tourism and convention destination.

Some $150 million dollars — about half from government, the other half from private investment — are being poured into the creation of multiple parks, a river walk, a convention center, two hotels and much more.

The “from government” part really means “from the people,” of course, who accepted a tax increase in 2009 to fund those projects — during a recession. That came from raising the city insurance premium tax rate to 8 percent from 4 percent, and the county rate to 8.9 percent from 4.9 percent, which netted about $80 million in revenue.

Payne said funding the city’s renewal had been talked to death for nearly two decades and that he’d had enough of the wheel spinning.

Owensboro’s rapidly evolving riverfront, which soon will house hotels, a convention center, bars, restaurants, playgrounds and other businesses.

“When they built the new library, I thought they were doing it just to house all the studies we commissioned to see whether we could do this,” Payne said. (Hmm, sound like a bridges project we know about?)

He also knew that a tax increase would be political suicide if people didn’t see results quickly. “(P)eople didn’t believe anything like this was going to happen. … Now they can go down there and see it all happening. Now they’re believing it. They can see that they’re going to be able to walk along the riverfront to the convention center and all the way to English Park.”

A short distance from the riverfront, numerous historic buildings are being gutted and renewed for mixed use (business spaces on the bottom, residential spaces on top) and designed to lure people downtown not only to visit, but to stay. (Yes, stay downtown, which is something Louisville hasn’t figured out how to get many people to do.)

From atop a new parking garage, Payne surveyed the entire scene and pointed to several unfinished structures, describing their futures as monuments, waterfall features, playgrounds and luxury apartments.

“See that crane down there? That’s where one of the hotels will be,” Payne said, describing a currently barren space (next to where the $48 million, 169,000 square-foot convention center will be) where a 151 room, 130,000 square-foot hotel will be available to convention goers in 2013.

The following year, another hotel will open beside that. Turning leftward, Payne pointed toward an ancient brick building undergoing a significant modernization. “Just look at the size of the spaces they’ve made for those windows. Can you imagine the river view the people who move in there will have?”

I’m betting Payne is right when he predicts people who move downtown will dig the easy access to nearby stores, restaurants, bars, museums and city offices. It’s super easy to get around on foot here; no long walks to any place of interest.

As the neighborhood’s main downtown thoroughfare, Second Street houses a growing number of eateries such as Famous Bistro and Bee Bops. Blocks away are The Miller House, an upscale-casual restaurant in a century old home (with one of the coolest bars anywhere), and Colby’s Fine Food & Spirits, a clubby, cozy spot where locals tie into lunch and dinner and linger over drinks.

Inside the International Bluegrass Music Museum.

One of Second Street’s most popular watering holes is Gambrinus Libation Emporium (named after the Scottish god of beer), where craft brews are king and the decorative appointments whisper, “This ain’t your average bar, sailor.”

Co-owner John Condray is a local who, three years ago, bet he wasn’t the only one in town craving something more than a pale lager when thirsty. So he and wife, Adrianne, opened Gambrinus and rolled out a smart lineup of American and imported craft beers, matched all to brewery appropriate glass, and began selling customers on the “better brew” experience.

“It’s not like you have to have a sophisticated palate to enjoy great beer, you just have to taste it,” said Condray, adding that business initially started slowly.

Now, on weekends, regulars know seats become scarce after 9 p.m. After living in Memphis following college, the couple wanted to “bring a little piece of each place we liked there back here,” and the idea for Gambrinus was born. “There wasn’t place here for young professionals our age and older could go to and relax with a really a nice martini or beer list. So that’s what we created.”

Like Bluegrass music? Downtown Owensboro is your place since it’s home to the International Bluegrass Music Museum (IBMM), located at the edge of the blooming riverfront project. Opened in its current iteration in 2003, the modern, multi-story exhibit provides an extensive look at Kentucky’s native music spanning nearly eight decades.

(Appropriately, the museum is located about 30 minutes from the town of Rosine, Ky., the birthplace of Bill Monroe, widely regarded as the father of Bluegrass music.)

