By Ken de la Bastide
---- — Editor's Note: During the past few decades, cities across Indiana have experienced an exodus of commercial businesses from their downtown area. The Kokomo Tribune is looking at how four Indiana cities are attempting to revitalize their downtown to attract retail businesses. This week the series looks at Anderson, with the final installment coming next week on Kokomo. The past two weeks the series looked at Marion and Noblesville.
ANDERSON — Anderson has tried for the past 40 years to revive its downtown. Major projects have, however, failed to attract new businesses.
Beginning in the 1970s, retail giants like Sears and J.C. Penny moved from downtown Anderson. The city has struggled since to find an identity.Anderson's downtown is not centered on the courthouse square. It runs along six blocks of Meridian Street where there are few retail outlets and several attorney's offices. There are five restaurants located within walking distance.Mayor Kevin Smith's administration is now focused on revitalizing a two block area that includes the restored Paramount Theater, a downtown park with a stage and a closed movie theater that could be saved.In the 1980s, a city-funded study encouraged the creation of a downtown hotel and convention center, but funding from the private sector never materialized.About a decade ago, Anderson invested $2.2 million and local banks loaned $1.6 million to Fortune Management to renovate 22 properties. Fortune Management eventually declared bankruptcy when the refurbished buildings remained mostly vacant.
The latest long-range plan calls for the construction of a reservoir to the east of the downtown area that would extend into Delaware County. The projected cost of the reservoir is $450 million, but its future is dependent on a private investor.“A lot of the cost is relocating businesses from the bypass,” Greg Winkler, economic development director for Anderson, said. “Part of the relocation process will be to encourage businesses to move from the bypass to the downtown.”City officials believe business may choose to move to the downtown area, but they admit there would be the option of clustering businesses on the edge of the reservoir.Business owners located near downtown don’t know what steps the city should take to attract more retail outlets.Steve Quirk, who has owned Standt’s Jewelers since 1986, said he doesn’t know what could be done to make the downtown more business friendly. There has been a Standt’s Jewelers in Anderson since 1946.“I can’t see the city being able to do anything,” Quirk said. “It’s a friendly environment and there is a lot of traffic in downtown with attorneys and the banking community.”Quirk said financial assistance would help but added the city would have to screen the businesses locating in the area.“In my 30 years, we’ve never had other businesses downtown. We never enjoyed that,” he said. “The Fortune Management project really did beautify downtown. I don’t understand why it didn’t grab more businesses than it has.”Quirk said it would be a great idea for the city administration to designate someone to focus on the downtown.“If that was my job, I don’t know where I would start,” he said. “It would be a tough job.”Sandy Moffett, who works at Moneyhun’s Gifts located on the edge of downtown, said the store moved to its present location when another gift shop closed.“It’s not the city’s fault,” she said of the flight of retail businesses from the area. “It’s a changing economy. People now do a lot of shopping online.”Moffett said she worked at The Fair Store, a defunct department store, as a teenager, a job she obtained by selling the most sweaters.“The courthouse square was the center of town,” she remembered. “There were stores all along Meridian Street.”Two fires in the 1980s changed Anderson's downtown landscape. One burned an entire block on the west side of the courthouse. The area was subsequently converted into a parking lot. Another destroyed the Woolworth’s store; that too became a parking area.The restored Paramount Theater is the jewel in the downtown area, one that could be the center of a revitalization effort.Gayle Jones Burris, executive director of the Paramount Theater, said the theater is surviving, but needs more people to attend events in order to thrive.“This is kind of a beacon in downtown, when the lights are turned on you know where the downtown is located,” she said.Burris said because of financial hardships, the theater needs local community partners to sponsor events.“In my own opinion, we have a lot of landlords that don’t live in Madison County or Indiana,” she said. “A lot of the buildings, because they’re old, need a lot of work. Owners are removed from what is taking place in downtown and they just don’t care.”Burris said the rents for downtown storefronts are high and not conducive to new business ventures.“The city and county are doing what they can when it comes to promoting downtown,” she said. “There are people who want to see downtown survive and come back, but it’s not easy for them to make that investment.”Burris would like to see art galleries develop around the Paramount Theater, but for some reason that is not taking place.“It used to be the retail area for the community,” she said. “But shopping patterns have changed. There would need to be some specialty shops that would make it a destination and attract people.”Revitalizing downtown Anderson has fallen to Levi Rinker, downtown coordinator for Anderson's Economic Development Department, and he has several projects in the works.“We’re trying to get the community to buy into revitalizing the downtown area,” Rinker said. “Our focus is on the American dream, using the resources we have available to start and grow business.”One idea likely to be seen this holiday season is the pop-up shop, he said.
“We want to take the empty storefronts and bring in local businesses for two months,” Rinker said. “Have the property owners provide two months free rent and the city would pay the utility costs. We want people to come to downtown Anderson for the holiday events and spend some time doing Christmas shopping.”Winkler said the hope is to have 10 to 15 businesses in the downtown area for two months offering something unique that can’t be purchased elsewhere. That strategy is short term, though.
Rinker said the city has to promote events in the Town Center Park on a regular basis to regain the trust of property owners that don’t live in Anderson and make them willing to reinvest in the community.“We need to have a cluster of businesses that will bring people,” Winkler added. “A community this size needs to have four or five similar establishments that will attract people at night in a two to three block area.”Winker admits it could take a decade to bring permanent change to Anderson's downtown, and is hoping people living in the suburbs north of Indianapolis will come to the city.Michael Frischkorn, the city's deputy director of economic development, said the expectations for Anderson are too low and the idea is to try to raise people’s expectations of what the downtown can be like.“We’re focusing on one segment of Meridian Street,” he said. “The city has spent a lot of money on Meridian Street and we’re trying to make it look nice.”