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Mayor Watson unveils OBKY Project, eyes low-cost growth

Mayor Tom Watson on Thursday pledged to appoint seven committees later this month that will focus on developing his plan for continued economic and social growth in the city at little to no expense to the taxpayers.

His plan, dubbed the OBKY Project, targets entertainment, arts and leisure; parks and recreation; tourism and visitors; public services and public safety; finance; transportation; and community engagement.

Thursday’s announcement, during the annual State of the City Address, marked the project’s formal unveiling. Community and city leaders, alongside the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce, hosted 12 focus group sessions during the fall to engage in a dialogue about the city’s future and gather ideas from the public on how to better it.

“Always keeping in mind,” the mayor warned, “my philosophy that all ideas are welcome — just don’t get upset if we don’t use yours.”

The mayor’s committees, mostly made up of individuals who offered ideas, are expected to begin work soon categorizing plans and developing implementation strategies that will go before the Owensboro City Commission for review.

No specific ideas have yet been made public, but the mayor said he was pleased with the results of the focus groups.

“They were very intellectual,” he said. “And a lot of them were very simple ideas.”

The announcement and Watson’s tone throughout the speech was far different than his 2017 address when he painted a dire picture of the city’s finances and strongly hinted at a round of tax hikes that would become a reality just five months later. He told the hushed, standing-room-only crowd then that the city was “living beyond our paycheck.”

But on Thursday, he lauded the commission’s resolve to halt deficit spending and begin rebuilding the city’s dwindling reserves. It was necessary, albeit unpopular, he said.

“We must live in the present while we always prepare for the future,” Watson urged. “It has been said that the unelected faction of a community should not be trying to control the narrative; we were elected and we should control the outcome, and we will be judged on the outcome — good, bad or indifferent. But that doesn’t mean we should be so arrogant as to ignore the input of our citizens and strive to be as diverse and as inclusive as possible.”

With that investment, he went on, Owensboro was able to shore up its police and fire departments by adding personnel and increasing pay, all while sustaining economic growth across the city. The new year will only continue to highlight that growth, he said, particularly as an eastside fire department engine company develops and visions of a revitalized Triplett Twist neighborhood are realized.

But there are challenges ahead, too, he said. The state’s solution to a massively unfunded public pension will likely involve a larger share of local government dollars and create an unfavorable market for talented staff, he predicted. Owensboro Municipal Utilities’ looming decision on future power production could shake local industries, and the city’s bond ratings may take much longer to improve than initially thought.

Owensboro, however, will continue to overcome, he said. It always has, and it always will.

“Thank you for allowing me to be your mayor,” he said, and drawing on columnist Regina Brett’s famous words: “I continue to be humbled by your kindness, and, remember, ‘it’s not about how to survive the storm but how to dance in the rain.’ “

By Austin Ramsey Messenger-Inquirer