Special Report: A Tale Of Two Cities

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BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WBKO) -- In 2010, for the first time in the city's history, Bowling Green jumped to the number three spot in state population behind Louisville and Lexington.

For decades Bowling Green and Owensboro have been compared by those around the state. Perhaps the way the cities most closely mirror each other is in population. Less than 2,000 people separate the size of the cities.

When the Bowling Green jumped Owensboro for the first time ever, some took it personal, including the Mayor of Owensboro. He says he believes by 2020, the River City will take back the number three spot. If that's something you doubt, he's got a message for you.

"I would just tell them...stay tuned. Stay tuned! Just watch, that's I gotta say. Stand back and watch! Guys, I want you to look at this. Does your convention center look like this? You tell me when we go in it!"

Mayor Ron Payne has only been in office for a few years, but his passion for his hometown has him leading a charge in the city that's never been seen before.

"Owensboro wants to brand itself as the headquarters of Bluegrass (music)," said Payne as he lead a WBKO camera crew on a tour of downtown Owensboro.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in the public and private sector to renovate downtown Owensboro. One big reason for the push, in 2010 Bowling Green's growth launched it to the commonwealth's number three city in population. Now Owensboro wants it back.

Only about 70 miles separates the cities, but a number that's just as close is the population between the two.

Owensboro was number three in population for a while, then in 2000 things got closer than ever. Finally in 2010, it was official a new city had taken the population bronze in the Commonwealth.

In the early years of the country, the 1800's and the 1900's, having a major river going through your city like the Ohio River, would be a big factor in population growth. That's not necessarily the case anymore. So, a city like Owensboro has to do some extra things to keep up with a city like Bowling Green. Officials think they have just that thing, in a new building downtown that has everyone buzzing.

"When you come across the Blue Bridge at night and the building is lit up, it's pretty spectacular," Dean Dennis, the General Manager of the Owensboro Convention Center.

The brand new Owensboro Convention Center boasts 92,000 square feet of space including a 44,000 square foot exhibition hall with nearly 30,000 square feet for ballroom space.

Though Owensboro's convention center boasts some big numbers along with a sleek new look, the Sloan Center in Bowling Green is a worthy competitor.

The facility spans 60,000 square feet with around 36,000 of that dedicated to exhibition space. Every year from 2007 to 2012 the facility saw an upgrade of some type, keeping it in top shape.

"We have continued to provide, whether it's new tile, new carpet, new walls, coverings and so forth. We try not to let it get dated. We like what we have. I think we're doing really well with it," said Bowling Green Mayor, Bruce Wilkerson.

The days of population growth depending on a major river running through your town, are over. Now it's all about having an interstate. Lucky for Bowling Green, Interstate 65 is providing a big advantage.

"Transportation is key to those site selectors," added Wilkerson.

"Some clients specify a certain distance from the Interstate to even consider a community," said Bowling Green Chamber of Commerce President & CEO, Ron Bunch.

The interstate floods people into Bowling Green for so many reasons besides work, building on an already growing economy.

"We're a retail hub. We bring in shoppers from all around the region. That helps us grow and create jobs. We're a healthcare hub. That grows healthcare jobs, as well as white collar jobs. We're an education hub, which not only grows the education sector, but it also has a positive bearing on all the other sectors. You're building talent that can help all the other sectors be competitive," added Bunch.

Convention centers and transportation may play big roles in the population race, but both cities are transforming their downtowns, and that is what ultimately could make the difference in 2020.

"We're talking about a quarter of a billion dollars in our downtown," boasted Mayor Payne.

Along with their new convention center, Owensboro has built an entirely new riverfront filled with shops and restaurants, along with plans for a multi-million dollar International Bluegrass Center.

Bowling Green is staying at that same fervent pace with the downtown ball park, now featuring Hitcents Plaza with businesses and multiple restaurants. Not to mention other new hotels and structures going up.

Both cities are getting off to great starts in the population race, but there's plenty of time until 2020 and a lot of moves to be made in the home stretch.

"I've got to tell you never in the history of this community has there ever been this kind of activity," smiled Owensboro Mayor, Ron Payne.

"For the most part, people are tickled to death to live here, as I am. I expect us to continue to grow," added Bowling Green Mayor, Bruce Wilkerson.

To see just how close the cities are in number, check out the links below.

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