Where the Sidewalks Are
Originally published July 22, 2013
|Bowling Green Municipal Utilities senior staff include, from left:Jeff White, Electric System Manager, Teresa Newman, BGMU Fiber System Manager, Mark Iverson, General Manager, Miles McDaniel, Manager of Business Development and Marketing, Gary Bridges, Chief Financial Officer, Jill Hartley, Human Resources Manager, Mike Gardner, Water-Sewer System Manager. Photo by Jim Veazey.|
Shopping malls killed downtowns. During the 1960s and ‘70s and beyond, developers in cities across the United States procured large tracts of land, usually on the outskirts of cities, and erected glitzy, pristine collections of weather-proof retail stores surrounded by acres of free parking. “Going to the mall” became a new pastime for Americans. As years rolled by, once-bustling downtowns were forgotten; department stores in city centers lost customers and went out of business. Their buildings were shuttered and abandoned and many downtowns became ghost towns.
The malls changed consumer habits. No longer did they walk to stores—they drove to the mall. There were no sidewalks to the malls. As time passed, civic leaders in many communities recognized that something had been lost when downtowns died. Progressive communities began working to revive their downtowns. Bowling Green, Ky., is among communities addressing that issue now.
Six months ago, employees of Bowling Green Municipal Utilities worked in a small, cramped 1960s-era brick building in the city’s downtown. The building had a leaky roof and radon problems, said General Manager Mark Iverson. “The heating and cooling system was at the end of its life. We had people in what we called an office, but it really was just a hallway and we put them in the corner. Our phone room for answering calls for customer inquiries was really more of a cut-through space. I don’t know how they did their job with all the chatter. But, you just did what you did.” Customers had to park in the rear of the building and walk around to the front, cutting through traffic in the drive-through customer service lane.
Since last April, working conditions have vastly improved. BGMU headquarters are at the same address—801 Center St. But a new office building features large windows that harvest ample natural light and an open reception area with separate spaces for customers to start new service or pay a bill. Offices are spacious, quiet, comfortable and built to “LEED silver” energy efficiency standards. A ground-source heat pump provides heating and air conditioning. The lot once occupied by rental property in an advanced state of disrepair is now the site of a new minor league baseball stadium for the Single-A “Hot Rods,” a farm team for the Tampa Bay Rays. Two blocks away is the Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center, a 1,800-seat auditorium that features traveling Broadway shows, big musical acts and famous comedians.
The new entertainment venues and the utility headquarters building are all part of an ambitious, comprehensive downtown redevelopment program. Under Kentucky law, cities can receive incremental tax revenue that would otherwise go to the state if they invest a specified amount in economic development in designated blighted areas. Early in 2008, local leaders committed to investing $150 million in new development in the old downtown area that sits between Western Kentucky University and the regional medical center. The university is BGMU’s largest customer and the medical center is the utility’s second-largest customer.
Doug Gorman is president of Booth Fire & Safety, a company that sells and services fire protection systems for businesses in a seven-county area surrounding Bowling Green. He is on the board of the WKU Gateway to Downtown Bowling Green TIF District. TIF stands for the Tax Increment Financing. When efforts to revitalize Bowling Green’s downtown began, he and others encountered critics who expressed skepticism about the endeavor.
The group had six years to invest $150 million in new development in the district. The undertaking began just before the economic downturn in fall 2008. “We had until December 2014 to get to $150 million; we reached that in December 2012,” Gorman said. “That was a lofty, lofty goal and [this community] reached it two years early.” Since 2008, the TIF District has spearheaded $178 million in new development in the designated downtown blocks.
Going forward, 80 percent of all new state tax revenue generated within the TIF district will be returned to Bowling Green to help pay off money borrowed to support the new development and to support additional development. Those payments will continue for 27 years.
The baseball park, for example, generates almost $100,000 a year in sales tax, Gorman said. Under normal circumstances, only $3,000 of that annual tax revenue would find its way back to Bowling Green. With the TIF, $80,000 is returned to the city. Over the life of the TIF, the ballpark alone is projected to return more than $10 million to the city, he said.
In year 28, 100 percent of the tax revenue goes to the state, so it is a good investment for the state, too—27 years is a short time in the life of a state, Gorman said. The TIF district is precisely defined; all new tax monies generated as a result of development on city blocks adjacent to the district will go to the state.
The TIF District redevelopment began with a new Chamber of Commerce building, followed by the ballpark, the performing arts center, a park with a playground and sprinkler for children, and the utility building. Construction is nearing completion on a four-story parking ramp that is wrapped by office and retail space. Six restaurants, located within an easy amble of the ballpark and performing arts center, are slated to open within the next year. New multifamily housing is under development and a hotel property is expected to begin construction soon.
Beyond its commitment to stay downtown and be part of the renewal project, BGMU, a Tennessee Valley Authority distributor, has earmarked its TVA economic development grants for the TIF District. Those funds were used to support marketing efforts—creation of a website for the TIF District and social media activities.
Bowling Green is a growing city. From 2000 to 2010, it grew 17.8 percent and then another 2.9 percent from 2010 to 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Much of the city’s character is derived from the university and from the Corvette, “America’s race car.”
