The Commissioner — Spring 2010
Owensboro, Kentucky, Metropolitan Planning Commission
As it marks its 40th anniversary, the Owensboro Metropolitan Planning Commission in Kentucky has played a major role in guiding change in the community. "I think we have an excellent comprehensive plan that has helped turn the community around and get us headed in the right direction," says Ward Pedley, vice chair of the commission.
Established as a joint commission, the panel handles planning issues for two cities and Daviess County. Five of the 10 planning commissioners are appointed by the mayor of Owensboro, four by the county's judge executive, and one by the mayor of Whiteville. The four-year terms are staggered and expire at the end of December. There are no term limits.
Planning commissioners represent a range of backgrounds, experience, and professions, according to commission chair Drew Kirkland. "All economic levels in Owensboro are covered on the board," he says. "I run a family-owned scrap iron and metal business and we have a developer, president of a private Catholic college, a farmer, an electrician, and a factory worker."
Commissioners, who are unpaid, meet the second Thursday of every month and their meetings are televised live. "If you miss the meeting, it's replayed throughout the month on the local TV station," says Kirkland.
On issues involving subdivision requests and new streets and infrastructure, the commission has decision-making authority. For rezonings, it serves in an advisory capacity, making recommendations to the local governing bodies.
"We do things a little different here in Owensboro and Daviess County," says Gary L. Noffsinger, AICP, OMPC's executive director. "The planning commission's recommendation becomes final 21 days after it is made unless someone appeals, asking the city council or county fiscal court to hear it. There are very few times when people contest the commission's recommendation."
While some in the community either don't fully grasp the role of planning and zoning or, as Ward Pedley puts it, "just don't like regulations," most find the commission responsive and responsible. Pedley, a developer by trade, paid careful attention to commission actions well before his appointment last year. As part of the local home builders group, he and other members review the performance of the planning commission and staff "and we have found it to be excellent," he says.
Focusing on Downtown Owensboro
Despite the downturn in the economy, planning is under way to revitalize downtown Owensboro and increase amenities along the Ohio River. With a $40 million grant from the federal government and $80 million in local public investment, the project calls for a riverfront park, downtown hotel and convention center, a market square, and an arts academy.
"Property acquisition and the demolition of buildings is under way, and a contract has been given to a developer for a 175-room hotel downtown," says OMPC chair Drew Kirkland. "The county is committed to building a convention center, which it can convert to a basketball arena and convention floor space."
"These are exciting times," says Gary Noffsinger, OMPC's executive director. The city and county are cooperating for the good of the community and focusing on downtown. We tried to do this in the 1980s but we didn't have buy-in from elected officials and economic development folks."
"The city and county governments have gone out on a limb in a stagnant economy to spur downtown development," says Kirkland. The hope is that when the economy improves, the momentum in the downtown will attract additional investment from the private sector.
In anticipation of new building downtown, the city has adopted design standards. "This is new for us," says Noffsinger. "We've had planning and zoning, but never design standards. It will take a little time to see what adjustments we might need to make."
One of the most densely developed cities in the state, Owensboro remains a community of low-rise buildings. "We may see a six- or eight-story condo along the riverfront, but that will take several years to develop," says Noffsinger.
Kentucky's third-largest city, Owensboro is the industrial, medical, retail, and cultural hub for the western part of the state. Roughly 110 miles southwest of Louisville, Owensboro sits just 30 miles southeast of Evansville, Indiana, and is connected to that state via a bridge over the Ohio River. Some 54,000 people call Owensboro home, while about 95,000 reside in Daviess County. One of its fastest growing population segments is individuals over the age of 62.
The city's largest industry is health care. "That's why we're investing $350 million in a new hospital," says Noffsinger. "This community is a regional health care provider and a leader in research — biotech and cancer — throughout the nation."
Confident that things are moving in the right direction, Ward Pedley, vice chair of the commission, is optimistic that current developments will pay dividends. "I have seven grandkids and I want them to stay in the community," he says. "The only way they'll stay after college is if the community moves forward and gives them something to come back for."