|Tue, Sep 23, 2014 12:20 PM
|Issue of September 17, 2014
January 15, 2014 | 09:58 AM
The town was beautiful as the lights went on for 2013 Light Up Corydon festival. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people milled around the decorated courtyard greeting friends, listening to carols from the bandstand and waiting for the arrival of Santa. Carriages carrying old grandpas as well as giggling teenagers and little kids clipped through the streets. Home-baked goods were for sale in outside stands, and a great variety of nativity scenes were on display at the Methodist church on the square. Oh, yes, it looked like a bright and happy holiday season ahead for a prospering community.
But when the holiday lights went off and the next business day started, I began to see a different picture. There were no store lights at the now-closed gift shop once named The Christmas Goose. We found the inviting bookstore was now closed and a "for rent" sign sat in the empty window.
We knew the small-town environment of our community was one of the things that attracted our friend Bryant, a world traveler, to join us for the holidays. Two years ago, we spent Christmas Eve day with him browsing the downtown stores and having a delightful brunch. I wrote in glowing words in this column of the fun we had sharing our hometown with a friend and that it had opened our eyes to the rich environment of our community.
This Christmas Eve, I was stuck in bed with the dreaded stomach bug. I pulled up the covers and planned for a long, lonely afternoon. My daughter Jenny and her friend Bryant went downtown to soak up the atmosphere. To my surprise, they returned in a very short time and were not bouncing with the yuletide spirit. Jenny said, "We nearly cried when the owner of the vintage store said this was her last day in business." It was the same story at the interesting and unique antique jewelry store at the corner of Capitol Avenue and Beaver Street.
It is easy to understand the dynamics of decline in a once vibrant and distinctive downtown of a small community. We are not the only place experiencing this phenomenon. It is happening all over the world. Even the large metropolitan areas have had their own shifts in urban usage. I remember the flight to the suburbs in the 1950s. As a high school student, I rode the bus through neighborhoods full of "for sale" signs. I recall the blighted areas around the present state capitol building when Frank was first elected to the state legislature. There was no one on the streets at night, few places to eat after working hours and a great deal of pessimism as to the future.
We lived in a hotel room during the legislative sessions and, through the years, witnessed the transformation of downtown Indianapolis into a vibrant and prosperous place to work, obtain services and be entertained and housed. Young people who once called Indianapolis "Indian-no-place" now occupy the desired apartments on the city canal and in restored historic neighborhoods. Folks from the suburbs flock to dine and attend educational functions, sporting events and cultural activities at the "in" venues of the Circle City. It is exciting, fun and productive to live close to the action and opportunities.
The resurrection of a downtown anywhere does not just happen with luck and good intentions. It doesn't happen by tackling one small piece of the puzzle at a time. Changes in a complex system of commerce, residential, service, cultural and athletic opportunities take an integrated multifaceted plan. A good-looking architectural plan is not the end-all. It is just one step in the whole process.
We, who call Harrison County home, need to take seriously the opportunities and options that lie ahead of us. We can give up and accept whatever business or resident is willing to occupy our semi-functional conditions. Or, we can take this situation we are facing and attack it with all the brains, skill, compassion and entrepreneurship we have.
I don't know where we want to be in the future or how we proceed to get there. I don't know what our options are. I don't know what it will take to retain the quality, functionality and charm of our beloved county seat. I do know that to be a part of such a project is one of the most invigorating and empowering experiences you can have in life. You — every one of you — can affect change and have an impact on what your future will be. A small community like Harrison County carries with it a great opportunity for all its citizens to participate and leave their mark on the future.
Where do we begin this journey? That is a discussion we can hold in the next few months. The county Extension office has set a workshop for next week that will address public spaces and their role in enhancing the quality of the community.
Every group that is now established to maintain and enhance a viable community is a needed partner in this new joint venture. This definitely is not "just a merchants' " problem or opportunity. No options should be dismissed without inquiry. No decisions made without research and exploratory discussions. No past assumptions retained.
It is a new day; let's find out what it might bring.