Developing a Public Voice:

An In-depth Analysis of Public Opinion

in Owensboro-Daviess County


A report for:

The Community Life Foundation of Owensboro, Kentucky

The Lawrence and Augusta Hager Educational Foundation, and

Audubon Area Community Services


Doble Research Associates

375 Sylvan Avenue

Englewood Cliffs, NJ 07632

(201) 568-7200

January 15, 1999


Table of Contents


I. Introduction

II. Executive Summary

III. A Good Place to Live and Raise a Family

IV. One Pressing, Overarching Concern: How Decisions Are Made in the Community

V. The Need for Good Paying Jobs

VI. The Need for Affordable, Quality Health Care for Everyone

VII. Discontent about the Hospital Merger

VIII. Serious Questions about the Health Park

IX. Pride in the River Park Center but Concern about the Price of Tickets

X. Concerns about Other Issues

XI. Developing a Public Voice

XII. Methodology

XIII. About Doble Researh


I. Introduction

This study is part of a process. It was commissioned by three organizations: The Community Life Foundation of Owensboro, Kentucky; the Lawrence and Augusta Hager Educational Foundation; and Audubon Area Community Services, as part of their own ongoing, joint effort to:

* Strengthen the link between their individual programs and public perceptions of need;

* Support the development of a community climate which values the open deliberation of diverse viewpoints on concerns affecting Owensboro-Daviess County's future;

* Stimulate the engagement of a broader cross-section of local citizens in addressing local issues.

The organizations contacted Doble Research, a New York-area consulting firm which specializes in analyzing public opinion from a strictly nonpartisan perspective, and then working as a catalyst to help foundations and government agencies understand, and develop strategies to respond to, the "disconnect" between the public and the public sector. We were asked to use focus groups to conduct an in-depth study of public opinion that would build on a September 1998 public opinion poll conducted by Preston-Osborne for the Owensboro-Daviess County Chamber of Commerce and The Messenger Inquirer.

We convened and conducted four, three-hour-long focus groups with residents who live in and outside the City of Owensboro. Our assignment was to flesh out, or "put flesh on the bones" of, the results of the Preston-Osborne survey, which we studied extensively prior to conducting the groups.

On the pages that follow, we lay out our findings from the focus groups, beginning with participants' perceptions about the quality of life in Owensboro-Daviess County. Next, we describe participants' biggest, overriding concern, which has to do with how decisions are made in the community, followed by their feelings about what they saw as the most pressing issues facing the community.

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II. Executive Summary

Participants in the focus groups expressed nearly unparalleled satisfaction with the quality of life in the area, saying people are exceptionally friendly and generous, crime is low, the cost of living is affordable, and the area is, altogether, a good place to live and raise a family.

Participants had one serious, intensely felt, overriding concern: How decisions are made in the community. Again and again, participants said the major decisions are made by a small group of influential people, a "clique," who carry on behind the scenes, with minimal public input. As a result, they said, decisions on key issues generally benefit a few people instead of the community as a whole. Instead of being paramount and top priority, the greater, broad, public interest is, participants said, regularly subordinated to the interests of small segments of the community. These sentiments were equally pronounced among residents of Owensboro and more rural Daviess County.

The need for good paying jobs is a top priority, participants said, and efforts should be made to attract business and industry to the area. While generally pleased with the deal to bring Scott Towels to the community, participants also said they did not understand what was offered and felt that the community had been oversold on the benefits.

While many participants said "health care" is a major problem, they did not always agree on what the problem is. In the Preston-Osborne survey, 20 percent said "access to quality health care" is a very serious issue. But participants' comments suggest that cost, choice, spending priorities, and the treatment people receive because they lack health insurance or because they know or don't know "the right people" are also concerns. Moreover, people have concerns about the hospital merger and the new Health Park. And so, this most complex topic would, therefore, seem to be an issue that people need to deliberate about before they can render an informed, logically consistent judgment.

Participants were strongly opposed to the recent hospital merger, saying it meant less choice and lower quality care. There was almost no sense that the merger had, or would lead to, savings. People were also concerned about the Health Park, saying it was far too expensive for most people. In both cases, participants felt that the decision-making process was essentially closed to the public and therefore many felt that the merger decision and the construction of the Health Park did not reflect, or serve, the broad, general public interest.

Participants pointed with pride to the River Park Center as a real community asset. But people also felt that the price of tickets is so high that the facility is, in effect, out of reach for many members of the community.

The most pressing result, and the concern that participants raised again and again, is their belief that the broad, general, public interest is not decision-maker's top priority, and that the public's interest is not well articulated or represented when key leaders make the most important decisions. Participants therefore saw a need for voices that ask tough questions and that act as a check on "the powers that be." This sentiment was pronounced among those who live in and outside the city of Owensboro. Participants' sentiments on this point were not an expression of support for any individual, but rather a call for the concept of independent voices that have, as their top priority, the public interest.

