NORTH VERNON — This will be the year of streetscapes in downtown North Vernon.
The improvements in the first phase will include new brick paver accents, decorative street lighting, curb extensions, new pavement and sidewalks.
It’s part of the overall goal of making North Vernon more attractive for residents and visitors, as well as bringing in new businesses and jobs, according to Stellar Community Project Manager Cory Whitesell.
Construction signs are already up for the first phase Streetscape project on the north side of the railroad tracks, along Fifth Street and O&M Avenue. Work will begin as soon as the weather
permits, Whitesell said.
Construction on the nearly $1.4 million first phase is expected to wrap up either at the end of the summer or in early fall, Whitesell said.
“This is really where the public is really going to notice a difference,” North Vernon Mayor Harold “Soup” Campbell said.
Work on the $925,000 Short Street Plaza project is expected to start this summer and be completed by the end of the year, according to Whitesell. The plaza is intended to create a pedestrian-friendly public space in the downtown area.
That project will require the acquisition of the First Financial drive-through banking facility. Whitesell, who describes that property as a significant part of the plaza, expects a response to their purchase offer from the bank within a month. But if a purchase agreement is not reached, Whitesell said plans to develop the plaza will move forward.
“Decisions have been made,” Whitesell said. “Our goal is to transform the downtown, and open it up to new possibilities.”
But a number of decisions need to be made concerning the most expensive project in the entire Stellar Communities program: the $3.7 million second phase of Streetscape.
That phase, expected to begin early next year, has the same components as this year’s first phase of Streetscape. But the second phase will cover a much larger area south of the railroad tracks that includes Madison Avenue and Fifth Street.
While current plans call for keeping part of South Madison Avenue open south of Walnut Street, that section would be one-way for southbound traffic. The revisions would cut the amount of parking spaces in half for apartment tenants in the Ruby Jane Video Store building at 263 E. Walnut St.
During the Feb. 11 meeting of the North Vernon City Council, some downtown merchants expressed concern that those tenants would take spaces reserved for customers. Concern also was voiced that the new trees planned along Madison Avenue may cause a maintenance issue.
Whitesell noted that a number of people who expressed concerns on Feb. 11 also voiced strong reservations about downtown parking changes during several hearings and meetings last year.
While Whitesell said it’s important to give the public complete access to the design process, he added that his experience in other communities has taught him that many are uncomfortable with too much change in a short amount of time.
“The idea behind Stellar is to take 10 to 20 years of projects and do them concurrently,” Whitesell said. “The side effect is that you are accelerating the public perception. Everybody has to accept the changes faster than normal.”
The Stellar Communities program is a multi-agency partnership designed to fund comprehensive community development projects in Indiana’s smaller communities. The program embodies collaborative government partnerships and leverages state and federal funding from multiple agencies to undertake large-scale projects.
Getting the entire downtown community to accept the improvements is essential, according to Whitesell. He explained the success of the nearly $11.3 million Stellar investment depends on the willingness of home and business owners to improve their own properties.
The mayor agreed.
“We can invest in a city, but those downtown stakeholders have to invest in themselves,” Campbell said. “Several have done it already, and they have something to really be proud of.”
The mayor cited the Park Theatre and the headquarters of Dave O’Mara Construction as examples of well-invested downtown stakeholders.
City officials are hopeful a number of other owners will become motivated after more than $1 million is spent on the improvement of building facades in the downtown area.
While preliminary design work was done last October, the city decided to change architects for the first phase of the project.
That will delay the submission of a final design until August, with construction expected to begin in the fall and continue through the spring of 2014. The second phase likely will begin in the middle of next year.
One project has been exceptionally well-received by the community, Whitesell said. A total of 14 houses were fixed last year in the historic Irish Hill neighborhood, located north and east of the downtown area.
In addition, renovations were made to streets and sidewalks during the half-million-dollar first phase of the Irish Hill project. Up to 20 more buildings are expected to be fixed up during the second phase in 2015.
“We’ve really started to see a transformation in that neighborhood that is so important to the downtown,” Whitesell said.
To date, three approved projects have been dropped from the Stellar list:
Those exclusions have resulted in excess funds, and Whitesell said several suggestions have been made from elected officials and the public concerning how to best spend that money.
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding,” Whitesell said. “The city did not get a blank check to do what they want. We have to fit the projects with the rules with the program.”
Campbell agreed, adding Stellar projects must be located within a specific target area.
He also said there are several rules concerning investment, project tracking and the involvement of professional experts.
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