Big Plans for Downtown
The Facade Grant Program
This summer a series of Vincennes City Council meetings offered hope for constructive growth in Downtown Vincennes. The following information comes from news reports in the Vincennes Sun Commercial filed by Jenny McNeece.
On June 28, the City Council was given for review a preliminary draft of a downtown revitalization plan created by Bloomington’s Strategic Development Group working with its partners, Rundell Ernstberger and Associates and ARCHitecture trio, Inc. (an Indianapolis architecture firm specializing in Historic Preservation and Contextual Design). The plan is being paid for with a $40,000 state grant and local tax dollars and will put the city in a position to apply for a much larger grant later this year to help implement some of the changes called for, specifically facade improvements to downtown buildings.
The plan took into consideration the city’s history, demographics, downtown properties in most need of repair and the state of the local economy.
During the July 12 public hearing preceding the City Council meeting, the plan was presented and explained by Pat Jacobs of ARCHitecture Trio and Brian O’Neill, a senior associate with the Strategic Development Group. The plan addressed Main Street from First to 11th Streets as well as a block north and south, looking at the downtown economy, inventory of buildings and programming. Jacobs offered a positive view of possibilities for downtown, noting that there was a “beautiful palette” to work with in terms of presently viable buildings. However she also observed that a deeper understanding of what historic preservation entailed was needed, along with better use of incentives for business owners hoping to improve their properties in a historically authentic manner. She and others from SDG advocated increasing downtown entertainment and recreational opportunities, creating biking and walking trails and establishing “community gateways” indicating to motorists that they have entered Indiana’s oldest city. Also proposed were the revitalization of the Pantheon and New Moon theaters and the establishment of an eight-block Arts District. Guidelines for establishing an arts district are outlined by state statute, and such districts have been designated in eight Indiana cities, including Carmel, Columbus, Bloomington and Nashville.
A wide range of further suggestions included development of First Street with more residential spaces and possibly a hotel and conference center, and consideration of an urban park in the empty Gimbel Corner lot. It was suggested that the area given to city parking on Vigo Street could be expanded into a parking garage that included retail space on a ground floor.
The City Council approved this plan, paving the way for the city to apply for a $500,000 grant for façade improvements for downtown buildings. During a July 26 public hearing on the project, Mayor Joe Yochum encouraged the City Council to support this next step, saying “This is going to be amazing for Main Street”.
As of this writing, the initial group of 40 property owners expressing interest in being part of this grant application last May has been narrowed down to 19. Jacobs is working with INVin to study the proposals and further reduce the list of candidates to the 12 or so considered most suitable. Ellen Harper, Executive Director of InVin, was previously the Southwest Community Liaison for Indiana’s Main Street Revitalization Program.
Each business selected will contribute a 20% match toward the cost of the improvements requested for their building. The grant application is competitive – only three will be funded across the state. If Vincennes is awarded one of these grants, work will likely begin next summer.
Both Art Space Vincennes and the Open Gallery hope to participate in this grant application and are part of the group of 19 businesses still under consideration.
One more public hearing will be scheduled for September or October. The final decision from the state regarding the awarding of grants is expected to be announced in December.
Why does this matter? During the July 12 public hearing, Brian O”Neill of the Strategic Development Group summarized the challenge and the goal of the façade improvement initiative and the strategic plan in general:
“You have a university, a regional hospital and an energy company that just located here. You also have 100,000 tourists that come into your town every year. You have consumers that are coming into your town but they’re not coming into the downtown. You have people who live here now that would rather be living in the downtown.
So what we want to do is make it an attractive place to live, convince retailers and people engaged in entrepreneurship to come downtown,” he said. “It needs to turn around and, frankly, we think that it can. These are achievable goals and objectives that could help you do that.”
Former president John F. Kennedy adopted and frequently used the aphorism “A rising tide lifts all boats”. Every small advance we each make individually to our downtown environment benefits the whole community. We are already seeing developing momentum; there has been increasingly more to do and see on Main Street over the past several years. The street is anchored by long-time, well-respected businesses, whose owners have given lifetimes of work to sustain the economic health and physical attractiveness of their community. This grant has the benefit of recognizing with appreciation the long history of Main Street, reflected in the many different architectural styles represented. In addition there is a looking to the future, as business owners are given the opportunity to make improvements that without this grant support might never be possible. This is certainly true in our case. Having so many buildings bettered all at once would be a dramatic step forward in making our downtown and our community as a whole a welcoming place to live, work and play.