In sum, the results suggest that absent the development of a deliberative process that leads people to believe the public interest is well represented, ordinary people will continue to feel, and probably increasingly feel, that they have little or no say in the most important decisions made in community. Though they did not use these words, participants suggested that absent genuine efforts to engage the community in a deliberative process leading to the development of a public voice, the people of Owensboro-Daviess County will increasingly feel that they have little or no say in the community-wide decisions that affect their lives, their standard of living, and their quality of life.

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III. A Good Place to Live and Raise a Family

In a September 1998 survey conducted for the Owensboro-Daviess County Chamber of Commerce and the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, Preston-Osborne Research of Lexington found that residents believe Owensboro-Daviess County is a good place to live.

A solid majority, 57 percent, said the Owensboro-Daviess County area offers a better quality of life than in most communities. Only 5 percent said it was worse.

Six out of ten said their household economic standing had improved over the past five years while only nine percent said it had declined.

When asked about the future, 55 percent said Daviess County will be a better place to live five years from now while only 11 percent said it will be worse.

Participants in the four, three-hour-long focus groups conducted by Doble Research echoed these sentiments, expressing an unusually high degree of satisfaction with life in the area. Nearly everyone said Owensboro is a nice place to live and a good place to raise a family.

Friendly, Caring People: Focus group participants said the main reason why they like living in the community is because of the people. The residents of Daviess County, participants said, are friendly, considerate, caring people who are involved with their church and their community and who give of themselves generously. In the focus groups, participants provided one example after another of how the community has come together to provide support for its members. One woman spoke about the effort to raise funds for an expensive operation for a little girl:

The people here are very generous. They said the money for Allison Williams' operation couldn't be raised in 60 days, and we managed to do it in five. It's just great how people here reach out.

A truck driver said people in Daviess County are friendlier than in other parts of the country:

If you go through a big town, you'd better know where you're going or be lost forever because in big towns, people [won't help you out]. They're more likely to say, 'Get out my way!' I think, personally, the people here are more friendly.

Safety and Security: People said the community has a very low crime rate and that they feel safe and secure living there. In fact, safety was a primary reason why many said they like the area. People spoke about living free from the fear of crime in a way that people in other communities in the United States have not been able to do for decades. One man said:

Here tonight [outside the meeting place], my car is not locked now. I've got a van at the house, and it's not locked. [In fact] the keys are in it.

A woman said she had moved to Owensboro-Daviess County because of its low crime rate:

When we [lived] in Memphis, our family had all been the victims of crime. My husband actually got shot at a couple of times on the expressway. We got on the Internet and looked up places around the country [with a low crime rate], and Owensboro came up. [The] low crime rate is the main reason [we moved here]. We wanted a safe place to raise a family.

Another woman who had moved back to Owensboro after a few years away said:

When my family was in Los Angeles, I was afraid [of strangers breaking into my home]. Here, I'm never afraid. When I'm sitting in my home alone, every night, with my front door standing open, I think, 'Thank God I live here.' Because I've got my little boy asleep, and I'm not afraid.

A third woman said:

We don't have murders on the news every night. We don't have drive-by shootings. We don't hear about gang wars. You just don't hear about that stuff much.

Affordable: Participants also said the Owensboro area has a lower, more affordable cost of living than in most of the country. One man said:

I believe firmly that this is the cheapest place in the United States to live when you compare our rentals to what people pay elsewhere. The cost of our gasoline, the cost of land, the cost of our food is low. You can play golf here for $12 or $15. You go two or three hundred miles from here and you suddenly spend a hundred dollars trying to play a round of golf -- it's ridiculous.

Another man said the cost of living made Owensboro a great place for retired people:

It's easy to [retire in] Owensboro because [your retirement income means] you can afford the lower cost of living and a better quality of life for your family.

The Right Size: A number of participants said the community's size is just right, not too big and not too small. As a result, they said, residents enjoy the advantages of an urban area without excessive crowding and congestion. A woman said:

I believe the city has grown up at just the right pace. It's not too fast, not too slow. It's allowed all of us to grow with it.

Another woman spoke about how easy it is to get around:

Everything is so close. You can ride your bike anywhere. You can go downtown to see a play, and you're not stuck in traffic for an hour getting there and back.

Another woman said:

People who live here don't want to be in the fast lane. They don't like the fast pace of the big cities

Location, Location: A number of participants spoke favorably of the area because of its climate and geography, saying they enjoy experiencing the four seasons. Others noted that the area is accessible to Evansville while being surrounded by a wealth of natural territory that permits people to take advantage of the outdoors. A woman said:

I'm just thrilled with the town. . . . It's big enough to allow us to shop and there's a lot to do. We're close to Evansville. Yet, we're small enough so that we can commune with nature when we want to.

A man explained how, in terms of its locale, the area is beyond compare:

Whenever my wife and I talk about moving away from Kentucky, I usually suggest moving to the Gulf States since I love the water. Then we think: 'Well, they're having terrible storms.' So how about moving west into the mountains? 'No, they have some serious winters out there, we don't want any of that.' Then we talk about some other places, but end up saying this one's too hot, that one's too dry, this one's too high. Pretty soon, the idea fades away.

