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Three downtowns to see

Photo courtesy Atlanta CVB

Next summer, visitors to Rapid City, S.D., will be able to sit amid the new Main Street Square’s dancing fountains and waterfalls and watch an artist sculpt a granite stone.

In Owensboro, Ky., by the end of the summer, visitors can take in a view of the Ohio River beside iconic fountains in a new waterfront park.

By early the following year, visitors to Atlanta will be able to ride open-air trolleys from the city’s main tourism hub in Centennial Park to major attractions on the outskirts such as the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site and the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum.

Despite the tough economic times, these cities continue to revitalize and renovate their downtowns with both public and private financing.

—  Atlanta  —
When 21-acre Centennial Park was built in a rundown section of downtown Atlanta for the 1996 summer Olympics, planners hoped the area would eventually become a central gathering place and tourism destination for the Georgia city.

“We are seeing that long-term vision take effect,” said Lauren Jarrell, director of communications for the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Several major attractions have located around the park, including the World of Coca-Cola, the National Museum of Patriotism and the Georgia Aquarium, and a second wave is under way.

“The biggest opening this year [2011] was the Georgia Aquarium opened a new multimillion-dollar dolphin exhibit,” said Jarrell. “It was its first major expansion and came just after its five-year anniversary. They didn’t have any dolphins before.”

The new exhibit features a 25-foot-long viewing window and a large stage with a theatrical show.
“It is something like SeaWorld, but a little more theatrical,” said Jarrell.

“In 2013, we are adding streetcars to downtown. They will run east to west from the main tourism hub where the aquarium and World of Coke are to the east side where the Martin Luther King Jr. site and Carter Library are.”

The streetcars will be ready for the continued expansion of the downtown tourism epicenter. The National Center for Civil and Human Rights is scheduled to open in 2013 between the World of Coca-Cola and the Georgia Aquarium.

“It will have a number of exhibits that explore human rights globally and will house the original writings of King,” said Jarrell. “It will have educational programs, meeting facilities, and NPR [National Public Radio] will have a Story Corps booth there.”

Also coming to the area in 2013 will be the $90 million College Football Hall of Fame, which is relocating from South Bend, Ind. Adjacent to the Georgia World Congress Center, the 50,000-square-foot, multilevel facility will feature memorabilia and exhibits about the college game and a large outdoor screen for viewing games.

“We will have six major attractions within walking distance,” said Jarrell, “all between the hotels and convention center.”

Elsewhere in Atlanta, the Fernbank Museum opened a new “NatureQuest” exhibit last March. The $8 million, 7,000-square-foot exhibit features many interactive encounters, including live animals.

—  Owensboro  —
Set to open next August, the new Smothers Park along the Owensboro riverfront is part of more than $178 million in publicly and privately financed downtown improvements in the western Kentucky city. Total investment throughout the city, including a new $385 million hospital and a $2 million expansion of the regional airport terminal, totals nearly $1 billion.

“All the things going on downtown are really something,” said Karen Miller, executive director of the Owensboro Daviess County Tourist Commission. “It gets us back in the game.”

The five-acre park, next to the city’s RiverPark Center performing arts center, will have fountains, cascading waterfalls, a concession stand for special events, an outdoor theater and sculpture area, and overlooks of the river.

The park will also be the home of the Shelton Memorial Park honoring missing soldiers from all wars.

The first major component of the downtown riverfront development, Riverfront Crossing, a pedestrian walkway to the new park, opened in October. Other proposed street improvements, such as brick pavers and “bump-outs” at street corners to slow traffic, are designed to make downtown streets more accessible for pedestrians.

“People are taking advantage of older buildings and redoing them for condos, and we are hoping for more retail and restaurants,” said Miller.

The Miller House, a restaurant in a former Victorian house, recently opened the only bourbon bar in western Kentucky.

Ground was scheduled to be broken this month on a seven-story, 151-room Hampton Inn and Suites on Owensboro’s riverfront. Slated to open in late 2013, the hotel will be the first new hotel built in downtown Owensboro in a quarter-century.

The hotel will include a full-service restaurant with outdoor seating and a ground-floor retail store.

“The person doing it is local,” said Miller. “The drawings are phenomenal; it is beautiful.”

Scheduled to open around the same time as the hotel and adjacent to it is a new 169,000-square-foot steel and aluminum riverfront convention center with large glass walls to make the city and river visible from almost anywhere inside.

“All these changes will encourage residents and visitors alike to spend time in downtown Owensboro,” said Miller. “It is a complete revitalization of downtown.”