by Eric Stearley
Downtown Wabash buzzed with activity on June 25 as community members prepared for the arrival of 18 very special guests who comprised the Stellar Communities Evaluation Committee. More than 300 community members did their part to showcase Wabash as the best choice for this year’s designation.
According to the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA), “The Stellar Communities program is a multi-agency partnership designed to fund comprehensive community development projects in Indiana’s smaller communities.” Along with OCRA, the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority and the Indiana Department of Transportation participate in the selection process. There are currently six Stellar Communities in Indiana: Bedford, Richmond, Delphi, Princeton, Greencastle, and North Vernon. Wabash hopes to add its name to that list this year, which would open the door to future project grants.
The day began with a presentation at Eagles Theatre, the restoration of which is a cornerstone of the strategic investment plan.
“Stellar takes a lot of planning and a lot of work by a lot of people,” said Mayor Vanlandingham as he welcomed the community and committee members. “When you plan, you’ve got to know your tradition, and you’ve got to know your history, where you’ve been.”
Vanlandingham spoke to the progress he’s seen during his time as mayor as groups and citizens began to cooperate and create a common goal of restoration and revitalization, particularly downtown.
“I like the word community because it has the word unity at the end of it, and that’s what we have in Wabash, Wabash County, and this region,” said Mayor Vanlandingham.
He also explained why Wabash is a smart choice.
“Wabash has a track record of getting things done as promised. We have a vision of what our community is going to look like in four years and we have the financial resources to complement our partnership with Stellar,” said Mayor Vanlandingham. “One thing I’m really proud of is we have the human resources to carry out this mission for our community. When I talk about human resources, I’m talking about energetic young professionals, experienced business people, and dedicated government officials. If chosen, we will work hard to make your decision the right one. Wabash is a small community with big dreams based on proven successes to create a better region.”
Following the mayor’s remarks, a short video played, displaying the people and places that make Wabash a “stellar” place to live. Following the video, nine community leaders each gave a short presentation on one of the projects that residents can look for in the coming years, including the vision, state of readiness, and impact on the community and surrounding areas.
Honeywell Foundation Executive Director Tod Minnich presented plans for a $4 million renovation of the very building in which the presentation took place, Eagles Theatre. With phase 1 of the project completed in 2010 (which included main floor seating replacement, upgrades to the heating and air conditioning systems, and a wheelchair platform), plans are in place for renovation of the rest of the building, including the upper floors and a ballroom.
“This plan will allow us to expand the existing community center capacity currently offered at the Honeywell Center and Honeywell House,” said Minnich. “When restored, this facility will house a wide variety of community events. The facility will also be home to local and regional dance recitals, community theatre productions, and a comprehensive youth arts program offered by the Honeywell Foundation.”
Shelly Myers used a personal anecdote to illustrate the importance of a second project, an inclusive playground to be built near the existing skate park. Myers’ son has cerebral palsy, and the project would allow children such as him the opportunity to experience a playground like their peers.
“In the 7 years of my son’s life, he has never had the experience of playing on a playground with other kids his age,” said Myers. “
Instead, he gets to sit on the sidelines and watch everyone else play in space that his walker can’t go or on equipment that is not accessible to his abilities. This playground was inspired by kids like my son.”
The state of Indiana has just six inclusive playgrounds, the closest of which is 60 miles away. This area, which would be maintained by the parks department, allows children of all abilities to play together in the same accessible area.
“Giving kids a place to play together allows them to foster relationships with, and develop an understanding of, those with different abilities,” said Myers.
Wabash Marketplace Executive Director Patrick Sullivan explained the façade program. The first phase of this program used $176,000 and 26 participants to leverage $30 million in investments to Wabash’s downtown.
“Today, businesses are thriving and new businesses and renovated residences are going into some of these buildings that have been empty for many years,” said Sullivan.
Phase 2, one of the projects in this year’s pitch, includes 22 new building and business owners looking to use façade grants as a catalyst to building restorations.
“Phase 2 of this program will undoubtedly spur further economic impact even past the businesses that directly utilize this program, just as was the case with phase 1,” said Sullivan. “This program will not only allow private investment to enable adaptive reuse of underutilized and dilapidated downtown buildings, but it also compliments all of the other community projects and efforts that are currently active in downtown Wabash.”
Wade Weaver was next to take the podium as he discussed the building of an amphitheatre in Paradise Spring Historical Park. The performance area would serve as a centerpiece for festivals and performances in the eastside park.
