The heart of the city is ground zero for revitalization these days.
by Laurie Wink
America’s downtowns were once vibrant hubs for business and entertainment. The advent of our car-centric culture–fueled by creation of the nationwide highway system–led to suburban sprawl and shopping centers. The historic cores of cities fell out of favor and languished.
Over the last decade, downtowns have been making a comeback. City officials recognize the hearts of their cities can be the pulse of community economic revitalization. Public/private partnerships are driving downtown facelifts of historic properties and streetscapes.
Popular elements of today’s downtown turnarounds are: pathways for walking and biking, fine dining, micro-breweries, specialty shops, residential developments and year-round activities that draw people into vibrant central gathering places.
As each community strives to carve out a unique identity, the branding process is central. The idea is to come up with a few words that capture the essence of a place.
Northwest Indiana Business Quarterly selected five communities in the region that have taken fresh approaches to position themselves for a prosperous future. Here are the communities and their brands.
Valparaiso: Vibrant and Visionary
When Jon Costas became mayor of Valparaiso, downtown revitalization was at the top of his To Do list. Thirteen years later, the city is on its third strategic plan.
“The downtown is the heart of the city,” Costas says. “If it doesn’t beat strong, it affects the entire city. It’s a visible symbol of the area and to leave it to languish is really a shame.”
The Costas administration has brought new life to downtown Valparaiso in phases, investing millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements and initiating a facade grants program to encourage downtown property owners to transform their buildings. Today, the difference is palpable.
“The downtown has changed remarkably and the citizens deeply appreciate it,” Costas says. “More of them are proud of their city. It’s a hot area.”
One key to the new vibrancy is Central Park Plaza, an appealing gathering place located a block from the Old Courthouse Square. The city recently expanded the plaza, adding a $9 million pavilion. The city’s full-time events planner organizes year-round activities and events, including winter skating and the popular downtown movie night, to attract locals and visitors alike.
“A public space is very important to a community,” Costas says. “It sends a message that everyone is welcome here and helps unite the community.”
He’s seeing more empty nesters and Millennials living and working downtown, where they have ready access to events, fine dining, biking and walking pathways. Valparaiso residents can navigate the community without a car by using the local V-Line bus system and can commute to Chicago via the Chicago Dash, which offers four buses a day to and from downtown.
“We’re trying to be a really cool and functional suburb of Chicago,” Costas says of the city of 35,000.
As a measure of its success, Valparaiso is among 15 communities vying for the designation of America’s Best Communities in a contest sponsored by Frontier.
It’s really pretty magical,” Costas says. “Ask any citizen what they like about the city and they’ll mention the downtown. They feel the vibrancy.”
Michigan City: Create. Play. Repeat.
Other communities have looked to Valparaiso as a model for downtown redevelopment, including Michigan City, which hired Planning Director Craig Phillips from Valparaiso’s planning department four years ago.
Michigan City has been engaged in a decade long process of planning and redeveloping the community of 32,000 (50,000 with surrounding beach communities) at the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Last year, a consulting firm used a survey of residents to come up with a new three word brand: Create. Play. Repeat.
The city is executing the final phase of the Lake Michigan Gateway Implementation Strategy that encompasses the Uptown Arts District–a seven- by three-block section of Franklin Street–and the area north to Washington Park on the lakefront. The pending demolition of the outdated police station and a building that housed the local newspaper will open a prime location for private investment in mixed-use spaces.
Phillips and Rich Murphy, the city’s controller and a former city council member, have been key players in Michigan City’s transformation. Murphy and his wife fell in love with the area during vacations and moved to the community 10 years ago to raise their family. At the time, Murphy says, the city was suffering from decades of disinvestment following the loss of significant industries and lacked a strategy for moving forward.
A handful of what Murphy calls “urban pioneers” saw the potential of the downtown and began to restore buildings and bring in new business. The Lubeznik Center for the Arts initiated First Fridays, a monthly event that connects the art center to shops, galleries and restaurants on downtown Franklin Street. The community began to buzz about the importance of downtown to the community’s quality of life.
The city made infrastructure improvements that were foundational for redevelopment. Among the key projects was a major makeover of Michigan Boulevard–one of the main arteries into the city–and a $10 million investment in the Elston Grove historic district.
“Elston Grove was a struggling neighborhood that was perceived as blighted,” Murphy says. “Now it’s an inviting area that’s becoming a neighborhood of choice.”
Murphy and Phillips say Michigan City’s redevelopment gained momentum as a result of the alignment of financial resources, city leadership and changing attitudes among residents. As a city planner, Phillips appreciates the city’s good fortune in keeping the downtown core intact. The recently completed conversion of the landmark, long abandoned Warren Building into the Artspace Uptown Artists Lofts (see related article), has been a springboard for private investment in downtown. Now, nearly all the Franklin Street storefronts are occupied with unique shops, restaurants, art galleries and other businesses.
