Home Is Where The Art Is

ArtistsOnce upon a time there was a riverside community whose streets were lined with large, imposing residences built by ships’ captains and kings of cotton. And these statuesque structures stood strong and beautiful as the city grew and prospered.   —   But as time would have it, the city changed. The westward expansion of new generations left the early development vacant and uninhabited. The once vibrant city streets trespassed by generals and grand dames became home to transients and the down trodden.   —   A century later, it took the arrival of New Englanders, as well as Californians, on Kentucky soil to inhabit and restore the beautiful buildings of Monroe and Madison and Jefferson (as Grant once did in the 1800s).   —   It seems this fairy-tale may well have a happy ending after all. Community leader, Mark Barone, along with a steady stream of other itinerant artists, is arriving on the steps of these once grand avenues and leading others to look at Paducah’s Lower Town as a canvas just waiting for a brush with new life.

Urban renewal is not a dying art as Paducah’s Artist Relocation Program is proving in a very creative way. With the help and financial support of The Paducah Bank and Trust Company, along with the innovative energies of people like resident artist, Mark Barone and Mayor Bill Paxton, Paducah’s most historic neighborhood is getting a new lease on life.

The construction of a $360,000 spec building designed to house three artists’ galleries in Lower Town, funded by Paducah Bank, is the latest in a string of successes. To date, the bank has committed more than $2 million in loans to 14 artists moving to the Lower Town community. The bank is currently in negotiations with three additional artists that would produce another $750,000 in loans to the downtown neighborhood.

An average of two artists visit the city each week to learn about the program and the community. Mayor Bill Paxton said he hopes another 30 to 50 families will move to the city because of the program, a goal that now seems achievable.

Two years ago, the picture was not nearly so rosy.

“Anybody would have told you Lower Town was not a ‘nice’ place to live,” City Planning Director Tom Barnett said. “It was a little rougher, there was a little more crime, there were drug sales.”

Mark Barone, program coordinator and an artist himself, has lived in the neighborhood for 14 years. He saw his plan to recruit artists to come to the neighborhood, buy dilapidated old homes and renovate them to live and work in as the neighborhood’s last shot.

“I just knew we had to do something,” he said. “I don’t really think we went in with a lot of expectations.”

The city was able to secure the assistance of Paducah Bank, which has its headquarters on the edge of the neighborhood. “We were cautiously optimistic,” bank President Wally Bateman said with a laugh. “We figured that whether it was the first artist or the 50th, the neighborhood would be better off. There was nothing really going on here.”

Bateman said the bank agreed to do several things differently for the program. It would offer qualified artists low interest, fixed-rate loans for 100 percent of the cost of the project, including purchase and rehab. The bank also agreed to provide loans for more than the value of the homes, some of which had deteriorated greatly.

The bank’s biggest investment is the spec building currently under construction. Paducah Bank plans to donate the expected $30,000 in profits from that building to support a community arts festival that the artists will begin in 2003. Proceeds from the sale of the building will also be used to purchase period lighting throughout the Lower Town area.

The city agreed to pay a half percent on each loan, which Bateman said costs several hundred dollars. Barnett said the city sold houses to artists below market value and, in some cases, gave houses or lots to artists who agreed to improve them. Barnett estimated each project cost the city an average of $2,000, in exchange for projects ranging from $50,000 to more than $300,000.

Paxton said there was a fear that artists would not have the means to finance such large projects, but he’s been pleasantly surprised by the candidates Barone has been able to attract.

“We found artists that have come to Paducah with the money to do first-class projects,” Paxton said. “We’re bringing in families that have the same values we have here.”

Still, when Ike and Charlotte Erwin agreed to buy a home in Lower Town rather than Brookport, Ill., in late 2000, no one knew if anyone would join them. At the time, they described themselves as guinea pigs, and both now admit they were skeptical.

“I’m amazed at the number of artists,” Charlotte Erwin said. “That’s a lot of new businesses in a five-block area. That’s what a lot of people don’t realize, that these are professional artists. They’re not just people coming here to live. They’re here to provide a service.”

Ike Erwin said in hindsight, given Barnett and Barone’s dedication to the project, its success seems inevitable. Everyone involved agreed their work, along with the help of Paducah Bank and the support of the city, made the program work.

“In Paducah, we’re building a community for artists,” Paxton said. “The city is making them a priority. Other cities, big cities make them feel like outcasts.”

Connie Noyes has seen that happen. Noyes is moving to Paducah with her husband, Bob O’Brien, and their two children from San Francisco, where she said “artists’ lofts” are being built that no artist could ever afford.

