Yesterday, I attended a presentation in Rochester where several Fulton county organizations, led by the Fulton Economic Development Corporation (FEDCO) and their able executive Terry Lee, made a pitch to representatives of several state agencies that Rochester be named one of two “Stellar Communities” in Indiana. It’s a designation that would come with some significant dollars.
“Stellar Communities” is a program through which three agencies – the Office of Community and Rural Affairs, the Department of Transportation, and the Housing and Community Development Authority – are pooling some of their available grant-making budgets, and encouraging cities and towns to compete for those funds by developing comprehensive, complementary plans for community revitalization. The idea is that ever-more-scarce state dollars will get a better return on investment by being focused on a few – this year, two – communities where the dollars can make a transformational difference, rather than being scattered haphazardly across 92 counties. And Rochester’s proposal survived the first cut, from 42 applications to 12.
So why am I posting about it on the Valley Alumni blog? Well, as Karen Drone from the Akron Area Arts League said during the public Q&A session, for most of the 14,000 Fulton County residents who don’t live in the Rochester city limits, Rochester is still “our community” too when it comes to shopping, entertainment, and many professional, non-profit, and governmental services.
More to the point, these particular state dollars aren’t going to towns the size of Akron and Mentone this year, anyway. But state-funded improvements to Rochester’s infrastructure may well generate not only quality-of-life opportunities, but eventually jobs, that will benefit people in Akron and the countryside.
The presentation was punctuated by a well-done five-minute video featuring Rochester residents and property owners speaking on location (and a recurring group of school children, standing at various busy intersections and shouting “Sidewalks here would be stellar!”).
What Rochester’s leadership told the state agencies was, with a few million dollars in state funds over the next three years to match local funds and letters of commitment from a number of individual property owners, here’s what they would do:
• renovate an empty, 15,000 s.f. building on three-story on Main Street and turn it into a business incubator for start-up businesses.
• Renovate the Times Theater, including restoring the old vaudeville-era stage behind the movie, so the building can serve as a performing arts venue as well as a movie theater; and turn an adjacent empty storefront into an art gallery.
• Extend the Nickel Plate Trail (a recently-completed rails-to-trails project that extends from the south edge of Rochester almost to Kokomo) all the way to downtown; and add a number of sidewalk projects linking neighborhoods to the trail, the southside commercial district, and the high school.
• Implement a downtown streetscape project to restore storefronts and add pedestrian street lighting and landscaping to Main Street.
• Provide matching grants to downtown property owners to assist in the upfront cost of converting second floor spaces into modern residential space.
It is easy to look at the architectural renderings of these improvements and imagine how, once they are made, Rochester will be a much more attractive place for a business to locate or expand. I’m particularly interested in the potential of the business incubator to help launch some service-industry businesses (software, marketing, consulting) that could be providing internship opportunities for Valley students within a year or two. (Okay, some Rochester and Caston students would be welcome, too, I’m sure.)
Of course, there are only going to be two “winners” in this competition. One question the state funders asked Rochester’s presenters was, what if you don’t get these grants? And of course, the answer is that the community will have to prioritize these projects, and implement the ones that can be implemented with local resources on a more gradual scale. Forty-two other communities that applied for this process are also doing the same calculation … which in theory will give them all a clearer focus for setting priorities within their strategic plans, whether they get this money or not.
But the fact remains that this kind of state support is going to only two communities this year. Federal and state assistance for rural communities is going to get increasingly scarce. Indiana’s state legislature won’t be approving any budget increases for the next two years, and Community Development Block Grants were one of the few programs that were reduced in the federal budget proposal that the President released this week. I hope Rochester gets this award; but for the most part, waiting on Indianapolis or Washington to save the day is not going to be a rewarding strategy. We're going to have take matters into our own hands. And that's one of the reasons I started this blog.
I’m in the middle of a larger piece on how Akron has managed to be ahead of the curve in a lot of revitalization efforts among communities its size, leveraging a lot of volunteerism and private support. For the good of the communities like the ones we grew up in, we’re all going to have to get a better understanding of what has worked, and do more of it…