Owensboro's economy has been steadily growing for several years.

And it looks like the trend will accelerate in 2018.

Metalsa Structural Products, the Mexican frame manufacturer, started a $36.5 million expansion this fall, getting ready to add 113 jobs and begin producing frames for the new Jeep truck at its Owensboro plant.

Swedish Match announced plans for a $40.9 million expansion at its Owensboro smokeless tobacco plant that will create 36 full-time jobs.

Alorica began operations in its new building at 234 Frederica St. in July and said it plans to have 500 employees in Owensboro by year's end.

Another 340 are to be hired over the next two years.

Ken Muché, Alorica's director of global public relations, said, "I might have an update sometime in late February at the earliest."

Malco Theatres, Tuesday Morning, Hobby Lobby, Kirkland's and Shoe Show all announced plans to open stores in Gateway Commons, the 200-acre, $335 million lifestyle center, in 2018.

Two hotels — a 63-room Best Western on Goetz Drive and a TownePlace Suites in Gateway Commons — began construction in 2017 and should open in 2018.

And a third downtown hotel — across Second Street from the Owensboro Convention Center — should break ground in late 2018.

The $15.4-million International Bluegrass Music Center at Second and Frederica streets is scheduled to open in 2018, creating a major tourist draw.

O.Z. Tyler Distillery began ramping up production of bourbon from 18,000 barrels a year to 70,000 in 2017 and announced plans for a banquet hall, small hotel, cocktail lounge and a restaurant to be added in coming months.

Here's a look at what developers and people who work in economic development expect to happen in 2018.

Gateway Commons

Matt Hayden, who's developing the huge complex between Kentucky 54 and Pleasant Valley Road, said Hayden Road and Calumet Trace — the two main streets in the complex — will open in January.

The lifestyle center has 103,500 square feet of retail space under construction, with the first store scheduled to open in February, Hayden said.

He said he expects to break ground on another 60,000 of retail space in the next three months.

The movie theater should open next summer, and the new hotel should open in the fall, Hayden said.

Riverfront JAM

Hayden and Jack Wells are partners in several downtown projects and on redeveloping the old Texas Gas Building at 3800 Frederica St.

Wells said tenants will be moving into condos in The Enclave at 101 Frederica St. next summer and the three restaurants planned for the first floor should open in late 2018.

Construction on the old Texas Gas property should start in January, he said, and the first tenants should be announced in the spring.

Wells said a new building is planned on the property in front of the Holiday Inn.

The hotel-apartment complex he and Hayden are planning across the street from the convention center should break ground next fall or in early 2019, Wells said.

The city's new $8 million, 445-space parking garage just east of the planned hotel and apartment complex broke ground this month and will be under construction in 2018.

It's projected to open in August.

O.Z. Tyler

Daniel Hewlette, director of visitor experience at the distillery, said a "lot of very exciting things will be happening at the distillery" in 2018.

That includes becoming a part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which draws 1 million visitors a year, in August

The first Owensboro-made bourbon will hit the market in February or March, he said.

"We are right in the middle of some big infrastructure improvements — drainage improvements, asphalt, sidewalks, landscaping and signage — that will carry through the first few months of next year," Hewlette said. "Those improvements are part of a build up to a big announcement relating to our efforts to draw people to Owensboro."

That will happen in 2018, he said, "but I can't officially comment on what exactly that will be just yet. Overall, this work will be a great asset to the look and feel of the distillery, making it more inviting and enjoyable for all visitors."

Hewlette said, "We are also looking at potentially renovating one of our damaged rickhouses as well. That would increase our storage capacity by 20,000 barrels and provide some interesting architectural flair to the property."

'Incredible opportunities'

Jay Velotta, president-elect of the Greater Owensboro Realtor Association and a city commissioner, said, "I am excited for the future as we have many incredible opportunities around the corner and the future looks bright."

He said Gateway Commons and the International Bluegrass Music Center will both open in 2018 "and there are several other projects that are in various stages of negotiation that could prove to be a very positive impact on the local economy. With some of the lowest unemployment percentages in recent years, our community is in a good position to remain very attractive to not only economic development opportunities, but also continue to grow in population as opportunities become available."