A Good Place to Raise a Family: Finally, participants said they liked the area because it is family-oriented. A career truck driver said:

I've traveled lots of roads and seen a lot of different places also, and I keep coming back here. It's a good place to live and to raise a family.

A woman said:

Kids [in other parts of the country] get in trouble, but my kids, I feel safe with them in school here. You hear about kids [elsewhere] taking guns to school, but I feel safe with them in our schools and around Owensboro.

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IV. One Pressing, Overarching Concern: How Decisions Are Made in the Community

Their satisfaction with the quality of life notwithstanding, participants voiced one overarching concern that touched on, or encompassed, numerous issues: the way in which major decisions are made in the community. This sentiment was also evidenced in the Preston-Osborne survey which found 61 percent saying the community is mainly "controlled by a few powerful people" versus 38 percent who said Owensboro/Daviess County is a community that is generally "open to people of all walks of life."

Participants in all four focus groups, including people who live within and outside the city limits of Owensboro, complained that on issue after issue, major decisions in the community are made by a small number of influential people. "The most important decisions in Owensboro-Daviess County," one man said to general agreement, "are decided the way that they've always been decided -- by an old boy network, a small clique." A woman agreed, saying:

The people [at the top] seem to have a little clique. If you're not in that clique of certain people [to begin with], you'll never going to [gain entry].

Another man complained that dissenting voices are ignored. "If [the powers-that-be] get somebody in there who disagrees with them and thinks they are wrong, they just won't [listen]."

Participants' comments in the focus groups are consistent with the poll results. Indeed, the Preston-Osborne survey found that a majority, 53 percent, said they cannot do much to impact the community, with 35 percent saying "I would probably not be able to impact this community if I tried" and 18 percent saying "I definitely would not be able to impact this community even if I wanted to."

Some participants described what they saw as a "tell-and-sell" process that attempts to persuade the public, not engage it. One man, who complained about the influence of what he called "old money," said:

The old money [crowd] decides what they want to happen. And then they try to convince the community that it's what we need.

A woman said there are inauthentic efforts to manipulate and falsely persuade members of the community that they are the ones who are setting priorities:

We need to eliminate the pre-decisions of the "cliquey counsels" and [to stop them] from coming to the community and saying [to us], "It's you, the community, who makes these things happen. So come and tell us what you want."

Participants said that while the decision-making process may seem to be open to the public, it is, in fact, not open at all. Even though there may be forums where people can make their voice heard on a major issue, the voice of people like themselves, participants said, will not be listened to. "We go through the motions" instead of genuinely involving the public, one man said. In response to a question from the moderator, a woman said, "I think that what we're saying is that our voices don't make a difference." A man complained about the decision-making process regarding healthcare:

They can say, "Let's get input from the community." But it all boils down to one committee [that's already set up]. Usually, one man runs that committee. And so "the people" don't have any say about [the issue], whether it's health insurance or the health services they are putting out, or whatever [the decision may be].

With virtual unanimity, participants said that while people like themselves can make themselves heard, they probably would not be able to influence important decisions being made in the community. To general agreement, one man said:

I think you could go to [the powers that be] and make a complaint. You could get in to do that. But I don't know that you'd be listened to or get any results from it.

Another man talked about the importance of knowing the right people:

Here, we've got good old boy politics still. [To get something done] it's who you know, and it always has been. And it hasn't changed.

Commenting about the effort to bring a major employer to the area, one man said:

There were [efforts to get] public input around the Scott deal. There were meetings about it and maybe ten people showed up. People didn't come because they know the [decision has already been made and that the] city has a cut-and-dry attitude.

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V. The Need for Good Paying Jobs

In addition to high marks for its quality of life, the Preston-Osborne survey found that six out of ten Daviess County residents feel that their own economic standing has improved over the last five years. But the comments made by participants in the focus groups suggest that this result should not be interpreted to mean that people are totally satisfied with their own situation or with economic opportunity in Daviess County.

Almost without exception, participants said that Daviess County has plenty of jobs for those who want to work. The problem, they said, is an extremely limited supply of good-paying positions. They said the community had become a "minimum wage hub," filled with lots of fast food, retail, and agricultural jobs -- jobs that do not pay a wage which can support a family, jobs that do not come with benefits, especially health insurance. A man said:

There's a lot [of new jobs] coming in here but I think it's more difficult to get a really good paying job for a man, someone who's a breadwinner. I mean, there are a few, but they are few and far between. A lot of the jobs offered by the big corporations are only paying seven or eight or nine dollars an hour.

Several participants said the reason why people are able to make ends meet is because the cost of living in the county is comparatively low. One man said:

The income is low and so is the cost of living. If you want more [income], you have to [take on] an extra job.