“If you saw in the video, there were kids from Small Town, a local group, and they were playing on the Honeywell Center Plaza,” said Weaver. “It’s called the Summer Sizzling Plaza Series. It gets hot; the sun is beating down. It’s a great place to do it, don’t get me wrong…but this is what we want.”
This is a project in its final stages of planning, and soon, Wabash will have an outdoor performance area shaded from the hot summer sun.
“Wabash is already a stellar city to live in, but with your help, you can official make us a stellar community,” Weaver said as he wrapped up.
Former Wabash Marketplace President Parker Beauchamp was next on the program as he shared the streetscape and connectivity project.
“Now that Wabash is connected with the world, we want to connect Wabash to Wabash, said Beauchamp. “The streetscape and connectivity improvement project will do just that.”
Improvements to the downtown streetscape were made a decade ago with improved sidewalks, lighting, landscaping, and trees. These improvements made downtown more inviting, attracting businesses and private investment.
“Now we just want to finish what we started by connecting all of our streetscape phases, closing the loop on Market, Canal and Allen streets, all the way to Paradise Springs and back, connecting our cultural, heritage, recreation, arts, and entertainment assets once and for all,” Beauchamp continued. “We’ll be reactivating underutilized space and restore aging structure through new bricks, sidewalks, and gateways, adding green space, landscaping, lighting, and lots and lots of trees.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this project is the transformation of downtown’s one-way streets into two-way streets, providing easier access to downtown businesses.
Park Department Superintendent Todd Titus presented the vision for the future of the city’s trail network. The plan would extend the river walk 1.5 miles north and west to Wabash City Park, connecting the river walk with the Wabash Cultural Trail.
“Upon completion, a 5-mile, alternate transportation route will circle downtown Wabash, anchored by community parks on the east side and one on the west side,” said Titus. “The trail will provide additional recreational amenities to hikers, bikers, skaters, and joggers.”
This extension of the current trail will connect many important landmarks throughout the city, including parks, the library, churches, the museum, government buildings, retail shopping, the skate park, and the inclusive playground.
“Recently, a trail user said to me, ‘I think the trail system is one of the best things Wabash ever did,’” said Titus. “There are a lot of people who agree, and we’d like to see it keep going.”
Executive Director of Tourism for the Wabash County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau Christine Flohr then explained plans to improve the 13/15 Corridor, a stretch of road that sees more than 16,000 northbound vehicles each day.
“The 13/15 Corridor Project is where our city’s story begins,” said Flohr. “It’s the first hint about the character and quality of our people and businesses and represents the type of experiences travelers might have as they enter downtown. It greets travelers at the city’s edge and takes them into the heart of our community.”
Currently, the stretch of road between the Wabash River and downtown has missing sections of sidewalks, few crosswalks, no turn lanes, and outdated signage.
“All of these flawed elements are dangerous to motorists and pedestrians and really give the appearance of apathy as you approach the downtown,” said Flohr. “But Wabash’s stakeholders are far from apathetic.”
The project would improve on these aspects of the corridor, as well as adding curb cuts, landscaping, trees, and decorative crosswalks, with a focus on improved traffic flow and safety for motorists and pedestrians.
“First impressions really are the most important, and we need the gateway to our city’s story to reflect the commitment that we have to providing excellent quality places and life experiences,” said Flohr. “The 13/15 Corridor Project is critical to advancing our efforts for a better Wabash.”
Rick Yoder, housing director for Northeast Indiana Housing Partnership, presented the committee with plans for the two-phase program to restore homes in the historic district.
“Our vision through the owner occupied rehabilitation program is to assist low income home owners, who are disabled and or at least 55 years of age, make much needed repairs to their homes,” said Yoder, “such as modifying it for seniors to live in place, making them more energy efficient, eliminating health and safety hazards, and improving the overall condition of their home.”
The goal of the program is to provide 30 homeowners with up to $25,000 each to make the needed repairs. So far, they’ve received 17 applications, five of which were in Area 8, the target area.
“When a homeowner makes improvements to their home, it encourages their neighbors to make improvements too, said Yoder. “This revitalizes neighborhoods, making them safer and stronger, and draws new residents to the area who are ready to take advantage of all Wabash has to offer.”
Architect Brett Mathers presented plans for the Rock City Lofts Project, which would renovate the space above six storefronts, including Rock City Café, into new loft apartments.