Four areas of the urban core are now on the national register of historic places: Washington Park, Elston Grove, the Franklin Street Uptown Arts District and the Haskell-Barker Corridor along Wabash Street, paralleling the Lighthouse Premium Outlets mall. By Memorial Day, one-way streets will be converted to two-way traffic. The city is working with the Indiana Department of Transportation to beautify the Highway 12 overpass at Trail Creek near Blue Chip Casino. Efforts are underway to identify suitable locations for public gathering places.
“Now that things look better, we’ve shown the private sector it’s a good place to invest,” Phillips says.
Privately funded projects currently in the works include renovation of the historic South Shore train station on 11th Street, conversion of a former printing business into a microbrewery, and a mixed use development on the site of the former Memorial Hospital.
Murphy says, “There are really positive stories happening in Michigan City. We’ve tapped into a tremendous amount of positive energy in the community. Everybody’s excited because it’s our time.”
Griffith: A Town on the Move
Rick Ryfa grew up in Highland and was living in Atlanta when he decided to move to Griffith so his young family would be closer to his extended family. Ryfa understood the importance of creating a hometown atmosphere to energize the community and has been a key player in making that happen.
Ryfa is president of the Griffith Town Council and was among the new town leaders who took office in 2008. They set out to reverse the town’s downhill slide, focusing on a six block stretch of Broad Street, the most visible part of Griffith for motorists passing through.
“The image (of Griffith) was a dumpy town and blighted area,” Ryfa says. “Broad Street is the gateway into our community. Its poor image carries over into residential neighborhoods and lowers property values.
“The town had hit a point where it had really decayed,” Ryfa says. “Sixty percent of the buildings were vacant. Five buildings needed to be demolished.”
Former town officials had approved plans for improving Broad Street but never implemented them. So Ryfa met with clerk-treasurer George Jerome and resident Glenn Gaby, now deceased, to talk about moving forward. “We drew up plans on a cocktail napkin–really,” he says. “We didn’t spend money on consultants.”
Ryfa and other elected officials use a common sense approach, running the town like a business. In an effort to encourage community buy-in for redevelopment plans, they organized public meetings and conducted a survey of residents. About the same time, a merger of the Canadian National Railway (CNR) with two other railroads compounded train traffic through downtown Griffith. As compensation, the town received a multimillion dollar settlement from CNR and earmarked funds for economic development.
“The CNR settlement provided necessary revenue for a facade project to enhance the aesthetic value of buildings downtown,” Ryfa says. The city also reduced Broad Street from four lanes to two, making way for additional downtown parking.
In 2014, the town council spurred residential improvements by lowering permits to $5. That same year, the town allocated $13 million to pave all residential streets and alleyways. Ryfa says the revamped downtown commercial district has helped to trigger resurgence in the residential real estate market, with affordable home prices attracting more young people.
“There’s been an unprecedented number of residents in their late 20s to 30s,” Ryfa says. “It’s exciting to see.”
Griffith Central Market, located at the heart of the town, is a popular gathering spot for residents and tourists, who are attracted by events such as the annual Rock ‘N Rail festival, a nod to Griffith’s history as a railroad town.
Redevelopment efforts are ongoing. Griffith recently received a Neighborhood Spotlight Grant from the Legacy Foundation to hire a community builder. Town officials are working with Army Corps of Engineers to prepare a former 55-acre golf course for future commercial, retail and industrial use.
Ryfa aptly uses a train analogy to describe the revitalization. “It’s like getting the locomotive going on a train,” he says. “We were able to create an environment where people felt positive.”
Whiting: Refining the Heart of the Community
Whiting is the town that the oil industry built–specifically John Rockefeller of Standard Oil. Today, the BP refinery is “an active and valuable partner for us,” says Joe Stahura, a Whiting native who has been the mayor for 13 years and a councilman for 20 years.
Whiting’s business district is the focal point of the community, but, as in many others, businesses had struggled to survive and others had moved out, leaving empty, decaying buildings.
Early in his first term as mayor, Stahura focused on stabilizing the business district and improving its image. He led the effort to create a strategic plan in 2004-05. It took nearly seven years to create vision, get public input, find funding and implement the plan.
The Whiting Lakefront Park has been central to the city’s turnaround. The historic park fronts on three miles of prime Lake Michigan shoreline with stunning views of the Chicago skyline. Stahura credits Fred Smith, Whiting mayor in the early 1900s, with preserving the 26 acres of land for public use rather than selling it for industrial development. But Stahura says minimum investments were made in Lakefront Park after that and it wasn’t well used.
“A 10-foot pile of rubble blocked the view of the lake and Chicago,” he says. “Weed trees had been allowed to grow in the park.”
In 2009, Whiting secured a $19.3 million grant from the Regional Development Authority (RDA) that attracted another $50 million in financing for a major redevelopment of the lakefront.
“The RDA was absolutely critical,” Stahura says. “We couldn’t have done it without their support. We used RDA funds to leverage local funds and then go after private investments.”