Participants felt that attracting new business to the area should be a top priority. A woman said to general agreement that offering businesses tax incentives "is the only way you're going to get them here." A man agreed, saying:

There are a lot of benefits when those companies come in -- tax base, school base. Plus you are bringing in people who are going to buy homes. I think [bringing in new business] is the only game in town.

The discussion about attracting industry led some to consider the impact of growth. Already concerned about traffic and congestion, some participants speculated about other potentially negative effects, such as more crime. As they deliberated, some worried whether new business and industry would detract from the rich community life that area residents enjoy. A woman said:

If [bringing in more industry] is going to ruin our nice towns, if [a new firm] is going to come in and pollute the rivers, I'd just as soon that they not come. I think that's the way a lot of people feel around here.

A man said:

If we were to attract some big business, corporations, and factories here and they suddenly raised our earnings up a third, it won't take very long for our expenditure to go up a third. Then we would have the same thing we've got now, just more zeros [at the end of our paychecks], and more crime and drugs [to go with it].

Nonetheless, most concluded that the community should make a continued effort to attract new employers. Indeed, when they were asked what is the biggest issue facing the area, people in the Preston-Osborne survey ranked jobs/unemployment as their top concern.

In two of the focus groups, we asked people to imagine that they could go into a time machine, then asked them to decide whether they would offer the incentives that brought Kimberly Clark, formerly Scott Towels, to the area, knowing all they know now, including how many jobs would be involved. Participants said with virtual unanimity that if they had to do it again, they would try to attract Kimberly Clark.

At the same time, participants also said they did not have a clear idea of the incentives or terms that were offered. And several suggested that the community had been "oversold" about the benefits that would result. But while acknowledging that every expectation may not have been met, one man said to general agreement:

If 600 people get a job, that's 600 more that didn't have one. If they promised 1000 and they only have 600, that's still 600 more than you had.

Finally, several noted that the process of taking the issue to the public and trying to get public input, though not all that it might have been, was more extensive with this decision that with a number of others. One man said:

I think, yeah, they made more of an effort to receive community input around that deal than they did around the River Park Center and the Health Park.

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VI. The Need for Affordable, Quality Health Care for Everyone

Participants in all four groups named health care as a priority issue. In the discussions, people approached the topic from different vantage points, with some describing their own experiences, others relating stories told by friends or neighbors, and still others discussing changes in the health care system that they had read or heard about. Instead of one narrow issue, participants had several concerns, including:

• The many people in the area who have no health insurance and who, therefore, may be denied the care they need;

• The high cost of care;

• Limitations by insurers on the kind of care that will be provided;

• A sense that the community's health care priorities are out a line;

• A belief that only some people get top quality care.

Here are some representative comments. A man talked about a friend who he felt was denied life saving care because he had no insurance:

My friend was a 24-year-old farmer who had a heart problem. The hospital told him he had muscle spasms and sent him home. He died that night. They should've kept him, but he didn't have insurance [and so they sent him home]. If you've got the money you get serviced, and that's not right.

A woman who was unhappy with both the quality and cost of her care said:

I had an accident a few weeks ago and I got some x-rays. I sat there for two hours to get in, then two hours to get the x-rays, then another hour [waiting] for someone to look them over. A guy came in and glanced at them and charged me eighty dollars. It's infuriating to me for a guy to take a few minutes to read my x-rays and charge me eighty dollars.

A man complained about health care plans that he felt placed inappropriate limits on the kind of care members receive:

The administrators [of managed care plans] are making the medical decisions and that's wrong, wrong, wrong. The only person [who should] make a medical decision is the doctor [in consultation with] the patient.

A woman was unhappy about what she saw as unfair limits that insurers place on high tech procedures and expensive treatments:

A lot of times, the doctors and nurses can't do their job properly because the insurance companies guide what care can be given according to the costs. Like the little girl in the paper -- her insurance company was paying for her [care] until they found out she need a certain type of bone marrow transplant. They stopped [providing coverage] because it cost two hundred thousand dollars.

Another woman said that her health care plan would no longer pay for visits to a physician she had gone to for many years:

My Ob-Gyn has this page of insurance companies that she won't take. I've been going to her since I was 15 and now I can't because they don't take my insurance. They said I'd have to pay for everything up front before they even give me a pregnancy test.

We also heard criticism about the area's health care priorities. A man said they need to be reordered because too many dollars are spent on expensive, after-the-fact procedures and treatments, and not enough is spent on prevention and wellness:

We go in and we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on [therapy for] a guy [who has head injuries] because he wouldn't wear his helmet [while riding his motorcycle.]. But we let these poor kids run around here without a dentist and without someone to check their eyes or ears. It isn't right for the kids to suffer because somebody wants to do what they want.

Finally, more than one person volunteered that not everyone gets the highest quality when they are hospitalized. Two people suggested that, like many other things in the community, the care you receive depends on who you know -- if you know the right people, they said, you will receive top quality care. One man said:

[The quality of the care you get] depends on who you know. My dad's wife is an administrator at the hospital. When my wife had our baby, she walked into the room. Once [the doctors and staff] found out that our baby is her step-grandchild, we got the best care you could imagine.

