Ashley: A riverfront transforms; is it pork?

Dec. 08, 2012 @ 06:44 PM

On a visit back to Owensboro, Ky., recently, I made it a point to go take a close look at development that is occurring along the banks of the Ohio River.
The Ohio is a sprawling river as it flows past Owensboro, close to half a mile separating the bluffs whose color gave the city its original name of Yellow Banks from the wide, flat floodplain on the Indiana side.
I’ve thought about the Ohio often when listening to Bill Kalkhof talk of the challenges in the early days of the Downtown Durham Inc. organization he’s headed since it was formed in 1993. Durham, he’s observed, didn’t have a river, didn’t have mountains, didn’t have the seat of government and all the enhancements of museums and such that Raleigh has reaped from being the state capital.
Well, Owensboro had a river, and it had been important for generations to the city’s economy. But its importance had been utilitarian, not aesthetic. It was a commercial corridor, a barge highway along whose banks developed businesses that stored and shipped grain, dredged and marketed sand and gravel, that sort of thing. 
But as the industrial economy has been giving way to the information economy, the river’s potential was shifting to its role as an amenity. It just took a while for the city to realize that, to begin to envision that the river was a gem along which people would want not just to work but to play, relax, stroll and be entertained.
So for roughly the past decade, since the siting of a new performance space, the RiverPark Center, with an atrium lobby whose soaring glass walls literally opened the community’s collective eye to the Ohio, the riverfront has been changing. 
A new park, trails, a small outdoor performance space, sculpture, playground and fountain have sprouted, creating a riverfront park at the edge of downtown that was bustling with children and adults at lunchtime of a weekday when I was there.
And you and I have helped pay for it.
My hosts at my old newspaper told me some $40 million in federal funds have helped to transform the riverfront. The flow of federal dollars started in earnest while I was still there, when the Republican mayor’s friendship with the state’s senior senator, then as now Mitch McConnell, began funneling federal earmarks to riverfront development projects.
That’s right – feistily conservative, no-tax-increase-pledging Mitch McConnell, sharp-elbowed and sharp-tongued Republican majority leader, in the Senate.
Don’t misunderstand. As editor in Owensboro, I joined other city leaders in applauding McConnell’s influence in riverfront development that many of us saw as key to revitalizing a moribund downtown of a city that had never recovered fully from the demise of its major industrial employer three decades or more ago.
And I saw considerable signs that downtown is rebounding, rewarding the vision and investment that has gone into reshaping the riverfront. (A new convention center and hotel for which steel is rising will be other signs of revival, as well as catalysts for yet more.)
But the federal investment in this project underscores the truth that one voter’s pork is another’s vital infrastructure improvement. That dichotomy, of course, also lies at the heart of much of the angst over how to avoid the fiscal cliff, and how to get our country’s financial house in order.
Your tax loophole is my vital support of worthwhile ventures. Your deduction may be worth jettisoning; mine, not so much.
Countless cities across the country, like Owensboro, have been helped in palpable ways by spending that might seem like pork from a distance. Even Mitch McConnell has seen the merit in that kind of federal spending.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.