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Downtown Corydon: to the future or bust

Minimum viable population is described in biology as the smallest size at which a population can linger before extinction becomes only a matter of time. The concept could also be applied to a downtown that is walking the line of minimal economic viability.
The Corydon Democrat was taken by surprise during its Walking Tour series of downtown Corydon last year. We discovered so many businesses that we wondered at times what we had gotten into.
But with the hospital relocation and new Interstate 64 interchange looming on the horizon, downtown Corydon should be wary of its future. When those events occur, it may be too late to adapt.
When the leadership of Harrison County Convention Visitor’s Bureau came to talk with us about marketing our community earlier this month, they played a brief video containing a number of local attractions.
Their marketing ideas sounded promising.
‘People could respond to these,’ I said to myself, ‘but what then?’
The tourism hub of this county is Corydon. And the tourism epicenter is the downtown, but does it offer enough to hold the attention of visitors? Once a sales pitch brings them here, will they be satisfied with what they find? Will they come back?
Jim Epperson, tourism director for the Harrison County CVB, and I had a candid conversation about downtown Corydon’s replay value. And to some extent we were venting frustration over moves long overdue.
‘The question that we’re asking is how do we get people into downtown Corydon and keep them here longer,’ Epperson said.
More shops was any easy one. Hands-on activities such as an upcoming workshop at Candles by Lisa and the scrapbooking parties at Scrapbook Daze was another. Linking businesses as in the cooperative relationship between Magdalena’s and Hayswood Theatre was a third.
They form a triangle of tourism product development, Epperson said. ‘Create, link and enhance.’
This direction in our conversation frustrated me a bit. I wanted specifics, but I didn’t want to write about micromanaging our local businesses. I wanted big, bold ideas that were actionable. As it turns out, Jim and I had some.
For starters, Corydon should take control of Corydon Capitol State Historic Site. Indianapolis has steered the site in a direction that is sad. Red, puffy eyes and all.
Corydon Capitol no longer organizes the Halloween Parade or Old Capitol Days. Events like these, Indianapolis says, are not consistent with the site’s mission despite the record numbers of visitors the events brought to the historic properties.
Friends of Corydon Capital would be a logical organization to lobby for control of the site. That’s what the friends group in New Harmony did successfully, and the state continues to contribute to that site financially.
The site may actually have more to offer if placed under local control. The change would be encouraging to potential donors living within Harrison County who have pieces of history which could be put on display here.
Next, the annexation of various high-value properties near Corydon is long overdue. Wal-Mart, hotels, banks and other business could be added to the town’s tax base. Residents should quit scratching their heads over these glaring omissions and demand they be brought into the fold.
Businesses ‘up on the hill’ have siphoned off revenue from those in the historic downtown. Why not follow the example of other communities and use property taxes from strip-mall development along S. R. 135 to help downtown revitalization efforts?
Would it be unjust to use local taxes from Wal-Mart as an incentive for downtown revitalization?
And that brings us to item number three.
These horses can be led to water AND made to drink. Once incentives are available, underdeveloped properties in downtown Corydon and those badly in need of rehabilitation should not be allowed to lie fallow.
We can and should expect more of downtown properties. Our local government could begin setting design standards that aren’t grandfathered in. Downtown property owners who allow buildings to deteriorate or lots to lie vacant could be forced to meet those standards.
Again, this is not a new concept. It is at work in other communities with a strong tourism base.
It’s amazing what a renovation can do.
The Burgher Law Office and Emporium Gift Mall are impressive examples of investments made in our downtown architecture. And they are projects that generated optimism among their neighbors on the square.
The conversation with Jim Epperson continued on, including talk about a downtown apartment building, potential for a corner grocery store, prospects for the Keller property and establishments like Magdalena’s, Head Bean Coffee Shoppe and Corydon Jamboree, which appear ready to take their businesses to the next level.
But it was all just talk.
These ideas are big and bold, and they’re waiting for the appropriate groups to take action.