Corvettes have been manufactured in Bowling Green since 1981, when General Motors moved the assembly line for the storied car from St. Louis. The plant purchases electricity from Warren Rural Electric Cooperative, another TVA distributor.
The city is also home to the National Corvette Museum, a shrine to the car and the people who defined it. The museum features a rotating exhibit of Corvettes over the 60 years of the model’s history. A Hall of Fame honors individuals who have contributed to the car’s development over the years.
Zora Arkus-Duntov and his wife, Elfi, per their wishes, are interred at the museum. The couple—he Russian and she German—fled Nazi-occupied France in 1940, arriving in New York. Zora is credited with transforming the Corvette from “pretty” to
Portrait of a Corvette Lover
Shelby Schweiss got her first Corvette on her 16th birthday. It was a gift from her Dad, who spent a career working for General Motors’ Corvette division, first in St. Louis and later in Bowling Green. Today, the 39-year-old mother of a teenage son owns two Corvettes—a 2000 and a 2010. The prized racecars come out of her garage only for special events, such as a Corvette excursion—a convoy of the iconic cars traveling from city-to-city for camaraderie and pure enjoyment. Her “everyday driving car” is a Saturn.
On weekdays, Schweiss works in the finance office of Bowling Green Municipal Utilities. On weekends, she works at the National Corvette Museum. She loves her job at the utility, but her passion clearly is directed to the museum. She speaks with authority about the history of “America’s race car,” the people who influenced its development over 60 years, the power of the engines and the legions of Corvette devotees who contributed money to bring the museum to life in 1994. She points to a 1983 white Corvette on display at the museum – the only one in existence today. Because of emerging environmental requirements, General Motors made only 42 Corvettes that year. The other 41 were all destroyed. Watch the video on Public Power TV.
The museum draws tourists from around the world to Bowling Green. The Corvette assembly plant sits across the street from the museum. Tourists can visit there, too—sometimes. But when assembly line retooling is underway at the manufacturing plant, only a privileged few (Schweiss was one) are permitted to see the next model of the ‘Vette.
The museum broke ground this year on a new feature— a proving track, where Corvette owners will be able to test their cars for speed and performance, away from the open highway. The track is likely to bring more tourism to the city, said BGMU General Manager Mark Iverson.
Schweiss’s son is now 16. Although his granddad gave him a Corvette when he was just six months old, the youngster does not share the family’s passion for the racecar. He likes big trucks.
Legend has it that Zora saw the first Corvette in 1953, loved the look of the car, but thought it needed re-engineering to make it faster and more powerful. General Motors executives were persuaded by his arguments and hired him. He worked at GM from 1953 until 1975 and is identified with the development of the Corvette.
Zora and Elfi were in Bowling Green, signing autographs and greeting visitors, in 1994 when the National Corvette Museum opened. He died in 1996 and she in 2008. Their gravesite is part of the museum.
Fruit of the Loom is another major presence in Bowling Green. Described as a “quiet company,” the maker of undergarments has its international headquarters there.
Western Kentucky University is a key partner in the city’s redevelopment efforts. Sitting atop a hill adjacent to the TIF district, the university has invested more than $500 million in renovations and new buildings over the last 15 years. New campus facilities include five academic buildings, research labs, a performing arts center and commercial space for high-tech startup companies.
The local medical center, which sits on the opposite side of the TIF district, is constructing a $19 million facility to house a nursing college.
“You get a sense that we’re really growing,” said BGMU’s Iverson.
Bowling Green Municipal Utilities has three operating divisions—Electric, Water/Sewer and General Services, the latter provides retail fiber optics services. The utility has 170 employees and serves about 28,000 electric, 18,000 water, and 20,000 sewer customers. It purchases all electricity from the Tennessee Valley Authority. Service territories for the electricity, water and sewer customers are defined by state law, meaning any growth for the utility must occur within existing geographic boundaries. It has more flexibility with its fiber operations. The utility leases dark fiber to Western Kentucky University, city offices and to a number of local businesses. The fiber network also connects all of the utility’s facilities— substations, water treatment plants and pump stations.
Visitors to the utility’s new office building see obvious signs of progress. BGMU’s gleaming new building is a monument to the effort, as are the ballpark, the performing arts center and the park. Construction equipment operates long days, a sign of ongoing development.
|BGMU's former office building, left, has been demolished. BGMU's new office building has the same address , but has more space and energy-efficiency features. Photos by Jim Veazey.|
TIF board member Doug Gorman remembers the emotion he experienced on April 17, 2009, the day of the first Hot Rods game in the new stadium. He’d been to the site thousands of times through its planning and construction, but that night 7,000 people were seeing it for the first time.
Gorman said there’s no altruism behind his deep involvement in the TIF board.
“I tell everyone that the only reason I got involved is because I am the most selfish person in the world,” Gorman said. “I have five kids and none of them have children – none are married. But eventually, we’re going to have grandkids. As much as I love the rest of the country, I want to grow up around my grandkids. There are two ways I can make that happen—I can demand it and they’ll be miserable. Or they can have economic development activities and have a good job in this area and decide to live here. If the job is not here, they won’t stay. This whole entire project is about my grandkids. I want to be around family. I really think everyone else feels the same way.”
And thus, the sidewalks of downtown Bowling Green are once again occupied by baseball fans, theater-goers and office workers, with more to come.
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