“As an architect, it’s about the purpose. It’s not just a building. It’s what you use it for; it’s how it meets the needs of the people in the community,” said Mathers. “So, as we looked at the opportunities on East Market Street, and we looked at the needs for housing in this community, one thing stood out. The seniors did not have an opportunity in Wabash. They would either have to stay in their existing homes or they would have to move outside the community to get the services they needed.”
The $8 million project would allow up to 40 new residents to move downtown, putting them in close proximity to the Honeywell Center, Modoc’s Market, restaurants, clothing stores, and pharmacies.
“It brings together, in one in this location, all of the best amenities this community has to offer,” said Mathers.
This project will be acollaboration between the City of Wabash, the Economic Development Group, the redevelopment commission, Wabash Marketplace, Living Well in Wabash County, and others.
“This is a proven team of developers. They take on hard-to-use historic properties, adapt them, and rebuild them,” said Mathers. “The beauty of working in Wabash [is] the people. They get things done and they get things done right.”
Finally, Bill Konyha, president and CEO of the Economic Development Group of Wabash County, presented the finance plan.
“Today, for the first time in the history of the Untied States, 50 percent of our population lives in urban communities. We are told by economists that by the year 2050, 75 percent of our population will live in urban areas,” said Konyha. “What this means is that communities like Wabash who do not invest in themselves, who do not create livable communities, communities that are attractive to young professionals and young families…they will simply cease to exist. The City of Wabash has every intention of being here in the next century. This is a community that invests in itself, has invested in itself, will continue to invest in itself, and by golly, we’ve got the young people in line now to hand it off to, and they will continue as well.
“Our strategic investment plan includes essentially nine projects, which have been reviewed here today. Many of them are ready to go right now. Some of them are going to require a little extra work,” said Konyha. “But if we are selected and designated as a Stellar Community, we will accomplish this plan in 4 years. If we are not designated as a Stellar Community, we will still accomplish this plan, although it might take us 15 years.
The total cost of the strategic investment plan is currently at $28,335,517. Various sources of private investment are expected to account for $10,970,752. Local government has designated $4,220,000 to help fund the plan, $4 million of which will come from the redevelopment commission. An additional $450,000 has been identified from local sources, bringing the total local and private investment to $15,640,999, which accounts for 55.2 percent of the total project. The hope is that a Stellar Community designation will open the doors for the grants needed to make up the difference of $12,694,650 or 44.8 percent of the total.
“It’s been my pleasure, under the leadership of the mayor over the last 8 years, to be a participant in the destruction of a whole bunch of silos and the creation of one great big sandbox,” said Konyha. ”We would hope that by the end of the day, the two things that will be indelibly etched into your minds will be, number one- the completely collaborative nature of this community, and number two- the fact that this strategic investment plan and our economic development plan are very well thought out.”
Following the presentation, the Evaluation Committee was taken on a tour around town to the sites discussed. They also visited the site of projects completed since last year’s Stellar Communities tour. When the tour came to a close, the committee was quickly en route to another evaluation. Those who were key in making the day a success said everything went well and seemed optimistic about Wabash’s chances this year. Last year, Bedford and Richmond were designated as Stellar Communities. Wabash came in third. Konyha thinks this year’s plan far exceeded that of last year.
“I personally think we learned so much from last year’s, not only the presentation, but the plan that we submitted, that there’s almost no comparison,” Konyha said in the days following the tour and presentation. “I think that this year, our plan and our presentation were incredibly strong.
Konyha noted that The Eagles Theatre really captured the committee’s imagination due to its function as a community center, providing both entertainment and education. It also brings people to Wabash from other communities. Additionally, he said the inclusive playground probably had the biggest “wow” factor. Many of the programs, such as the streetscape, façade, and Rock City Lofts, are already underway. Whereas last year, the Evaluation Committee was presented with financial plans for accomplishing certain projects, this year, they were shown steps that have already been taken.
“We went in this time not just saying that we would do these things, we actually did them,” said Konyha.
For now, community leaders are waiting anxiously for news of the winners, which they expect to come in mid-August. While missing out once again wouldn’t doom these projects, being designated as a Stellar Community would certainly be a huge boost to both the projects and the community as a whole.
“If we aren’t named a Stellar Community, we will compete for additional grants to continue with these programs,” said Konyha, “but through Stellar, we will get a whole lot more.”