If you want a reason to visit and take in some live Bluegrass music, then visit the ROMP Bluegrass Roots & Branches Festival, set for June 28-30 at Yellow Creek Park, just outside of town.

True to the old-time festivals, says Danny Clark, marketing director at IBMM, ROMP is held over three days and includes camping for hardcore devotees. In 2011, it attracted 15,000 Bluegrass fans, its largest crowd ever. (Make sure to look at this year’s lineup, which includes Vince Gill, Carolina Chocolate Drops and Old Crow Medicine Show. Some added credibility comes in last year’s headliners—Steve Martin [yep, the banjo playing comedian] and Emmy Lou Harris.)

The Owensboro Museum of Fine Art at Christmastime.

But you don’t need to wait for ROMP to visit. Owensboro is cool year round, especially downtown. A day in the neighborhood for me might include a visit to Studio Slant, a great boutique spot for modern and folk art, as well as jewelry.

The IBMM would consume two hours, and if I had little ones with me, the Owensboro Museum of Science and History (also undergoing a significant upgrade; the coal mining exhibit is way cool) is a great stop.

Perhaps more for adults is the Owensboro Museum of Fine Art, which, in terms of size, is second only to the J.B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville.

Mary Bryan Hood has presided over the museum for more than a quarter century, making it a remarkable treasure for a city this size. She loves retelling the story about an art critic from the New York Times who came to Owensboro to judge a competition several years ago. He was amazed by what he found in the small city, she recalls.

“He told me he’d been wondering since he got here how a community of this size could have a performing arts center, museums the quality of ours and theaters of dance and drama,” Hood said. “He said, ‘What you’ve done is create a fabulous cultural community here to entertain yourselves,’ and I’d say he’s right. … There is a dedicated percentage of our population that thinks the arts are quite important.”

(If you can make it here only once in the year, don’t miss the annual Christmas tree exhibit. My friends will tell you I have no decorative taste, but trust me, this exhibit would reduce a gay decorator to tears.)

But back to my walking tour … good eats are everywhere. Famous Bistro is predominantly a Greek feast with an expansive, arguably challenging menu. But seeing as I visited at lunch, when some friends and I were hoping to eat light, we made a mess of three terrific pizzas (so much for cutting back.)

The Miller House is terrific for sit-down dining on modernized southern grub. Call it casual elegance, and call its basement bar (the whole house is 105 years old) one of the town’s best spots for sipping poisons. (If you’ve been there, imagine Corbett’s Wineskellar with its walls removed to open the room.)

Gambrinus rocks, too. If you like beer, drink here. Condray is a hardcore hophead who knows his stuff. If you like ‘50s diner food and mood, then go next door to Bee Bops. Again, good place for the kiddos. Want coffee? Cross the street to Crème. If you want barbecue—you should, ‘cause it’s

Old Hickory Bar-B-Que co-owner John Foreman tends to the pits.

Owensboro—then go to Old Hickory Bar-B-Que. Ole South Barbecue and Moonlight Bar-B-Que are both good, but Old Hickory is my top choice.

Staying the night—and you may want to since it’s a 2-hour drive back home—is no problem if there aren’t large events in town. (As the CVB’s Miller explained to me, the city attracts huge sports tournaments, and since Owensboro’s largest hotel, the Executive Inn, was demolished in 2009, the town has been light on overnight accommodations.)

Until the new hotels open, there are no places to stay directly in downtown, but just 10 minutes away is the Courtyard Marriott Owensboro, one of the first prototype designs for this chain’s new hotels.

In a word: fabulous. And that’s coming from someone who, despite earning a modest living most of his life, has been spoiled to stay in some of the best hotels around.

Urbane and sophisticated décor, spacious rooms, a great restaurant-lounge-lobby area and small-town friendly employees. Just take a look at the site photos to see what I mean. Plus, the hotel is located just off the city’s bypass, so it’s easy to get to whether you come through Indiana (the shortest and most scenic route) or Kentucky (which takes 15-30 minutes longer).

Bottom line is Owensboro’s easy to get to and get around once you’re there. So if you’re looking for an affordable and fun mini-vacation, here’s your destination.

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