A woman echoed this theme:

I was very fortunate because, when my son had his accident, I knew his surgeon. I knew a lot of people in the health care field who looked after him.

In sum, while many saw health care as a problem, participants did not always agree on what the problem is. In the Preston-Osborne survey, 20 percent said "access to quality health care" is a very serious issue. But participants' comments suggest that cost, and choice, and health care priorities, and the treatment people receive because they lack health insurance or because they know or don't know "the right people," are all also public concerns. As we detail below, participants also voiced concern about the hospital merger and the new Health Park. And so, this most complex topic would, therefore, seem to be an issue that people need to deliberate about before they can render an informed, logically consistent judgment.

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VII. Discontent about the Hospital Merger

There was a pronounced sense among participants in all four groups that the recent hospital merger was not in the community's best interests. To general agreement, a man said, "When they had the merger, it hurt the community." Commenting about the old Mercy Hospital, a woman asked, "Why would anyone destroy a perfectly good facility?" A woman said that with only one hospital "everybody is getting less attention." A man said:

My grandmother wouldn't go to the Daviess County [hospital]. She would go to the old Mercy Hospital because the nursing staff and doctors were nicer. What I don't understand is why they closed that one down when that's where everybody ran to when they had an emergency?

As a result of the merger, participants said that a patient's choice has been taken away. A man said, "When your choices are limited, then you begin to hurt. It's supply and demand." A woman said:

I'm not Catholic and none of my family is Catholic. But now, that's the only option I've got -- to go to a Catholic hospital. I'm not Catholic, but I'll have my baby in a Catholic hospital. Because there is only one hospital.

In addition to a lack of choice, others said there is now, with only one hospital, a lack of competition and that, as a result, the quality of health care has been reduced. One man said, "Now that we have only one hospital, I hear everybody saying that the quality of medical attention has gone down."

Another man said the merger has led to shortages of skilled personnel and generally lower standards:

I went in for a stomach problem and the head nurse told me they're shorthanded because of the merger. She then tried to take my blood. After three or four minutes of probing, the phlebotomist walked in and [the nurse] told him she couldn't get the tube filled. He said, "Well that's a purple cap. You're only supposed to fill it up half way." [The head nurse] didn't know what she was doing.

What was striking in the discussions was that with very few exceptions, including a nurse, no one felt that the merger has helped contain costs, let alone resulted in savings. To the contrary, people said that while they had been promised the merger would lead to savings, those benefits have not materialized. Indeed, some believe that costs have risen faster than they would have without the merger because of the elimination of competition. A woman said, "It seems to me that the cost to go into the hospital since we've gone to just one hospital has gone up a great deal."

Participants also voiced complaints about how the decision was made, saying the hospital merger was decided by a handful of influential people and that the community as a whole did not have a voice in the decision. A man said:

There was no input from the public. They were making a business decision and what we had to say about it really didn't matter.

Another man said that officials had not been honest with the community about what would happen:

Originally, Owensboro-Daviess County was in trouble, and Mercy was going to come to our rescue if they merged. The kicker was that Mercy had a really great Birthing Center and Daviess County didn't. They went through this big campaign saying that Owensboro-Mercy is going to save Owensboro-Daviess County Hospital. And the end result is that one got saved and one got swallowed. And the Birthing Center got torn down.

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VIII. Serious Questions about the Health Park

In each group, the topic of the new Health Park came up and nearly everyone in all four groups said the facility was "not built for people like themselves." The primary reason participants gave for not joining, or planning to join, was the price. To nodding heads indicating general agreement around the table, one man said, "It is too expensive for me." Another man said, "I don't know anyone who can afford the place." A woman said, "It was not built for people like us."

There was a broad sense that the design of the Health Park was overly expensive. One man said, "It's hard to justify spending so much money to build the place." Several participants complained about the swimming pool, saying it is much bigger and more costly than it needed to be. Speaking for the members of one group, a man asked, "Why do people need an Olympic size swimming pool for therapy?" Another man complained about how the pool use is administered:

They have a nice swimming pool there that's Olympic sized, but you have to pay even to watch the high school teams swim. You used to just be able to walk in and watch them, now you have to pay to watch them.

A number of people also said that, instead of adding resources to the community, the Health Park offers the same services that are provided by the YMCA, but at a much higher fee. Indeed, one person who claimed to be knowledgeable said the Health Park charges three times as much as the YMCA charges for essentially the same services.

We should note, however, that hardly any of the participants had actually toured the Health Park, or even visited. Moreover, there was broad agreement that the community needs more educational programs about safety, preventive medicine, and proper nutrition, and that an emphasis on wellness, which is the Health Park's focus, would be beneficial. One man suggested that public opinion about the Health Park would evolve, just as it has with the River Park Center, with initial opposition and concerns about cost gradually melting away as Daviess County residents came to see what a valuable community resource it is.

