From Buffalo to Louisville, St. Louis to Memphis, river towns tend to share a common vibe, carved out by their muddy waters. It’s common to find neighborhoods filled with beautiful, old brick palaces-for-homes, erected by the Jay Gatsby tycoons of the early 20th century, who banked that water would always be king. But when the economy of transportation shifted toward Eisenhower’s road, it left many of these old towns high and dry, with a bunch of giant old buildings no one left could afford to maintain.
Less than a decade ago, Paducah, Kentucky, (pop. 26,000) was just another in a winding line of river towns that had fallen on hard times. In the Fall issue of the delightful urban-planning magazine The Next American City, Carly Berwick reports:
Paducah had been neglected for years, overrun with dilapidated buildings, some boarded up, many littered with broken bottles—a commonplace of aging small cities. As owners moved out to the suburbs over the last century, landlords and renters moved in, and no one wanted to—or could afford to—spend the increasingly large sums required to fix up the properties.”
That’s when artist and Paducah resident Mark Barone visited then-assistant city planner Thomas Barnett and together the two engineered an artistic and economic renaissance that has small, aging cities all over the country paying attention.
They crafted Paducah’s Artists Relocation Program around the idea that the town needed to attract working artists—a unique class of people who by definition love to create—to call Paducah their home.
The pair made arrangements with the city government to ease zoning laws in the historic but rundown Lowertown district, so its buildings could be used for both commercial and residential purposes. “This,” the Paducah Arts website reports, “enables residents to have gallery/studio, restaurant/café, etc. and living space all under one roof.”
The men further convinced the city to give incoming artists a lot of freedom to create—to give them resources without micromanaging their output or otherwise stifling their creativity.
But perhaps most key, Barone and Barnett bartered deals with the city and local banks to offer incoming artists financing packages to purchase and rehabilitate old buildings or construct new ones. As the program’s website puts it, “The Artist Relocation Program is about artist ownership, thus giving the artists a vested interest in our community.”
Barnett tells Berwick that they were successful because they were familiar with the city and brought important project development skills to the table: “You had two guys that love the area and work really well together, that knew the arts, construction, financing, and had the vision. We are also pretty good salesmen.”
In less than a decade, Berwick reports, the program has drawn more than 70 artists to Paducah’s Lowertown and transformed it into a thriving arts community. Tourism revenues in the county increased by nearly $10 million in just the second year of the program, and the city now offers a growing range of cultural offerings, including a contemporary art center and an indie film theater. And an art school is on the way.
For more on the evolution of the project in the artists’ own words (and video), you can check out the Lowertown artists’ blog. —Jason Ericson