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Couple work to bring vision of revitalized community to life

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ELIZABETHTOWN — Rebecca and Fred Barnett, who moved to southern Indiana two years ago from Nashville, Tenn., drive through their new hometown of Elizabethtown, past abandoned homes with caved-in roofs, past vacant fields strewn with trash, and they envision a better place.

In their optimistic eyes, Elizabethtown — with a population of 400 — soon will have a children’s playground where an empty field now sits. A community garden will flourish not far from the metal grain silos of Consolidated Grain and Barge that now dominate the town’s largely one-story skyline.

They envision a vibrant Neighborhood Watch program that scares away the occasional methamphetamine lab from this rural no-man’s land 11 miles southeast of Columbus.

They see a cinder-block Town Hall modernized with Internet and Wi-Fi connections filled with residents and their children learning online. Already, volunteers have created a small children’s library in a rear room of the Town Hall, stocked with donated books and kid-sized tables and chairs.

Fred Barnett, a community outreach coordinator with Energizing Indiana, and his wife, Rebecca, a materials readiness leader with Cummins Inc., see themselves on a mission to help restore this once-bustling railroad outpost to renewed life.

They have a lot of work to do.

Elizabethtown no longer is a vibrant stop on the defunct Madison and Indianapolis Railroad, as it was 150 years ago. The railroad lines were ripped up from the town’s center long ago, along with any flickering hopes of economic glory.

Left behind is a community with an aging population where nearly one of every four residents lives in poverty. Few residents have college degrees, and jobs are scarce.

There is no school within the town’s limits. Homes are deteriorating, with many of the 174 properties in Elizabethtown turned into rentals that attract a transient population always headed somewhere else.

Fred Barnett has an additional stake in the community as a member of the town council. He is in his first term on the three-person panel, having served 16 months. Already, he has helped lead a project to renovate Elizabethtown’s town hall. It included creating a small children’s library in a rear room that’s staffed by volunteers 4 to 6 p.m. Mondays and 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays.

Mobilizing to help

Rebecca Barnett has enlisted Cummins’ employees and other community volunteers for various cleanup and painting brigades. She has worked closely with the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department in a campaign to reduce crime with a beefed-up Neighborhood Watch.

“Our long-term plan is to make Elizabethtown one of the most desirable communities in Bartholomew County,” Fred Barnett said.

The couple moved here when Rebecca Barnett’s job with Cummins shifted from Nashville to the engine maker’s Bartholomew County headquarters in the fall of 2010.

“You never know the reasons why you end up moving to a particular spot,” Fred Barnett said. “But I figure if we’re able to help even one person, the move will have been worth it.”

For now, the Barnetts say they and a host of volunteers are taking “baby steps” with twice-a-year street cleanups, a community garden startup, dreams of a bike trail to Columbus and a $203,500 housing grant (with a $25,000 match by Cummins) to fix up as many as 15 private homes for low-income residents with few resources.

The funds recently were awarded to the town by the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority.

Plans call for installing energy-efficient doors and windows, adding new siding, fixing roofs or putting in handicap-accessible ramps at homes where an elderly occupant needs such help.

Eric Frey, executive director of Administrative Resources Association, the grant administrator, said no single home likely will get more than $12,000 to $15,000 worth of work. Frey’s group will oversee bids from contractors and make sure renovations are done properly. Part of the grant money goes to cover ARA’s administrative costs.

Most longtime Elizabethtown residents support giving the housing facelift a try.

“It’s wonderful that this small town is starting to get some help,” said Denise McKenzie, a middle-aged disabled woman who has lived in Elizabethtown for 37 years. “I guess we’ve all known that such grants existed in the past, but the average person didn’t know how to go about getting them.”

In this case, the Columbus-based ARA was enlisted to screen applicants who qualify based on their low-income status and other criteria.

Mona Safely, who has been pastor at Elizabethtown’s United Methodist Church for four years, said she sees a little more hope in her congregation’s faces.

“It was a depressed town when I arrived four years ago. There were a lot of eyesores here, burned-out trailers. There was a lot of debris that needed to be cleaned up, and now that’s being done,” Safely said.

In particular, the pastor praises the efforts of the Barnetts, a couple who themselves bought a late 19th century Victorian home on Second Street near the town’s entrance. They’ve spent the past two years restoring the place to its former glory, repairing worn-out hardwood floors and resurrecting several wood-burning furnaces to heat the two-story property.

On top of that, the couple have gotten involved in public service and community outreach, championing various volunteer projects and housing initiatives.

“When we first moved here I was bowled over by people’s willingness to help us without even hardly knowing us,” Fred Barnett said. Now, many people seem to be pitching in for the good of all, he added.

The Town Hall was renovated with an all-volunteer crew of laborers, for example. Safely said the activism amounts to a big shift for Elizabethtown.

“There’s a certain lethargy here. Inertia is a hard thing to battle. I’m not sure inertia isn’t on the devil’s side. Life can go downhill slowly and no one notices,” Safely said. “There’s always been a huge gulf between E-Town and Columbus in terms of education, literacy, financial resources.”

Doubters, too

Not everyone supports the housing rehab grants — paid for with federal Housing and Urban Development dollars — and other community projects that have been suggested.

Some residents are afraid of the government coming in with special programs, while others worry that their homes could be condemned if inspectors look too closely, Safely said.

Town Council member Jim Brown is among those who remains skeptical. “I’m not much for handouts,” he said, suggesting home repairs aren’t a true government function.

“I want to help my neighbor, sure. But where’s the end of this giveaway? At some point we need private investment in Elizabethtown to boost our tax base,” Brown said.

Still, recent cleanup and repair projects have given people a jolt of hope, Safely contends.

“We’re hopeful more young, upwardly mobile couples will find Elizabethtown an interesting place to live in the long run. The new transplants — like the Barnetts — are interested in seeing a renaissance here. Things are gaining momentum,” the pastor said.

Elizabethtown on the move

Recent projects to boost the quality of life in Elizabethtown include:

Town Council purchased a vacant lot off Second Street via a tax sale for $230 with plans to seek a financial grant to buy and install playground equipment.

Volunteers remodeled the town hall, adding Internet access and Wi-Fi connections to the facility for the first time.

Town hall renovations also included opening of a children’s library at the rear of the building that will be staffed by volunteers 4 to 6 p.m. Mondays and 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays.

Volunteer cleanup crews took to the streets last April and again in November, carting away a total of 102 tons of trash and debris from the town’s streets and vacant lots.

A $203,500 housing grant through the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority will pay for basic repairs and make handicap-accessible additions to as many as 15 low-income residents’ homes.

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