However, the overwhelming sentiment in all four groups was that, as a result of the high fees, the average person will be unable to afford to participate in the programs and activities offered at the Health Park. And, participants said, the decision to design and build the Health Park was, to paraphrase one man, made by a few for the benefit of a few. The decision, they felt, did not reflect what the community wanted, and the Health Park, they felt, will not serve the broad, public interest of Daviess County.

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IX. Pride in the River Park Center but Concern about the Price of Tickets

Most participants saw the River Park Center as a valuable asset to the community. Nearly all of the focus group participants had attended at least one program or event at the River Park Center. People like the fact that in addition to attending entertainment programs, they can also use the River Park Center for community functions. Participants had attended a variety of community meetings and events, including receptions, reunions, and church functions. "I went to a graduation there, and there has been a couple of weddings there that I know of," a woman said. A man said, "I went to a seminar there." A woman said, "I got the chance to go and watch my son at his prom."

People especially liked the Center's programs for young people, saying school children use it regularly. One woman said, "It's good because it's teaching the kids culture, and they need that kind of exposure." A man said that even though he resented the fact that he had to rent a tuxedo to attend, it was a thrill to see his daughter perform with her school orchestra before a big crowd there one evening. Another woman said:

I went with a school group to see [a theatrical performance]. A grant paid for the kids to go. They never would have gotten to see something like that before. It was nice for those kids to see something in a place like that.

Participant also said the River Park Center attracts tourists, saying big name stars draw people from the entire region. To general agreement, one man said:

It draws talent into the area. It's a form of industry. It brings people here to spend money.

But though there is much they liked about the River Park Center, in group after group, participants voiced concern about the price of tickets, saying the programs there are out of reach for many, many people. A man said, "When we talk about the River Park Center, we're talking about a night life that the majority of the people in this town will not do because they can't afford it." Another man said, "I listen to classical music all the time, but I would never go down there, it's out of my price league." A woman said, "When Dolly Parton came, they were charging fifty-five dollars a ticket and [Dolly] said, "Even I wouldn't pay fifty-five dollars." A farmer said:

A limited number of people from the rural areas are affected by the River Park Center. It's not something that people from here do. Rural people may eat out once a week, but we don't do this type of thing.

Many participants felt that the decision to build the River Park Center, like other major decisions, was made by a handful of influential people, not by the community as a whole. While saying that, in hindsight, the River Park Center is, on balance, beneficial to the community, the decision-making process about whether and what to build was, they said, controlled by a small number of people. And the final result is a facility that, though a real community asset, is not "for" a lot of people in the area because the price of tickets is simply too high.

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X. Concerns about Other Issues

Beyond the issues of jobs, health care, and economic development, participants voiced concern about other issues, including the following:

Issues Related to Young People: In the Preston-Osborne survey, just over one in four, 27 percent, said the community is unsupportive of young people. When asked near the end of the survey to rank the most important issues, "support for young people (safety/activities)" was at the very top of the list. Moreover, "drug abuse and related crimes" and "juvenile crime" were both named as a serious problem by sizable minorities.

In every group, participants talked about young people and many expressed concerned over the lack activities for young people besides going to the movies or hanging out. A mother said, "When it comes to recreation, there's nothing for children my age, or any age [to do]." A man said:

Oh, there's plenty for young people to do if you like bowling or going to the movies. The problem is that the town rolls up at ten and young people can't do anything that they want to do.

While many were concerned about young people not having enough to do, an even deeper concern was the sense that there has been a marked decline in respect by young people toward adults. People said that disrespect has become common for a number of reasons, including restrictions that prohibit parents from correcting their children appropriately and openly. One woman said:

Too many parents are afraid to discipline their children for fear of what might happen. They're afraid that child abuse services might come knocking at their door.

Another factor people cited is a new attitude among parents toward teachers. One man asked, "How many parents do you know who have taken their little child back to the school and confronted that teacher with, "What have you done to my child?'" Participants also cited the influence of offensive television shows and song lyrics, and the fact that more and more households are headed by single parents or two-wage earners who have less time to supervise their children. A man said:

When I was a teenager, if I was out in town doing something wrong, throwing trash cans or something, there would be an older gentleman who'd say, "Hey, pick that up!" And if I did something wrong in my neighborhood, my mom knew about it before I got home.

City-County Tensions: Participants acknowledged the existence of a riff between residents of Owensboro and the outlying parts of Daviess County. "They're two different species," one man said, referring to the people who live in the city and in the county. Participants said city and county residents face disparate tax burdens and receive different levels of service. A woman said, "We paid $65, 000 for our house, and my mom paid $150, 000 for hers and our taxes are the same as hers, almost." A man said:

But if there's a fire or an emergency, in the city there's a quicker response. Out in the county, they have a volunteer fire station. In the city, their firefighters are paid.

