By Scott Smith
Tribune staff writer
Wednesday was a day to showcase Kokomo, never mind the windy, cold day, as a group of Main Street advocates from around the state got their first look at the flowers, plants and public art installations downtown.
“You all are just so successful; you have the most elaborate, beautiful, welcoming landscaping system I’ve seen in a long time,” said Lauren Adkins, the keynote speaker at this year’s Indiana Main Street Conference. “It really pops out at you.”
About 150 people will be in Kokomo, attending the conference, through today, and they’ll be catching up on the latest ideas to revitalize the downtown areas of their hometowns.
Kokomo’s beautification efforts, which have garnered several awards in recent years from the Indiana Main Street Association, “went into the reasons why we chose Kokomo for a location,” said Shae Kmicikewycz, program manager for the association.
“Growing up in Logansport, I was able to see the changes in Kokomo over time, and Kokomo went through what a lot of communities went through. It had a lot to do with U.S. 31 building up, to where the downtown almost died because of it. And it has taken 25 years to build downtown back up,” she said.
Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight, a major backer of downtown
revitalization efforts, opened the conference with a run-down on what the city has been doing, from removing parking meters and automatic traffic signals, to changing downtown streets from one-way to two-way streets.
Those efforts won plaudits from David Terrell, who heads the Main Street Association as part of his duties as deputy chief of staff for Indiana Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman.
“People are always looking at your community, and if your downtown’s not thriving, it says something about the character of your community, rightly or wrongly,” Terrell said.
In addition to taking a guided tour of downtown, hosted by the Kokomo Art Association, conferees also have a chance to go on a tour of Kokomo Opalescent Glass, the art glass manufacturer founded in Kokomo in 1888.
The age of some of Indiana’s downtown areas can be turned into an advantage, Adkins said, where the mixture of historic places and places of civic importance can make a downtown unique.
“In some places, a downtown is just business,” Adkins added. “You want to make sure it’s a little more special than just a shopping center.”
Susan Alexander, an official with the Greater Kokomo Economic Development Alliance, said she’s excited about some of the ideas at the conference, particularly the idea of hosting gala events in unused spaces downtown.
The idea has been tried with success in places like South Bend, Kmicikewycz said, where one-off art openings and parties have been held in vacant spaces. The idea is both to bring people downtown, and to have the event serve as a kind of open house for the property owner.
Cecile Petro of the Highland Redevelopment Agency said her Lake County town has had four of the events, resulting in three buildings being leased and one building negotiating a lease.
Alexander said so much has come together in downtown Kokomo over the past four years that the growth probably equals what the downtown area saw in the previous 20 years.
“It really has paid off. We’re getting new businesses coming down here, and it’s beautiful,” she said.
And when other Main Street advocates ask how the downtown landscaping looks so vibrant this late in the year, Alexander said she has an answer.
“It’s the fact we have hundreds of volunteers that do the planting, that were out working today on the sidewalk gardens, cleaning up,” she said. “I just see so much collaboration on the downtown’s behalf.”