Downtowns in four-county area looking to improve

May 30th, 2019

By Kayla Brennan | KPC Media - The Herald Republican

Downtowns are the hearts of most cities and towns.

They can hold restaurants, clothing stores, bakeries and more. But the most important aspect about any downtown is the ability to bring people together. This can happen through festivals or gatherings

The four-county area has had its ups and downs when it comes to renovations of downtowns. Here is what each a few cities feel the status of their downtown is.

Steuben County

In Angola in Steuben County, its downtown is about as good as it can get for a smaller town. Especially since it was just named No. 3 Best Historic Small Towns for USA Today’s 10 Best Reader’s Choice Travel Awards.

Mayor Richard Hickman is proud of the downtown in his city.

“We believe our downtown is in pretty good shape,” Hickman said. “It’s becoming a centerpiece for our community. A lot of our businesses are redoing their façades with a lot of remodeling on the insides. Businesses are restoring their second and third floors and putting apartments in. They seem to be filled about as soon as they get them finished. We’re very pleased with what is going on in our downtown right now.”

He said people take a lot of pride in the downtown to make it look nice. The Angola Garden Club was there the day of the interview sprucing up the landscaping around the monument downtown.

Even though he is pleased with it right now, he says that he is never truly satisfied. They want to keep working to make the downtown the best it can be. The biggest problem that Angola has with its downtown is minimal.

The city is going to install sidewalks and pavers a block south, east and north of downtown.

“We just try to keep improving a little at a time,” Hickman said.

But it took a great deal of work to get the downtown this way. He said it took a lot of planning, studies and grants to be able to make the downtown beautiful.

“Altogether, it took about a couple million dollars in grants over the years to keep extending our beautification projects downtown,” Hickman said. “It took a buy in from the community. We couldn’t get those studies done without bringing community members in, business people as well as residents to talk about the data and what they wanted downtown.”

He wanted to know what they wanted to see in the downtown and what would bring them to the downtown area.

“It’s always a work in progress,” Hickman said. “You have to fight to keep your downtowns alive. We want our community to be proud of where they live. When industries want to expand, one of the first things they do is drive through the downtown to see how viable it is. If a community is investing in the downtown, then it makes them more interested in investing in that community.”

Noble County

In Noble County, Ligonier and Kendallville have been having a few different issues, specifically with the second floor of their buildings downtown and with covered windows in their storefronts.

Ligonier Mayor Patty Fisel and Kendallville Mayor Suzanne Handshoe met with Goshen Mayor Jeremy Stutsman for advice since the downtown in Goshen is thriving.

He gave the pair a few different suggestions, but it was hard for him to give advice because he was highly involved in the process of turning the downtown in the right direction. He and his family actually bought a few buildings and fixed them themselves. Stutsman invested in the community, and once he did people started to follow.

Fisel said the biggest problem with the downtown is building ownership. She said there are a lot of buildings that are owned by people who do not live in the town. They sometimes even rent the building to other people. People will rent or buy the downtown buildings, then put newspapers, paper or wood to cover the windows so no one can see inside.

The biggest problem with Kendallville, Handshoe said, is that few people want to drive downtown anymore since U.S. 6 has been developed so much.

“Everyone is going to the U.S. 6 corridor,” Handshoe said. “For us, these are 100-plus-year-old buildings. Even though we offer façade grants and all kinds of things for renovation, it’s tough. You’re selling an old building and there is a lot of things that go with it.”

Handshoe said the city rezoned the downtown as an economic development target area so that empty building abatements or those for improved assessed value could be granted for those who would like to purchase one.

Mark Brinson, director of the department of community development in Goshen, said something that really helped the downtown in Goshen was the creation of its First Fridays events. It is a monthly event with different themes of activities to get people downtown. It brought people downtown, and people spend money at the stores downtown.

This gave Fisel and Handshoe the idea to hold more events to try see how it works. Handshoe even mentioned getting a group of people who want to organize something similar in Kendallville together to go see what the First Friday events are about.

Kendallville has a Main Street designation. Because of that, the city will be held accountable for requirements of that designation. So the city decided to try to hold monthly events. Last weekend, it held a Fairy, Gnomes and Trolls Festival, and it was a success. Handshoe said that there were 50 vendors and 1,000 people in attendance.

“The restaurants said that it was the biggest sale day they have had in years,” Handshoe said. “It worked.”

Stutsman said that First Fridays was tried a few times before it actually worked, so he suggested to not give up if something fails initially. He also said that if they want to get more people into the second floors of their buildings, apartments or office space would be best. That is what he did, but he said he was very specific about what people he chose. He wanted to choose the people who were right for Goshen.

Handshoe thinks if the city is awarded a grant from the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs for a streetscape project that would be help for a better downtown. The city has been denied multiple times for this project.

“If your streets and your town and your lighting it attractive, it helps attract people to the downtown,” Handshoe said. “I think what we are currently doing by meeting monthly and coming up with different events every month that we could possibly do will help.”

Experience the Heart of Kendallville, a group dedicated to maintaining a vibrant commercial and residential area in Kendallville, is always looking for volunteers to help with the events they would like to host, Handshoe said.

“I think we are going to do some things,” Handshoe said.

As for Ligonier and the storefronts, Fisel is not really sure how to fix that, but she is searching for answers.

“I really don’t know the answer. They pay the rent on the building, they don’t live here and they pay the mortgage for the building and that’s it,” Fisel said. “I don’t know how you address that. Everywhere we’ve gone, everyone we’ve talked to doesn’t have an answer. They say you don’t own it, so you don’t have any control.”

She said she isn’t sure of any legal action that can be taken, and the city can’t force the people to take the paper down. But finding a solution to this problem is something that she is trying to find to make the downtown more appealing.

They pair is hoping students will graduate high school, get the education necessary to open businesses and come back to their hometowns to help restore it.

DeKalb County

In DeKalb County, Auburn Mayor Norman Yoder said that the town has improved over the years.

“I don’t know if you are ever satisfied with the progress made, but the momentum is in a positive direction,” Yoder said. “It’s much better than it was five years ago and tremendously better than it was 15 years ago. I’m pleased with it, but not satisfied that we’ve met a goal yet.”

He said since downtowns tend to be older buildings they tend to need repairs.

“We’ve been really blessed by several different people that have spent a lot of money and energy in our downtown,” Yoder said.

He said there is still more work that needs to be done with the streetscape of downtown.

Although he is pleased, he thinks there is a reason why downtowns all over have lost their strength recently.

“Downtowns used to be the commercial hub of your community, but with bigger stores, they can no longer support the function of your community,” Yoder said. “Our goal here is to have it be the congregating hub of the community and bring things downtown that fit into that type of atmosphere.”

Examples Yoder gave were boutique shops, professional shops or restaurants. He thinks that is what will fit into the congregating part of the aesthetic.

But the biggest issue with the downtown is that is does not have enough parking, but he said that isn’t necessarily a bad issue to have.

“The sign that it is headed in the right direction is that we do have some people concerned that we have some parking problems,” Yoder said. “That means that you have a vibrant downtown if you have parking problems.”

People, according to Yoder, want to park in front of the place they are going to without having to walk far. Sometimes that just is not a possibility.

The next project the city is working on is a park downtown called The Landing. It will be next to Cedar Creek. It will be a memorial for the American Legion.

“As far as problems go, we don’t have any big problems,” Yoder said. “it’s just repairing buildings and things like that. We are in a good spot compared to a lot of communities as far as downtowns go.”

LaGrange County was not available for comment.