Decades before Interstate 65 was built, the Barren River and a rail line near downtown Bowling Green were the main thoroughfares of commerce for a young Bowling Green.
In the 19th century, the area bloomed with factories, businesses and warehouses to serve the growing hub city of southcentral Kentucky.
“The history of industry in Bowling Green started on the river,” said Brent Childers, director of the city’s Neighborhood and Community Services Department.
But with industry now largely diverted to modern industrial parks, the area known as Census Tract 102 – a roughly rectangular portion of the city between the U.S. 31-W By-Pass, the Barren River and East Eighth Avenue – is decidedly less prosperous.
City officials hope, however, that a new program can pave the way for the area’s revitalization.
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Census Bureau information from 2016 offers a snapshot of the tract, home to almost 4,000 people. Median household income at $21,642 was well below the city median income of $37,183, and 51 percent of residents lived below the federal poverty level, compared to 28.5 percent for the city as a whole.
Tract 102 encompasses a mix of uses, from a portion of downtown to the Delafield community, the Hobson Grove area and public housing. It also features vacant land and many empty or under-utilized industrial buildings.
It’s the kind of area that is tailor-made for an Opportunity Zone designation.
Creation of an Opportunity Zone program has long been proposed by lawmakers and other supporters as a way to spur development in blighted or undeveloped areas nationally. Investors get tax breaks for projects in the federally designated zones as an incentive.
The new federal tax law passed earlier this year formally established the Opportunity Zone program.
It was up to each state to recommend Opportunity Zones to the federal government based on nominations from local governments. Bowling Green submitted five Census Tracts for consideration and ultimately had Census Tract 102 approved as an Opportunity Zone this spring.
There are 144 Opportunity Zones in Kentucky. The Bowling Green tract is the only one in Warren County. Zones were also approved in Logan, Simpson, Butler, Edmonson, Hart and Barren counties.
City Grants Coordinator Nick Cook said final guidelines for the Opportunity Zones are expected to be issued later this year, but it is known that the incentive is for most types of investment – from housing to manufacturing and retail.
“There’s a lot of potential here,” Childers said. “We are looking at it as an economic development opportunity,” leading to jobs and higher quality of life.
“We hope it attracts new investment,” Bowling Green Mayor Bruce Wilkerson said. “We certainly don’t want to forget any parts of Bowling Green, so while new areas seem to be fresh and attractive, older neighborhoods are key to keeping the city of Bowling Green vital.”
He added that the Census Tract 102 area “has a lot of character and history.”
But as the Lovers Lane, Campbell Lane and other corridors continue to see massive growth, Census Tract 102 “has not seen a lot of private investment,” in recent years, Childers said, which is why it is also part of the city’s broader Bowling Green Reinvestment Area.
The BGRA contains the highest concentration of older housing and low-income residents in the city and is targeted for improvements through efforts such as the Neighborhood Improvement Program, where millions have been spent on new sidewalks, park renovations and private property upgrades.
The Opportunity Zone designation “will overlay seamlessly on top of” the reinvestment area, Childers said.
Likewise, the city has also recently gotten a $300,000 Brownfields Assessment grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The funding allows for the environmental testing of a building or site that could have been contaminated by a prior use – areas commonly referred to as brownfields – as the first step before sites are either cleaned up or given a clean bill of health for development.
The Opportunity Zone program “can work hand-in-hand with the brownfield program as well,” Childers said.
While the final Opportunity Zone program tax guidelines are being prepared, city officials are “trying to make sure people know this is available,” Childers said.
They have been meeting with builders, developers and real estate professionals, a process Childers likened to “going on tour.”
“We’re just trying to get the word out,” Cook said of the current efforts, “and we are hoping as the rules come out, we’ll get some interest.”