Child Care: Some participants talked about the need for affordable, high quality child care. One man said, "Day care centers cost about sixty bucks a week." In many communities, affordable child care is especially difficult for the working poor, whose incomes are limited to begin with, to find. The lack of child care, therefore, can be a nearly insurmountable obstacle facing people who want to enter the workforce and become economically self-supporting. In the Preston-Osborne poll, nearly one out of ten, 9 percent, rated access to child care as a very serious problem.

Education: Some participants complained about the quality of public education in the area. A woman said, "My grand-kids just moved back here from North Carolina and they did so much better there." Several people complained about what they saw as low standards. One man said, "As an employer, I've run into too many young people who are not trained in the basics." A man complained that the city schools in particular are underachieving:

The county schools seem to be rated higher than the city schools. They had in the paper not too long ago that the city finished at the bottom, behind the county schools. They were not equal.

In the Preston-Osborne survey, one out of seven, 14 percent, said that access to quality education at the elementary and high school level is a serious problem.

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XI. Developing a Public Voice

When participants discussed decision-making in the community, their comments invariably turned to the local political climate. Several commented on what one woman said were "heated exchanges on television." Indeed, the Preston-Osborne poll found that 48 percent are unhappy with the political environment at city hall.

A number of participants complained about local governmental proceedings, saying it is unhealthy for the community to have what one woman called "constant bickering and arguing" among city commission members. Another woman said "the televised spectacle makes Owensboro look like a joke" to outsiders who, she said, probably tune in have a good laugh. A third woman said:

The one thing that bothers me has been the conflict between the mayor and city commissioner. It seems like every time I read the paper or turned on the television, it was just like a circus.

Despite their concern about bickering and conflict, most participants said there is a need to ask tough, challenging questions. Their reasoning was as follows: "Decisions are being made by a small group of influential people who probably are primarily concerned about what's best for themselves, not the community as a whole. And so the common or public interest, which should be the highest priority, is at best a secondary concern. Moreover, since the decision-making process is not open to the public, there is an acute need for more voices -- independent, skeptical voices, which have, as their chief concern, the broad, general, public interest." To general agreement, one man said:

I think we need somebody in there, not so much to raise Cain, as to make the city stop and think, 'Do we really need to do what we are doing?'

We should emphasize that participants were not necessarily endorsing any individual. Rather, they felt that the broader, public interest is not the highest priority, that it is not being served on decisions involving health care, economic development, and other issues. With virtual unanimity and without endorsing anyone, those who live inside and outside the city limits said the public is well served when there are other voices at the table -- independent, questioning voices that are chiefly concerned about the broad, general, common public interest. One woman said:

[The voice should be from] an outside source. It would have to be from the middle class, instead of the upper class. Or maybe even the lower class.

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XII. Methodology

A Word About Methodology: Focus groups, and other qualitative research methods, have particular strengths and limitations. They are especially useful in exploring people's thinking about complex issues, including the depth of people's feelings and how people feel as they learn more, hear new ideas, and consider other points of view. However, since the sample is small and the questioning open-ended, focus groups are not used to generate the same kind of statistical data, calculable within a precise margin of sampling error, that survey research or polls yield.

Doble Research regularly use survey research in combination with focus groups and other qualitative methods. In this case, however, Preston-Osborne had recently conducted a telephone survey of 400 randomly selected adults from Daviess County. And so, in this project, we used the Preston-Osborne survey results much as we would our own polling data, that is, as a starting point, to help us frame the qualitative research. It is no exaggeration to say we studied that survey or, metaphorically, that we climbed up onto the shoulders of that study so that we could see a little farther and more clearly.

Background Research: Before convening the focus groups, we conducted background research to inform ourselves about Daviess County that included reading:

Excerpts from Neal Pierce's CitiStates: How Urban America Can Prosper in a Competitive World;

A summary of issues compiled by local historian, Dr. Lee Dew, and an excerpt from his book, Owensboro, the City on the Yellow Banks;

A October 1998 summary of contemporary issues prepared for The Community Life Foundation by Keith Lawrence;

The October 1998 Vote Guide put out by the Messenger Inquirer.

We also conducted, for background, seven, in-depth telephone interviews, lasting from 30 to 45 minutes, with leaders from the sponsoring organizations and ten interviews with other community leaders. To encourage candor, we assured these leaders that they would not be quoted and that the interviews would be anonymous.

Four Focus Groups: We convened and conducted four focus groups, each lasting three hours, with cross sections of between 8 and 13 residents of Owensboro-Daviess County. Each group was demographically representative in terms of age, gender, and education level. Thirty-eight of the total of 41 respondents in the focus groups were recruited randomly, using random digit dialing, through a subcontract with two nationally respected interviewing firms: Southern Research Services, in Louisville, KY, and Tulsa Surveys, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. To ensure that the entire sample would be broadly inclusive and that all important voices in the community would be heard, we invited three African-American community members who were referred to us by the Community Life Foundation.

