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By Austin R. Ramsey

Published March 29, 2018 | Messenger-Inquirer

A new plan city leaders say they are considering could result in several notable downtown institutions relocating in the wake of the much-anticipated International Bluegrass Music Center grand opening this fall.

Details of that plan revealed to the Messenger-Inquirer this week indicate that the Owensboro Museum of Science and History could be forced to downsize and move from its current location at the former S.W. Anderson Building across the street into space where the bluegrass museum currently resides inside the RiverPark Center.

Sources say the museum may no longer be able to meet specifications outlined in a contract signed more than two decades ago making it a free tenant of the city's 90,000-square-foot historic building at Second and Daviess streets. According to Mayor Tom Watson, museum officials have told him they couldn't survive without the city's annual stipend of more than $150,000.

"We're trying to figure out what's best for the community," he said. "Moving the museum would be a piece of the puzzle downtown, and it would also ensure that they stay downtown."

Another part of that puzzle would involve moving the Owensboro-Daviess County Convention and Visitors Bureau inside the new International Bluegrass Music Center and transforming that space into a one-stop destination for regional tourism information. Officials say a draft contract making the CVB a sublessee of the bluegrass museum could be signed as early as April.

While the rationale for that shift remains hotly contested — city leaders claim its partially due to a vulnerable business plan the bluegrass museum submitted late last year — what remains certain is that the government's comprehensive downtown relocation strategy could be enormously consequential.

Facing what could be an additional $3 million pension bill next fiscal year, the city could liquidate the S.W. Anderson Building, a prime piece of real estate most recently assessed at $3.4 million. But true also, however, is the significant space the science and history museum could lose in the deal. The bluegrass museum's current home at the southwestern corner of the RiverPark Center is just a quarter of the size of the Anderson building, leaving the fate of at least some of the OMSH collection uncertain.

Meanwhile, the Wendell H. Ford Government Education Center housed inside the museum has already been considering a move. Executive Director Elizabeth Griffith said the organization's board has been seeking options that would best fit programming needs, but officials are still no closer to a decision on where that future location may be.

Watson said he wants to include OMSH in these discussions, but most of its board and Executive Director Kathy Olson have pushed back against the idea because of the limited space.

"If you would take the actual square footage that they're using, versus the actual square footage that they've got stuff stored in, you can pare it down," Watson said. "If we move forward with the idea of putting the Anderson building on the market, I want them to stay downtown if they want to stay downtown ... I would rather them get in the game with all the rest of the players so they continue this synergy they have with the community."

It's a chance, he said, to rebrand. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the Anderson building could be used to help retrofit some of the soon-to-be-vacated bluegrass space, and the mayor said he favored creating a children's area on the first floor or even making room for a restaurant that could serve museum patrons.

Repeated attempts to reach Olson for comment went unanswered Wednesday.

As for the CVB move, Watson said he is unconvinced by what he called a less-than-optimistic business plan for operations at the bluegrass center.

"We've got to do something to push as many people to that bluegrass center as we can or we're going to have issues with trying to keep it going," he said. "Their business plan was a little conceptual with 55 bluegrass concerts they were going to try to run with just 15 weekends in the summer to do them."

By putting the CVB inside the new center and using the space not only to sell bluegrass music but the community as a whole, perhaps the space can remain the hallmark destination it was intended to be, Watson said.

Plus, what was contractually supposed to be a third-floor restaurant there may not be. City Manager Bill Parrish said efforts to find a tenant have been unsuccessful.

"Our expectations for the third floor of that building are certainly shifting," he said. "We're becoming less concerned with what occupies that space and more concerned about ensuring that the space generates revenue."

Officials say perhaps an special events room shared between the bluegrass museum and CVB would better suit the space.

Bluegrass museum Executive Director Chris Joslin said he strongly supports sharing the new center's second floor with the CVB, because, although people come all over the world to visit Owensboro for its bluegrass music heritage, there is so much more that Owensboro and Daviess County has to offer. If the space can be designed to maximize dollars spent locally, it's a benefit to all.

But Joslin scoffed at the idea that the move was necessary. His business plan, he said, is solid, and the museum would be perfectly fine even without the shared space plan.

"I would contend that we've put forward a business plan with conservative projections," he said. "I could have constructed a business plan with aspirational projections, but I think we've been very conservative. Honestly, some of it is based on the city's own (downtown master plan). And even the idea of starting the venture was an effort by the city, and I think that's important to remember."

The bluegrass museum is a private nonprofit, and its business plan is not subject to open records laws.

Although offering space on the third floor for a restaurant still isn't something Joslin said he's ruled out of the question, it is becoming more unlikely. He said it would likely be retrofitted into a special events space should the CVB sign the sublessee contract he's drafted by April.

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