Lower Town residents (from left) include artist Mark Palmer, retired Paducah Bank lender Larry Rudolph, Paducah Bank president emeritus Wally Bateman and artist Mark Barone.
When Wally Bateman closes his eyes, he sometimes imagines a vivid scene of his city’s future. He pictures thousands of art students from around the country attending a prestigious art school, the Paducah School of Art and Design. He also sees the downtown streets of Paducah, Ky., bustling with people working, shopping and socializing.
Today, an economic development program that was kick-started and partially funded by The Paducah Bank and Trust Co. in Paducah is making this vision one step closer to reality.
“Roughly 500 art students already attend Paducah’s art school, a division of West Kentucky Community and Technical College,” says Bateman, former president and current director at Paducah Bank and Trust, a $550 million-asset community bank. “But before the school was built, the community had to be marketed nationwide as a gathering place for artists to work and live in.”
This community revitalization story starts 13 years ago, when a local artist, Mark Barone, proposed the Artist Relocation Program to Paducah’s city planner. At the time, Barone owned a home in Lower Town, which is downriver from downtown Paducah. The area contains 25 blocks of old, beautiful homes that had been neglected over the years, many of which were converted into inexpensive, multifamily rental units. Over time the area became a haven for drug users.
“Mark was very interested in preserving his investment and seeing his neighborhood revived,” Bateman explains.
As the story goes, Paducah’s city officials asked Paducah Bank and Trust to lend money to help artists across the country relocate to Lower Town to renovate and live in the neighborhood’s older homes. Since then, the community bank has made nearly 50 home loans to artists who have sparked a broader economic resurgence and rehabilitation. Plans are underway to convert some homes into housing for local art students.
At one point, the bank had made about $15 million in outstanding loans to these artists, Bateman says, adding that some artists have since advanced their careers and moved out of the community.
Today, Lower Town supports a popular coffee shop. Although several restaurants have opened and then failed, Bateman believes other businesses will thrive as the college’s student and faculty population grows. Meanwhile, the idea of renovating older homes in the area became contagious and spread to the adjacent community of Fountain Avenue.
The artist-residence program has also attracted nonartists to the community. Bateman says several of Paducah Bank and Trust’s senior managers live in renovated homes in Lower Town. However, the program’s original vision, sharpened with help from city officials, has become much grander than redeveloping a local art district. That vision now includes transforming a local art school into a nationally recognized program.
“Art is truly economic development,” says Bateman, adding that the artists have become loyal bank customers.
Over the past several years, bankers from other states have visited Paducah to learn more about the neighborhood revitalization program. Bateman’s advice to them? Start slow.
“Take baby steps,” he says. “We didn’t know this would turn into anything at all but were willing to take the chance. Some of the artists have become wonderful friends over the years. Some are teaching at the college. They’ve brought a real vibrancy to our community.”