Whiting Lakefront Park has turned into a regional attraction, with a boardwalk, fishing pier, boat harbor and a recreational trail network. The Oil City Stadium hosts Little League teams.
Stahura says Whiting Lakefront Park is attracting an “absolutely unbelievable” number of visitors. “It’s beyond our wildest dreams,” he says.
The city is in discussions to lease property for development of lakefront restaurants. And plans are underway for a 25,000-square-foot Mascot Hall of Fame.
“It’s a fun idea for kids and families,” Stahura says. “It will be the home of mascots from all over the world.”
Also in the works is a historical museum showcasing Whiting’s role in oil refining. The museum will anchor the east end of the downtown business district and connect it to lakefront. With four years left in his term, Stahura says there’s no shortage of ideas for making Whiting a “a one or two day destination.
“We have no grand illusion that we’d be a week-long vacation spot,” he says, “but we’re only an hour and a half drive from 9.5 million people.
Mayor Stahura says ideas for new development projects hit his desk every day, boding a bright future for his hometown.
“In a couple of years, Whiting is going to be a different place,” he says. “Our residents love what’s going on. People are moving into the community all the time.”
Goshen: The Maple City
Jeremy Stutsman became the mayor of Goshen in January. He’s a native of the community of about 32,000 and former member of the city council. After graduating from Butler University some 16 years ago, Stutsman and his wife returned to the community and started their business, Lofty Ideas LLC.
The entrepreneurial couple renovated a downtown building to house an antique business and upstairs rental unit.
“Our goal was to make a living and do something to benefit the community,” Stutsman says. They joined other property owners who were committed to enhancing the vitality of downtown Goshen, where a half dozen well-established stores were managing to stay in business.
“We have two Walmarts, one at each end of the community,” Stutsman says. “That puts stress on downtown shops.”
Goshen was established in 1831 as the Elkhart County seat. Five historic blocks of Main Street make up the downtown. Buildings from the late 1800s to early 1900s give it a distinctive architectural flavor. Among them are the courthouse in the center of downtown and the former Carnegie Library, now used for city offices.
“Many of the buildings still have their original facades,” Stutsman says. His company worked with other property owners to uncover original architectural details.
Today, the historic downtown has become a thriving center for cultural and visual arts. A joint effort by the City of Goshen and the Chamber of Commerce called The Good of Goshen has led a campaign to have Goshen citizens tell the story of their community on social media. Stutsman says The Good of Goshen has become the city’s unofficial brand, along with The Maple City.
Downtown Goshen Inc.–a nonprofit created through a public/private partnership–is enhancing the thriving downtown cultural arts scene with free monthly festivals and events. First Friday activities bring in an average of 3,000 to 4,000 people each month. In April, the River Bend Film Festival moved from its original location in South Bend to Goshen’s downtown arts theater. The three-day event showcases independent cinema from around the globe.
Stutsman says the community celebrates its diverse population–30 percent are Latino–and its mix of religions, ages and sexual orientation. The city has a good working relationship with Goshen College, a 135-acre liberal arts college established in 1894. The surrounding area boasts popular walking and biking paths along the Maple City Greenway and Pumpkin Vine Nature trail.
In short, Goshen is a community that embraces its past and enthusiastically enjoys the present–as do the other communities profiled here. Rather than compete with each other, mayors, town officials and community leaders understand that what’s good for them is good for the entire region.
An Artsy Development
When Catherine MacDonald was growing up in Michigan City, the historic Warren Building at 717 Franklin Street had been vacant for decades. Today, she’s the property manager for the refurbished seven-story building that is now the Artspace Uptown Artist Lofts.
MacDonald is a high-energy 28-year-old who’s literally on the ground floor of one of the premier landmarks signaling Michigan City’s Renaissance. Her office is adjacent to the main floor gallery, where artists’ work will be showcased. This spring, she’s been engaged nonstop in leasing the 44 artist’s residences and five commercial spaces created in the 1927 vintage building, which once housed a department store, medical offices and restaurants. Many of the building’s architectural features and interior decor, including terrazzo floors and large wood-framed windows, have been preserved.
The Uptown Artists Lofts are a mix of studio, one- and two-bedroom live/work spaces with affordable spaces for artists to rent. To qualify, a tenant’s income must be 30 to 60 percent of the area’s median income. Artists were selected by a local selection committee that interviewed prospective tenants.
“A lot of talented people are moving in,” MacDonald says, including visual artists, actors, musicians, dancers and writers. Tenant ages range from 20 to 75. They’ve moved to Michigan City from California, Oregon, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois.
The building renovation took one year, but the project was eight years in the making, beginning when Artspace representatives were invited to visit the community and consider a partnership. Artspace, headquartered in Minneapolis, has created 35 affordable arts facilities by redeveloping historic buildings in 15 states.
MacDonald is excited about what’s happening in her hometown. “Within the next 10 years, we’ll see a lot of changes in the area.”