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December 23, 2012

Success depends on Heartland Highway

DELPHI — The shape and scope of the potential benefits from the Hoosier Heartland Industrial Corridor depend on who’s talking.

Drivers feel safer on the limited-access, four-lane, divided highway connecting Lafayette and Delphi.

To Delphi business owners, the benefits aren’t as clear-cut.

They’ve seen mixed results since the 12-mile stretch of road opened on Oct. 24.

“The next day it was a packed house,” said Lisa Delaney, owner of Stone House Restaurant at 124 E. Main St.

“I got a lot of comments from customers who said they didn’t like to drive on the old (Indiana) 25 because they were scared of it.”

It’s a different story for John McKean, owner of Wallman’s Quality Foods at 123 E. Franklin St.

“During the month of November I noticed a drop in business of a few percent,” McKean told the Journal & Courier ( ).

“I was racking my brain trying to figure out what happened. Then one day I looked at the calendar and realized it dropped off the day the corridor opened. It’s been pretty consistent since then.”

The future of Delphi hinges on what happens now that the road is open, at least in the eyes of Mayor Randy Strasser.

The city of 3,000 is the seat of government for Carroll County’s 20,000 residents.

Delphi lost 300 jobs when Globe Valve closed in 2005, and 400 jobs when Chromcraft Revington closed its manufacturing plant in 2008.

Strasser sees the new road as a gateway to future development.

“When INDOT relocated the utilities at (Indiana) 25 and U.S. 421, we sized all of the pipes and the lift station to handle 20 years of growth,” Strasser said.

The city paid $80,000 to $90,000 of the $4 million investment in infrastructure that will serve the 1,200-acre industrial park near the Indiana Packers plant.

The Carroll County Economic Development Commission created a tax-increment financing district that will earmark new property tax revenue to fund the extension of water and sewer lines south of the new road.

Signage to get drivers off the highway and into Delphi, Flora and Camden is a priority for Julia Leahy, executive director of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce.

“Flora has an industrial park and needs improved access to the Hoosier Heartland,” Leahy said. “But what’s good for Delphi is good for Carroll County.”

With the Hoosier Heartland and more projects on tap, Strasser and some residents successfully led the charge to have Delphi designated one of Indiana’s Stellar Communities.

Under the program, several state agencies partner with small communities to leverage state and federal funding and help complete large-scale projects in a short amount of time.

“The stage was set for the community to define itself as a cultural and historic destination, building on the thousands of tourists who visit the Wabash and Erie Canal,” Strasser said, referring to the historical park and interpretive center run by a nonprofit corporation.

“There’s a sense of urgency to get downtown prepared for people who stop off the highway and visit downtown.”

Community leaders identified key projects in which state and federal grants could have the biggest impact.

Rehabilitation work will start soon on several owner-occupied houses in an older neighborhood near downtown.

Plans are under way to renovate the facades on downtown buildings; improve parking, the streetscape and utilities around the courthouse square; and better connect the city’s trails.

Future projects include filling unused space with second-floor offices and putting loft apartments on the third floors of downtown buildings.

Also, there are plans to blend senior housing into the downtown area.

To leverage $20 million in state and federal grants, the city must contribute $2.4 million of its own funds.

Financial advisers have assured council members that Delphi will have that revenue without undermining services financed through its general fund. In fact, the city will maintain a minimum cash balance of $600,000 through 2016.

“You’ve protected your general fund really well, and it’s unique that Delphi budgets a surplus every year,” said Dan Hedden of Umbaugh & Associates, a CPA firm.

Strasser said he wants the city in the same — or better — financial condition when the projects are completed.

“I want money in the bank,” said Strasser, a Democrat who won a second term in 2011.

Seventy miles southwest of Delphi, the city of Greencastle offers a glimpse of how Stellar Communities works.

Greencastle was one of the first cities chosen for the program, which is overseen by the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs.

“They’ve got some great traction and a nice synergy between the mayor and DePauw University,” said Michael Thissen, who is with that state office. “Delphi has a lot of energy and a substantial volunteer base.”

The city and university have completed several projects designed to improve campus and community engagement.

A major road reconstruction that created a new gateway to DePauw included relocating and replacing water and sewer lines.

The university, which has about 2,300 students, moved its bookstore to Greencastle’s central business district, creating a community meeting space and a Starbucks, where residents and college students can interact and use the city’s free Wi-Fi.

“The bookstore has created more foot traffic than some business owners ever expected,” Thissen said. “A private investor got involved in that project, and I know Greencastle is getting phone calls from other businesses asking how they can invest and grow with the city.”

In its second year of the program, Greencastle is starting to work on downtown building facades and rehabilitation of 12 owner-occupied homes near downtown.

Some Delphi residents share the mayor’s enthusiastic vision of a vibrant historical and arts culture similar to Zionsville’s Main Street.

At Wallman’s, McKean supports the new highway.

“Things change, and we have to change along with them,” he said.

“I’ll have to be a little creative, keep prices competitive, provide better service and continue to supply better meat and produce than larger stores.”

The new route hasn’t had a noticeable impact on sales at The Flower Shoppe II, which relies on residents, Teleflora orders for special occasions and visitors.

“All these years people driving to Purdue games stopped in Delphi, but will they stop now?” store owner Belinda Weatherwax asked.

“The highway is great. It’s the safest and quickest way to get here. I just hope they get off the road and come in to Delphi.”

From Weatherwax’s perspective, roads and revitalization are only part of the economic picture.

“If residents want Delphi to thrive, they need to shop in Delphi,” Weatherwax said.

“I send customers to other businesses, to the antique store, down to Suzanne’s Calico Plus, to the Opera House Gallery.

“Community groups come to local business owners for donations, but when they need a gift, they need to think local.”

At Stone House Restaurant, Delaney sees opportunities on the horizon for Delphi.

“I’m hoping and praying the building owners will see the advantage of making an initial investment and getting a big return on that money,” she said.

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