Velotta said, "With all of the progress, obviously there are going to be some growing pains. And there are several factors that threaten our success — such as budgetary issues, the looming pension crisis at the state level and tax reform at the federal level."

He said, "We have to find a way to remain competitive with our neighboring states. And we will, as this community has proven to be resistant to most economic trends and resilient in bouncing back from any negativity at the national and state levels of government."

'Blockbuster year'

Larry Conder, a city commissioner who was one of the early leaders in downtown development, said, "I think it will be a blockbuster year — both good and bad."

He said, "Our unemployment rate will stay below 3.5 percent due to Alorica hirings, projected to reach more than 700 employees by the end of 2018; continued construction work at Gateway Commons, the Brescia University Signature Building on the corner of Ninth and Frederica streets, the new parking garage, the third hotel and condos downtown and the beginning of the Jagoe projects — Bluegrass Commons and the Veterans Boulevard development."

Conder said he also expects to see work start on riverfront condos where the old Executive Inn Raquet Club was, completion of Owensboro Grain's new facility, "possible development out the Parrish Avenue area and Daviess County Public Schools' new middle school and remodel of Apollo High School."

One challenge, he said, is "our taxation policy must be reformed to continue to be competitive."

The Kentucky pension problem will become a local issue, Conder said.

And, he said, the community has to work to ensure that it has a "trained and effective workforce."

"Overall, I have the utmost faith that our local diversified economy will heat up even more in 2018 and beyond," Conder said. "We are just getting started."

EDC

Mark Snell, president and CEO of the Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corp., said, "Our workforce is the number one concern that our businesses — and prospective businesses — express on a daily basis. Unlike other areas of Kentucky and the nation, we don't have enough people in the workforce."

He said, "With local unemployment consistently in the 4 percent range, our region is near statistical full employment. And continuing construction activities and expansion of our existing businesses will put continued downward pressure on that number. We need to devise innovative ways to lure more high-quality talent into our workforce from other regions, retain the ones we have and equip them with the skills that our employers need."

Snell said the EDC will be "talking about some innovative ideas to accomplish this in 2018."

The EDC, he said, "will continue to put a huge focus on helping our existing businesses expand and on ensuring an abundant, well-trained workforce. We'll continue to sponsor the premier industry-led GO-FAME/GO-CAREERS workforce training chapter in the state, and the premier office of the Kentucky Innovation Network. Any community ignores its existing businesses at its own peril."

Snell said the EDC "will spearhead a broad-based strategic look at our community's strengths, weaknesses and opportunities, which will help inform a very targeted new-business recruitment plan in 2018. Although I don't want to anticipate the outcome, I suspect we'll start by continuing to build upon industries in which our region already has begun to build critical mass — such as metals, agriculture, food processing, automotive and others. We'll utilize our airport and riverport even better than we already do. And we will continue to expand our inventory of available industrial sites and make those sites even more appealing."

He said, "Our success at place-making — making our community one in which people, and especially talented and well-educated young people, want to live, play and raise families — is the key to accomplishing the first three priorities. A significant amount of both public and private money has been spent on this effort so far, but there is much more to do if we want to make our community one of the finest, most attractive mid-sized communities in the nation."

Snell said, "The private sector will need to increase its investment, but I am convinced that it can do so profitably and I'm prepared to lead the way. Failure is not an option. We cannot let our urban core languish and still achieve what we want to become."

He said, "We must continue a relentless focus on the things that matter — excellent schools; the smart, attractive and resident-friendly use of land within our urban core; the amenities that people want and abundant, wholesome entertainment. In short, the quality of life that will attract and retain the best and brightest to and in our community. None of this necessarily comes at a great price. But it will require an approach that is, perhaps, a new way of thinking about our community."

Chamber of commerce

"We look forward to steady growth next year," said Candance Brake, president and CEO of the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce. "Owensboro continues to see slow, steady growth unlike most communities our size who are experiencing drops in population and wages. The aspect of steady growth that is appealing is that it is sustainable."

She said, "Our talent recruitment and retention efforts are paying off as well. The new downtown private investments will spur even more growth. There truly is an excitement, and that optimism creates good things."

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