PADUCAH, Ky., Dec. 23, 2006 -- They've come from all over America: Artists from Washington, D.C., San Francisco, even New York City have somehow found their way to Paducah, a small Kentucky city on the banks of the Ohio River.
With a population of only 26,000, it's a place where culture meant a trip to the one shopping mall or movie theater -- or at least that's what used to pass for culture in Paducah until a unique incentive program brought the artists, more than 70 in all.
They started coming in 2000 to buy and restore homes in Lowertown, Paducah's oldest -- and most blighted -- neighborhood.
"We had drug houses, and we had crime, and we had ladies of the evening walking the streets," said Paducah city planner Tom Barnett, who helped develop the program. "It was a neighborhood that was essentially abandoned and just avoided by the residents of Paducah."
The city's artist relocation program is the brainchild of Barnett and former Paducah resident Mark Barone. Barone was an artist living in Lowertown, and one morning in 2000 he witnessed a drug deal taking place on the porch of a nearby house. It was then that he had the idea of bringing artists to town in hopes of saving the neighborhood. He took the idea to Barnett, and the two joined forces.
"Artists are the kind of folks who see what can be," Barnett said. "They see potential, and we knew that was what it was going to take when they came in to see the neighborhood in its current condition."
Ira and Charlotte Erwin were the first couple to buy a house in Lowertown. The Erwins owned one of Paducah's only art galleries at the time, but they were barely keeping afloat financially and had decided to close their business and move away. They even found a house they wanted to buy in Illinois. But when the relocation program started, they decided instead to purchase one of Lowertown's dilapidated old homes.
"The first weekend that we were here … we were out in the yard, and 18 different people stopped … and said, 'Thank you for buying this house. Thank you for saving it,'" Charlotte said.
It was the official beginning of a project that would succeed beyond anyone's expectations.
"There were five of us, I guess, the first year," Erwin said. "Then the next year, eight more came, and then it just mushroomed."
"When we first started, we were just trying to fix up an old, rundown neighborhood," Barnett said. "We blew through that in about the first nine months and started realizing what it could become."
Now more than 70 artists live in Lowertown. Paul Lorenz made the move from San Francisco in 2003. After growing up in Chicago and spending all of his adult life in big cities, he said Paducah has been an adjustment.
"Three years later, I'm still adjusting to small-town living," Lorenz said. "I get a little frustrated sometimes, but in general, creatively it's been the best move I've ever done."
Mark Palmer also traded city life for Paducah. He moved from Washington, DC in 2002, giving up a successful career in the hotel industry for a chance to restore one of Lowertown's oldest buildings. He bought it for only one dollar, then invested more than $200,000 of his own. Palmer considers the deal a bargain.
"I don't even think you can get a cup of coffee anymore for a dollar in DC," Palmer said.
A big part of the draw for artists is the opportunity to own a home. In most other cities that have tried using artist housing to clean up neighborhoods, the programs have been based on renting. That means that as property values go up, rents also go up and eventually a lot of the artists are priced out the market. That can't happen in Paducah.
"I can't be forced out of here," Erwin said. "I can't be made to leave because I can't afford to be in this space."
The ownership-based program was made possible with help from a locally owned bank that was willing to take a chance on an untested idea. Paducah Bank offers artists who want to move to Lowertown no-down-payment, low-interest loans for the full cost of buying and restoring the property. That often means loaning much more than the appraised value of the home.
"When we first opened the program, we frankly didn't know what to expect ... [but] working with the artists has been really, really, really, really good for us," said Paducah Bank Senior Vice President Larry Rudolph, who puts together financing packages for artists interested in making the move. "Some of them come from as far away as San Francisco and New York where they knew they would never have the opportunity to own their own home. They come to Paducah, they're in their own home."
The bank also makes no judgments based on an artist's body of work. If applicants prove they can support themselves and pay back the loan, they're approved.
"We kept it very open," Barnett said. "We want it to be inclusive, and we figured that we just would keep the doors wide open, that we would let the chips fall where they may. And the people that would be attracted to come here would be the right people."
Nearly seven years after the first artists came to Paducah, this blue-collar, red-state town seems to have welcomed them with open arms. But that wasn't always the case.
"Naturally there's a culture clash because you get these 70 people from all over the country suddenly here, in a town where nothing -- especially this area, Lowertown -- where nothing has happened in 50, 60 years," Lorenz said. "So yeah, people are a little hesitant."
"The first two, three months nobody even came through the door," Lorenz continued. "And it really wasn't until this year, where people are really more comfortable now ... They come in, just walk right in to the work side [of the gallery], and they want to see what's new and what's going on."
Paducah's program is now a national model. Barnett says so many towns are interested in trying something similar that he now has to turn away some of the city planners who want to come see how the program works. And as for the future of Paducah itself, Barnett says the sky's the limit.
"It could continue to grow and have an amazing effect on this community, and make it an arts and cultural destination for the entire country," Barnett said. "I think our fate is in our hands, and we can decide what we want to do with it."