In Paducah, they’re closing on a six-plex that will house them, two apartments for rent, Noyes’ studio and gallery, and a space for visiting artists.

“I have a lot of friends who want to visit,” she said, adding that she raved to all her friends about Paducah and has enticed another couple to move here from the Bay Area.

Noyes said she didn’t think she would be able to convince O’Brien, who grew up in San Francisco, to leave it, but “by the second day we were there, he was ready to sign up.”

“It’s a pretty dramatic lifestyle change, leaving the hecticness of the big city to live in a supportive arts community,” said O’Brien, a marriage and family therapist. “San Francisco went through quite an extreme jolt in the dot.com era. I think it really affected the culture there in a negative way. I have become a little bit disenchanted with my hometown.”

Mark Palmer, on the other hand, said he still loves Washington, D.C., and said leaving it after 19 years was like a death. Moving to Paducah, though, presented him with an opportunity he found impossible to resist.

“I like the idea of Paducah having artists coming here from around the country from so many backgrounds,” Palmer said. “A lot of us have been there and done that in the big city, and we can take what we learned in the big city and bring it to this small town. I think it will be a really unique destination because of that.”

Palmer bought a building at the corner of 6th and Harrison the city was ready to tear down a year ago, and City Inspection Director Joel Scarbrough said then he doubted anyone would ever fix it.

Palmer concedes that when he first saw it, “it looked pretty awful, but it had so much character . . . Paducah has such a rich history, and like a lot of small towns in America, I think that’s kind of fallen by the wayside. At this time in the history of our country, there’s a renaissance in the building up of smaller towns, and I’m very excited to be a part of that.”

Being a part of something, said Ike Erwin, will be one of the neighborhood’s biggest selling points.

“These are not just people who live next door to you or down the street,” he said. “These are people who will help you and you don’t mind helping them. We have found that the artists are quickly becoming a close-knit family. Once that reputation gets out there, then people are going to want to take part. They’re going to want part of it.”

All of the changes, Barone said, have made the neighborhood a more appealing place to live. “I see people riding their bikes through here now,” he said. “They didn’t used to do that, but now they do. Now I see people walking their dogs. That wasn’t the case two years ago. The neighborhood has completely changed.”

Artist Relocation Program

The City of Paducah and Paducah Bank Become Partners in Progress 

Partnership

  • The city of Paducah and the Urban Renewal and Community Development Agency have day-to-day oversight.
  • Paducah Bank is responsible for the financial backing of the program including loans for acquisition and rehabilitation. The bank is the financial partner for the development of three spec buildings.
  • Paducah Power Company will partner for the installation of a neighborhood lighting plan.

Accomplishments

  • 20 artists have moved or are in the process of moving
  • Approximately $3.8 million dollars already invested or in process in purchase and rehab of structures by artists
  • Artists from Kentucky, San Diego, San Francisco, Berkley, Chicago, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Oklahoma, Maryland, and Arizona have relocated here
  • Over 175 artists have come to visit Paducah to investigate the program
  • 350 Artist Relocation packets have been sent to artists in 46 states and 3 countries
  • More than 11,000 hits have been recorded on the Artist Relocation website
  • 7 national feature articles and 5 regional feature articles have been written about the Program
  • Received James C. Howland award for Urban Enrichment
  • Received Kentucky Arts Council Project grant award of $3,000

WHO Are They? Where Do They Come From?

MARK BARONE • painter, printmaker—Kentucky
NATHAN BROWN • ceramic artist—Kentucky
FREDA FAIRCHILD • printmaker, fiber artist—San Diego
IKE AND CHARLOTTE ERWIN • painter, muralist, book restoration—Illinois
JOEL AND MARTA UTSLER • painter—North Carolina
BILL RENZULLI • painter—Maryland
MARK PALMER • painter-—Washington, DC
CRAIG KITNER • painter, chef—Washington, DC
CONNIE NOYES AND BOB O’BRIEN • painter—San Francisco
PAUL LORENZ • painter—San Francisco
LORRIE CODY • painter—Los Angeles
SHARON ELLIOTT • jeweler, metal smith—Texas
JANE HUNT • Kentucky
KEITH KAHRS • painter—Arizona
SUZANNE DE ROSIER • painter—San Diego
ALONZO DAVIS • painter, sculpture—Memphis
NIKKI MAY • fiber artist, painter—Atlanta
PATRICIA SIMS • fiber artist—Hawaii
NANCY CALCUTT & CHARLIE DOHERTY • painter, musician—Nashville
KIM O’DONNELL • book arts, restoration—Massachusetts