“We need a grocery store!” was the collective cry from more than 100 residents and business owners in downtown Madison, Ind., during a Jan. 14 meeting to review the results of a month-long online survey about the downtown’s future. The survey was conducted in December in eight Indiana towns by the Indiana Main Street Program. Kathy La Plante, a senior program officer from the National Main Street Center, based in Chicago, presented the findings of the survey through a Powerpoint presentation held at Red Bicycle Hall in Madison.
La Plante has more than 30 years of working with Main Street. She began working as the Main Street executive director in her hometown of Chippewa Falls, Wisc., and now travels throughout the country working for the National Main Street Center from her home near Concord, N.H.
Kathy La Plante (far left in back) speaks to a full room of Madison, Ind., residents and business owners on Jan. 14.
La Plante joked that Madison was full of “overachievers,” considering that the record 504 respondents to the survey far outpaced those in the other Indiana communities. In addition, the large crowd that attended the January meeting was by far the largest she had seen during her travels to present survey results in the other Indiana towns.
The National Main Street Center provided the questions on the survey about the needs and strengths of the downtown as a way to plan future strategies to move forward. The lack of a grocery store in the downtown ranked by far as the primary need, according to survey respondents.
Ruler Foods, a subsidiary of Kroger, closed last March, ending the long run of a grocery store operating in downtown Madison. It was the only grocery in the downtown. At the time of the closing, Madison Mayor Damon Welch vowed to find another company to replace it.
In October, the Madison Redevelopment Commission paid a consultant $12,000 for a six-month contract to try and locate a grocery company to open a store in downtown Madison. The city, Redevelopment Commission and the Jefferson County Industrial Development Corp. are working together on the project.
In addition to the lack of a grocery store, La Plante went through the survey and identified many strengths and weaknesses and presented several comments made by respondents.
According to the survey results, the most frequented business is Hinkle’s Sandwich Shop. La Plante showed another slide that ranked what both tourists and residents would like to see added in the downtown: grocery store, fine dining, entertainment, a brewery, sporting goods and outdoor retail store and more variety in ethnic restaurants.
Kathy La Plante
In another slide, La Plante showed that the most frequented business hours in downtown Madison are after 5 p.m. and the hours from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. La Plante suggested that business owners consider staying open later and on weekends, “otherwise, you are truly catering to the unemployed” with the current hours.
The Main Street Program focuses on three key areas: Organization, Design, Promotion and Economic Vitality. In addition to helping business owners improve their facades and internal operations, the group organizes many events in the downtown to spur economic activity and to improve the quality of life in the community. For instance, in Madison, monthly Music in the Park concerts, held from June to September, are very popular among residents. Today, Madison is one of more than 1,600 Main Street communities. They operate as an arm of the nonprofit Indiana Main Street Center, a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The survey results indicated that respondents frequent the downtown area every day, however 28 percent of the respondents actually live downtown. Thirty percent of the respondents indicated they wish they lived downtown.
Asked about the top issues facing the downtown, the respondents’ answers ranked as 1. store vacancies, 2. store variety, 3. store hours, 3, crime and drugs, 4. parking near the courthouse.
As far as age of respondents, most were in the 50-55 range. The rest fell in either age 45-50 or age 55-60. Few respondents were in the Millennial age range (20s).
To summarize the results, La Plante presented three general conclusions and suggested the Madison Main Street organization focus on them moving forward. The first is the fact that most downtown residents are retirees, so efforts should be made to improve quality of life for them.
These improvements could be such things as improved street lighting, improved access for people with disabilities, improved transportation to and from the hilltop, better opportunities for walkers. She cited the decision by officials in Concord, N.H., near where she lives, to reduce their four-lane Main Street down to two lanes and expand sidewalks and add street corner “bump-outs” for safer street crossings. She showed before and after photos of Concord showing people sitting on benches and outdoor tables at restaurants on the wide sidewalks created by the move.
A second area of strength is the arts and antiques markets. La Plante said the town should continue to focus on what she called “the day-tripper market.”
The third focus, she said, should be on restaurants and entertainment – especially in establishing more restaurants of ethnic variety.
“You can adopt just one or all three of these strategies,” La Plante said.
City officials in Madison have been discussing the possibility of reducing the number of traffic lanes on Main Street from four to two after the state turns over control of Main Street to the city. The turnover of control of Main Street is planned to take place after the new Indiana approach to the Milton-Madison Bridge is completed, which is expected to occur in late 2020, according to Andrew Forrester, Madison’s Community Relation Manager. He said construction on the redesigned bridge approach is expected to begin in late February or early March. The idea to change from four lanes to two lanes is to provide better quality of life for pedestrians and eliminate semi-truck and dump truck traffic in the downtown.
Noise from excessive truck traffic was cited by respondents and in comments made at the January meeting by several of those in attendance to be a problem. Forrester said the city is expected to take control of only a part of Main Street – from just west of Jefferson Street to the top of Hanover hill. So if such a change was ever made from four to two lanes, trucks would have to go around the hilltop and down the Hwy. 421 hill to get to the Milton-Madison Bridge, he said.
Forrester said no decision has yet been made, but added, “I expect discussions and meetings about it to begin taking place sometime this year. We would want to get lots of input from residents and downtown business owners before making any decision like that.”
In Concord, one side of the street was converted into angled parking, with the other side offering parallel parking. A center lane is available for delivery trucks to park while drivers make deliveries.
Regardless of the future design or any changes to Main Street, residents and business owners appeared eager to be involved in future plans for improvement, judging by the strong turnout, said Valecia Crisafulli, vice president of the Madison Main Street Program. She also chairs the organization’s Business Recruitment Committee.
“I think Kathy La Plante’s presentation was spot on,” Crisafulli said. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us what she said, but she validated what we already knew about our downtown.”
Crisafulli said the Main Street board plans to move forward on the strategies La Plante cited, “especially those quality of life issues and going after a variety of new restaurants.”
La Plante spent the early part of the day holding three small focus groups with local residents representing local government, business and property owners, and nonprofit partners. “We plan to review the results of the survey and focus groups at our board retreat (held in late January),” Crisafulli said. “We will not change dramatically what Main Street does in 2019, but validate our goals to attract businesses.”
Crisafulli said she was very encouraged by the large turnout at the community meeting. “We want everyone to feel like Main Street is their program,” she said. “We want as much community engagement as possible.”
Main Street Executive Director Victoria Perry said of La Plante’s presentation, “We were able to learn some valuable information about what Main Street is currently doing well, how we could improve and where we need to focus our efforts. Going forward, we will use all of the information we gathered during this time to create our upcoming goals for Main Street.”
Perry said the board would take the results of the survey to focus on three central strategies: attracting “location neutral” residents (those who can work remotely or only need to be near a major airport and active retirees), arts and vintage, and restaurants and entertainment. “As we plan our upcoming projects, we want to ensure that these three strategies are at the forefront of our minds,” Perry said.
In 1977, Madison served as one of the three pilot programs created by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The program was designed to address concerns about the continuing threats to traditional commercial architecture in economically declining downtowns across America.
Along with the other two pilot program communities of Galesburg, Ill., and Hot Springs, S.D., Madison became a model for other chapters throughout the country.
• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at: info@RoundAbout.bz.
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