The first two sessions involved residents of both the city of Owensboro and surrounding Daviess County. A third group was made up only of city residents, and a fourth of only Daviess County residents who live outside Owensboro. As noted, a total of 41 adults were interviewed in the four groups. The questioning was largely open-ended, with the moderators taking their lead by the opinions people expressed and the intensity of their feelings about various issues. The groups were conducted on November 30, December 1 and December 2, 1998 from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. at Kentucky Wesleyan College and were moderated by Damon Higgins and John Doble of Doble Research.

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XIII. About Doble Research

Ordinary public opinion polls yield a snapshot of public opinion at a given point in time. They measure what people think, using exact question wording. Polling has many uses. But it has its limitations too, because public opinion, instead of being fixed and immutable, is often dynamic and

contextual. Especially when it comes to complex issues or new ideas, the formation of public opinion is a process -- a work in progress as opposed to a still life.

At Doble Research, we map people's thinking. We identify the public's "starting point"-- what people think about an issue, before learning more. Then we lay out how people's thinking changes as they learn about an issue, consider other points of view, and have time to deliberate about it.

Using focus groups, in-depth interviews, and carefully crafted, "working-through" questionnaires that underscore realistic tradeoffs, we analyze how people feel and why. From a strictly nonpartisan perspective, we give clients an in-depth blueprint of how and why people feel as they do - a map, not a snapshot.

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Clients and partner organizations:


The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation

The Community Life Foundation of Owensboro

The Fetzer Institute

The Walter and Elise Haas Fund

The Hager Educational Foundation, Owensboro, KY

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

The Kellogg Foundation

The Kettering Foundation

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation

The Pew Charitable Trust

The Seva Foundation


Government Agencies

Board of Pardons and Parole, State of Georgia

Department of Corrections, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Environmental Protection Agency, EPA

Governor's Family Council, State of Delaware

The Indiana Department of Corrections

National Institute of Corrections, NIC

National Institute of Justice, NIJ

National Parks Service, Nebraska

Vermont Department of Corrections

Vermont Commission on Public Healthcare Values and Priorities


Public Service Organizations

Audubon Area Community Services, Owensboro, KY

The Buckeye Association for School Administrators

The Center for Effective Public Policy

The Cleveland Summit on Education

The Council of Governors' Policy Advisors

The Council of State Governments, East Regional Office

The Educational and Social Science Consortium

The General Federation of Women's Clubs

Institute on Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota

The National Collegiate Honors Council

The National Conference of State Legislatures

The National Academy of Social Insurance

The National Environmental Policy Institute

The National Issue Forums

The Oklahoma State-Centered Project

The Points of Light Foundation

Public Agenda

The Southern Regional Council

The South Carolina State-Centered Project

The Study Circle Resources Center

Weavings, A Journal of Christian Spiritual Life

The Western Governors' Association



The State of Indiana The State of South Carolina

The State of New Hampshire The State of Vermont

The State of North Carolina

The State of Oregon

Colleges and Universities

The Mershon Center at Ohio State University

The University of Delaware



Simon and Schuster, Prentice Hall Division

Weiner's Stores, Inc.


About the authors:

John Doble is a political scientist with more than 20 years' experience analyzing public opinion about policy issues. He has presented research findings at the White House, on Capitol Hill, to a host of federal and state officials, and at the National Press Club. His articles about public opinion have appeared in Foreign Affairs (coauthored with Daniel Yankelovich), Technology Review, Judicature, Public Opinion, Kettering Review, The Public Understanding of Science, The Scientist, and Public Opinion Quarterly, among other publications. Prior to founding Doble Research, he was vice president and director of research at Public Agenda, a not-for-profit research and educational institute headed by Cyrus Vance and Daniel Yankelovich. Mr. Doble has a Master of Arts degree in political science from the University of Delaware.

Damon Higgins, Vice President, has written or coauthored Doble Research reports about education, the family, health care, race relations, crime and corrections, and retirement, among many other issues. With John Doble, Mr. Higgins has presented the results of studies at the National Press Club, at the White House, on Capitol Hill, and at numerous federal and state agencies. Mr. Higgins is a former assistant program officer at the Kettering Foundation, where he directed numerous projects to increase citizen participation in politics. After graduating from Oberlin College,

Mr. Higgins earned a Master of Arts degree in public policy at the University of Chicago, where he was awarded Patricia Roberts Harris and Alfred P. Sloan Fellowships.

Dizery Salim, Research Associate, has conducted research for the National Collegiate Honors Council, the National Issues Forums, and the Cedar Rapids Department of Corrections, among other Doble Research clients. Ms. Salim is a cum laude graduate of Barnard College at Columbia University, where she majored in political science. A native of Malaysia, Ms. Salim was educated in Tripoli, London, and Los Angeles. She previously worked as an intern at Hearst New Media Technology in New York City, investigating health and alternative medicine on the World Wide Web. Fluent in French and Malay as well as English, Ms. Salim was an intern at Doble Research prior to becoming a full-time staff member.

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