Friday, June 12, 2009

Addressing Details Downtown, 11/26/08

If you’re a booster of downtown Noblesville like me, you might share some unease at a couple lost businesses and the site of plywood over windows. And driving through downtown Carmel and witnessing the shear scale of their city’s financial commitment married with private investment can leave us in the county seat feeling a little inadequate, But there are reasons for optimism here in Noblesville that may not be obvious to the casual passerby.
First, let’s remind ourselves that we started with a substantial downtown, something Carmel didn’t have. They’re trying to create what we have from whole cloth. And they’re doing it in a very Carmelesque style, with showy broad strokes and big dollars.
Noblesville’s efforts in ‘08 have been far more modest and targeted, working to make the downtown we already have look and work better. While we might wish for a big-dollar investment west of the river or perhaps the construction of several small parking garages on existing lots, current efforts are still important and aimed more at tweaking what already exists.
The most impressive recent improvements come from the city’s Façade Grant Program. According to Kevin Kelly, the City of Noblesville’s Director of Economic Development, the city appropriated $75,000 in matching grants to encourage downtown building owners to renovate storefronts in 2008. Though it started slow with few sputters of interest, it’s worked up a head of steam and is well on its way to making a big impact. So far, extra city money has been added, totaling over $192,000 in ’08. Combine that with private investment from the grant recipients and you have over $412,000 committed to façade renovations this year alone.
The timing was serendipitous.
Few could have predicted the severity of the current economic downturn. But just as those troubles built, the façade grant program dollars started flowing into downtown, improving individual retail outlets and elevating the appeal of downtown as a whole.
Deb Wofford’s Original’s Art Gallery and her fellow south-side neighbor, Debbie LePere’s at 859 Conner Street, were the first to transform their storefronts. And while the plywood on the old Lake and Lodge and the former Noblesville Golf store gives the temporary impression of blight, actually new storefronts are taking shape behind the plywood. HMC Screen Printing, the Cook & Cook law firm, The Wild bookstore, the Dominic’s building (formerly Dick Watson’s), and the new Heavenly Sweets location on south 8th are all using City grants to improve their buildings.
Due to tight budgets, Kevin Kelly says just $20,000 has been appropriated for grants in ’09, but more money may be found to beef up the program as ‘09 progresses.
And the muddy construction site beneath the Conner Street Bridge is giving way to the stately first phase of the Riverwalk project. The lighting, handrails and landscaping were put in place in just the past couple weeks. These finishing touches hint at a big part of downtown’s future: an attractive place to relax along the river, not to mention safe access to the County’s parking lot south of Conner.
The latest shot in downtown’s arm is the proposed acquisition of space for a visitor’s center. It’s been on the city’s wish-list for some time and it looks like they’ve settled on as good an option as Noblesville’s downtown is likely to offer, both geographically and economically.
The eastern first two floors of the Oddfellows building, immediately south of the courthouse (the big yellow brick 3-story, several doors east of the Uptown Café) was offered to the city by its owner, local attorney Jack Hittle at a reasonable price. When completed it will include public bathroom facilities for Christmas shopping and Santa visits, parades, the street dance, and art shows.
And though Lake and Lodge is gone and Spent Saturday’s is soon to close it’s doors, those disappointments have been countered with the reopening of the Uptown Café, and The Linden Tree, and the opening of Martha Jane’s (with the big pink purse sign). In other words, small business people are still investing in downtown.
What’s more, the Noblesville Main Street organization and the City’s Economic Development department continue to organize events to make downtown more vibrant and enjoyable.
Many of the individual things I’ve mentioned seem like, well, no big deal. But creating a positive social or shopping experience is a bundle of little things that all together add up to a big deal.
When you come downtown can you get information about shops and events? Can you find a public restroom? Are your surroundings crumbling or inspiring? Have merchants and civic organizations planned for your visit and put events and facilities in place to make it more enjoyable and trouble free?
If you answer no to those questions, you probably won’t come back. But if you answer yes, than you will come back. And that’s what addressing details is all about; removing the negatives so more people will say yes to downtown.

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