Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

August 4, 2013

Downtown Marion hoping to become cultural center

Vacant buildings, lack of restaurants are a hindrance to progress

By Ken de la Bastide
Kokomo Tribune

---- — Editor's Note: During the past few decades, cities across the nation have experienced an exodus of commercial businesses from their downtown areas. The Kokomo Tribune is looking at how four Indiana cities are attempting to revitalize their downtowns to attract retail businesses and increase pedestrian traffic. The series will look at Marion, Noblesville, Anderson and Kokomo over the next month.

MARION — During his 30 years doing business in downtown Marion, Barry Lobbell has seen local retail outlets close or relocate, and the future is not looking any brighter.Marion, like most cities throughout Indiana and the nation, has watched as its downtown has lost its place as the shopping district for the community.The courthouse square in Marion is dominated by financial institutions, attorney offices and vacant buildings.Downtown has become the home of the arts community in Grant County with dance studios, a civic theater and fitness centers populating storefronts.There are no restaurants located on the courthouse square, there is one tavern and another tavern and a Mexican restaurant are within several blocks.“I’ve seen a lot of changes in the downtown area,” Lobbell, the owner of Jerry’s Leather Shop and Shoe Hospital, said. “Downtown changed when the Northgate Shopping Center opened. When they revised the Marion bypass and made it wider, more businesses located there.”With the growth of Indiana Wesleyan University, businesses shifted to the south side of the city.“I never considered moving,” he said. “I own the business and we’re trying to stay here. The downtown businesses don’t see the foot traffic they once had.”A lot of Lobbell's business comes from the local legal and banking community and he has customers from throughout the state who bring their shoes for repair.

Main Street Marion is a group tasked with promoting downtown, Lobbell said.

“Their focus is from the river to 14th Street," he said. "I don’t consider that downtown.”

Lobbell said Main Street Marion is responsible for downtown landscaping and it receives no funding from city government.“There are no restaurants downtown,” he said. “There is no place downtown to get a cup of coffee. Everyone talks about the need for a restaurant on the courthouse square.”Lobbell said there are plenty of vacant buildings available.Loretta Walker, director of Main Street Marion, said the group encourages businesses to locate downtown, but there is no financial assistance.“We’re putting together a pack of information about the downtown,” she said. “It will include traffic counts and available properties. We want to attract businesses that will be successful in the downtown.”Main Street Marion sponsors regular First Friday events from May through August in an effort to bring people to the downtown area.“We’re more involved in marketing and promotion,” Walker said. “We try to highlight the assets that are downtown.”Walker said the organization would like to see a restaurant open on the courthouse square, but to her knowledge, none are planned.

Between $24 million and $30 million has been invested in the downtown area, said Marion Mayor Wayne Seybold, but it's not as quickly recognized because it's not centered in one location.

"It used to be if you shot a gun in downtown Marion after 4 p.m., you wouldn't hit anyone," he said. "Now with the community arts all locating in the downtown area, there are about 1,000 kids in the area. The civic theater, symphony and dance studios are downtown."

Seybold said the city hopes to get one or two restaurants to open on the courthouse square in the near future.

Marion, like many communities, has a facade program for local businesses to change the look of their storefronts.

Seybold said Grant County provides no financial assistance to aid in downtown development.

Being able to provide a financial incentive to businesses willing to locate in downtown would be beneficial, he said.

A block south of the square is the Centrum Mall, a three-level indoor mall. The lower floor was heavily damaged by a broken water line on Memorial Day and repairs are underway.Most of the mall is empty.Steve Chambers, a 30-year resident of the city, was waiting for a barber shop in the mall to open on a recent weekday.“There were a lot of retail businesses in the downtown when I first moved to Marion,” he said. “There were a lot of different things; they’ve all dissipated.”Chambers said for downtown to rebound, businesses are needed to attract people and increase foot traffic.“Where do people flow to? Right now it’s the bypass,” he said. “The businesses are there and accessible. What are you offering to meet the needs of people? Most are located on the bypass.”Chambers advocated for increased landscaping around the courthouse to provide something attractive to the eye.Carmen Sinclair and Jenifer Meyer recently opened The Grand Cupcakery on the lower level of the Centrum Mall. The business was incorporated in 2012, and began by selling baked goods at the local farmer’s market.

“We’re getting what we hoped for,” Meyer said in terms of business. “The mall was affordable and ready to use.”She said once the water damage is repaired, most of the lower level will be occupied.“There is no financial support from the city,” Meyer said. “They express support for our business and are our customers. Assistance would be helpful.”Meyer said they considered other locations but liked the idea of locating downtown. She said the other locations, along the bypass, were more expensive.“Right now not a lot of people come downtown to shop,” she said, adding, “Main Street Marion does a good job of bringing people downtown.”Kim Mitchell recently opened Two Sisters Fitness in the mall. She said the lower rent was a factor.

“Downtown is a good central location, people know where it is,” Mitchell said. “We’re hoping people working downtown will use our services. Hopefully we can bring people into the downtown.”Two Sisters is a member of the Creative Community, which consists of local art groups.“Other than that we promote through Facebook and word of mouth,” Mitchell said. More backing from the city or county would be helpful, she said.“I wish the city would do more to promote businesses,” Mitchell commented. “This is our investment. The downtown needs to be improved to draw people. Downtown used to be booming.”