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Creative vibe helps Paducah thrive, drawing tourists to crafty Kentucky town

Lori Rackl, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Travel News

PADUCAH, Ky. -- In this riverfront town in western Kentucky, art isn't just a luxury. It's a lifeline.

It helped salvage one of the city's oldest neighborhoods with an artist relocation program that lured talent from around the country.

And art, in the form of 52 murals and a national museum devoted to quilting (much cooler than it sounds -- I promise), served as a shot in the arm for downtown revitalization, sparing the historic area from the fate of many a small city destroyed by suburban sprawl.

More recently, art is what prompted UNESCO to designate Paducah as one of only six "Creative Cities" in the U.S. In late September, delegates from around the world will huddle here for the inaugural meeting of the Creative Cities' crafts and folk art network.

You could say art is woven into the fabric of this town of roughly 25,000, known as Quilt City USA (again -- cooler than it sounds). And the creative vibe that comes along with it has kept Paducah from devolving into just another pit stop off the interstate.

"There's a lot more here than gas stations," said Ed Musselman, one of several Paducahans who, in the last couple of years, have resurrected dilapidated pieces of the city's past and recycled them into creative new spaces.

Musselman and his wife, Meagan, recently restored an old Coca-Cola bottling plant in midtown and filled it with a craft brewery, restaurant and artist collective, among other things. The Coke Plant, as it's known around town, also houses Time on the String, where the curious can take a lesson in playing the fiddle -- or just about any stringed instrument -- with owner Josh Coffey, a staple on the local music scene.

"People thought we were nuts when we bought this building," Ed Musselman said about the 43,000-square-foot structure constructed at the tail end of the Depression. "We thought this was the perfect spot to showcase what makes Paducah great but isn't necessarily seen by the casual observer. If people make one stop in Paducah, we wanted it to be somewhere that might make them want to stay a little longer, maybe go to the Lower Town Arts District, go listen to live music or explore some more."

Before the Lower Town Arts District was called that, it was a run-down part of Paducah few would visit by choice.

"It's changed a lot from when I got here; it's a walkable, safe neighborhood now," said mixed-media artist Char Downs, who lives above her Pinecone Art Gallery & Studio at 421 N. Seventh St.

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