A Columbus neighborhood group that organized to watch for criminal activity has evolved into one that is focused on long-term changes that will improve the quality of life in the historic downtown district.

The watch group, based near 11th and Washington streets, is considering changing its name to the Historic Downtown Neighborhood Alliance to reflect its broader scope. It also is weighing expanding its boundaries to include all of the city’s historic downtown district. Those items will come up for a vote during the Historic Downtown Neighborhood Watch’s meeting March 31.

A new emphasis on code enforcement, specifically with abandoned and neglected homes within the district, accompanies the changes, as neighborhood leaders have been working with the city to resolve concerns.

“We’re changing from a reactive group to a proactive group, taking steps to improve the neighborhood and quality of life,” said Sheryl Nulph, the watch group’s facilitator.

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The group’s long-range planning committee met in January and recommended the name change and expanded watch boundaries. Changing its name would reflect a broader mission than just watching for crime, Nulph said.

The watch area would be expanded from its current boundaries of Eighth and 12th streets and Washington and Pearl streets, to Second and 15th streets and Washington and Chestnut streets. Nulph said it’s important for the watch area to include all of the city’s defined historic downtown district because it has shared interests.

Interest widens

Some residents who live outside the current watch area but within the district have been eager to get involved with the group, Nulph said.

“It’s an exciting idea, all working together to create a more beautiful space,” said Beth Stroh, who lives with her husband, John, at Seventh and Washington streets, just outside the current watch boundaries.

She said she likes the idea of a neighborhood where everyone knows each other and feels welcome.

Dave Nowlin, a member of the long-range planning committee, said the group would like to work with everyone in the district, including renters. Recognizing that some renters aren’t aware of their rights, the group is considering having a workshop to explain them.

Code enforcement is a priority because of concerns that abandoned and neglected houses foster crime, Nulph said. About 25 to 30 such properties in the historic downtown district are being brought to the attention of city officials who can work with the property owners, Nulph said.

“Nobody wants to live next door to an abandoned property,” she said.

Mayor Kristen Brown said the watch group’s focus on code enforcement problems is important because the city has only one code enforcement officer. Watch group members provide extra eyes and ears to alert the city of issues it needs to address, the mayor said.

“It’s rewarding to work with people so actively engaged in improving their neighborhood,” Brown said.

Partnering with center

The historic downtown group is considering using social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to improve communication, and working with the Lincoln-Central Neighborhood Family Center to use its resources to achieve improvements, Nulph said.

Lincoln-Central, 1039 Sycamore St., serves residents who live in the watch group’s area and shares similar interests. Its community outreach coordinator, Diane Doup, said the organization has worked with the watch group since its creation. The watch group has been active in Lincoln-Central’s strategic planning, and some Lincoln-Central staff and board members have worked with the watch group on its long-range planning, she said.

The watch group has used Lincoln-Central resources, such as its tool-lending program, and has participated in Lincoln-Central litter sweeps and social activities.

Lincoln-Central’s support of the watch group has included buying flashlights so members could make passes through the neighborhood at night and be aware of suspicious activity. Lincoln-Central also is trying to help the watch group with signs and T-shirts, Doup said.

“We work very closely together. We talk to Sheryl and several leaders in the group on a regular basis, surely a couple times a week,” Doup said.

The watch group started in 2013 when Brown and the city police department worked to establish neighborhood watches in areas plagued by crime. As a group, it has tried to make residents aware of steps to take if they see suspicious activity or crimes and to educate them on how to protect themselves and their property.

One of the positive benefits of neighborhood residents working together is that they now know each other better.

While the watch group formally started in 2013, Nowlin said he believes its roots and sense of common purpose date to 2012. That’s when residents in the historic downtown district successfully fought a communication company’s proposal to replace a 100-foot radio tower near Washington and Eighth streets with one 200 feet tall, considered a potential eyesore and safety hazard.

The group last year championed a zoning change to remove a mixed-density overlay from an area bounded by Sixth, 12th, Washington and Franklin streets. The change, which was approved, put new regulations on the conversion of historic homes into apartments.

The group stated then that it believed unchecked conversion of historic homes into apartments hurts property values, increases crime and creates situations of landlords converting houses without paying attention to codes.

During the fight for the zoning change, the Historic Downtown Neighborhood Watch group realized quality-of-life issues factored into crime rates and that it needed to think longer-term with its plans, Nulph said.

If you go

WHAT: Historic Downtown Neighborhood Watch’s first meeting of the year

WHEN: 6 p.m. March 31

WHERE: Laws Room at First Presbyterian Church, 512 Seventh St., Columbus.

INFORMATION: Sheryl Nulph, 812-372-9061.

Committee members

The Historic Downtown Neighborhood Watch has a long-range planning committee. Its official members are:

Mike Mullett

Patti March

Barney Quick

Aaron and Mary Allard

Harry and Julie McCawley

Dale and Isabel Nowlin

Sheryl Nulph, the watch group’s facilitator, is part of the committee but votes only in the case of a tie. Diane Doup and Lisa Pein, both of Lincoln-Central Neighborhood Family Center, are on the committee in an advisory capacity.

Pull Quote

“We’re changing from a reactive group to a proactive group, taking steps to improve the neighborhood and quality of life.”

Sheryl Nulph, watch group facilitator

Author photo
Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.