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Lofty Goals

Madison, Ind., vies to become
a ‘Stellar’ community

Earning the designation could bring
millions in grant funding

August 2017 Cover

(August 2017) – Every community has goals for improvement. But in many cases, the problem is finding the money to pursue those goals.
In Indiana, a program exists to help make those dreams come true for rural communities struggling to retain population, strengthen economic viability for employment and make a significant investment in infrastructure or quality of life initiatives for their residents.
The Indiana Stellar Designation Communities was initiated in 2011 by the Office of Community and Rural Affairs to annually award two cities – one large and one small – grant money opportunities to pursue and implement their enhancement goals. Two other participating state agencies include the Indiana Department of Transportation and the Indiana Housing and Community Development Association.

Stellar Community
Division I & II Designees:


2011: Greencastle & North Vernon
2012: Delphi & Princeton
2013: Bedford & Richmond
2014: Huntingburg & Wabash
2015: Crawfordsville & North Liberty
2016: Corydon & Rushville
2017 Division 1 Finalists: (6,000-50,000 population) Madison, Greensburg, Vincennes
2017 Division 2 Finalists: (below 6,000 population) Churubusco, Culver, Union City

Madison’s Stellar
Executive Team:

Mayor Damon Welch; Andrew Forrester, City of Madison Community Relations Manager; Bill Barnes, Madison-Jefferson County Community Foundation president and CEO; Lindsay Bloos, Madison Area Chamber of Commerce executive director; Susan Craig, Southeastern Indiana Regional Planning Commission executive director; Matt Wirth, Jefferson County Industrial Development Corp. executive director; Nicole Schell, City Planner and Preservation Coordinator for the City of Madison.

In March 2011, North Vernon and Greencastle became the first cities to earn grant dollars. Now Madison has recently been named a finalist to possibly earn one of two 2017 grants, to be awarded in October. Lieut. Gov. Suzanne Crouch and the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs made the announcement after officials evaluated letters of interest submitted in April by communities around the state.
In May, six communities – three each from two divisions based on population – were chosen as finalists. The finalists in Division 1, or communities with a population of 6,000 to 50,000, included Madison (population 13,000), Greensburg and Vincennes. Finalists in Division 2, or communities with a population of 5,999 and under, included Churubusco, Culver and Union City.
Each finalist city received a planning grant of $10,000 to create a strategic investment plan to detail projects, partnerships and proposed sources of funding. Strategic investment plans from the finalists are due Aug. 25. Site visits are planned for September. One community from each of the two divisions in October will be named a Stellar Communities Designee for 2017. The designation lasts for three years and opens up grant funding possibilities.
Madison Mayor Damon Welch submitted a letter of interest to the agency in late April. The letter details the types of projects that Madison hopes to accomplish and the potential costs and funding sources. Madison’s project proposals center around the Comprehensive Plan theme of “One Madison,” with projects throughout the city on the hilltop and downtown.
“One Madison” was a theme of projects developed during the city’s recent participation over the past two years in the America’s Best Communities contest. In that contest, Madison reached the eight-city finals but did not place in the top three. However, the contest enabled Madison to create a Comprehensive Plan, which was necessary to apply for a Stellar Communities Designation.

Drawing on the “One Madison” plan, Madison’s Stellar Executive Team developed a “MADISON” theme, according to Andrew Forrester, Madison’s Community Relations Manager and a steering committee member. The seven-person Executive Team was assisted by 20 Advisory Team members representing various sectors of the community. Also assisting in developing the plan was a consultant from Seymour, Ind., and a design engineering firm from Indianapolis. Projects in the Stellar application included the Madison Connector, adaptive reuse of historic buildings, destination development, inviting gateways, student-community partnerships, overhauled corridors and neighborhood revitalization.
“We drew from the public’s feedback in ENVISION (Jefferson County), the Comprehensive Plan and worked hard to make sure that the community’s vision for the future was implemented in the letter of interest,” Forrester said.
Welch thanked the community for working with officials during the years-long process to create the city’s recently adopted comprehensive plan.
“This is a validation of all the hard work and planning that our community has undertaken the last few years, beginning with ENVISION Jefferson County and finishing with our Comprehensive Plan last fall,” Welch said in a release. “I am grateful to the community for their feedback the last few years, and I know Madison residents will stay involved and engaged the next few months as we pursue this designation that would take Madison to the next level in attracting people, businesses and visitors.”

Photo by Don Ward

Developing the fire-ravaged Madison Elks Lodge building is among the projects being put forward by the Madison Stellar Designation Executive Team in its application. The building was destroyed by fire on Aug. 25, 2006.

To obtain input from the community about what projects to pursue with Stellar funding, the Madison Executive Team in early July asked residents to take part in an online survey and participate in two public events. A “S’More Conversation” event was held at Johnson Lake Park on July 9, and a second event was held July 10 at City Hall to discuss the Stellar proposals. Online input was collected through July 14.
“Our efforts to collect input from the community went well,” Forrester said. “There was not a lot of people who showed up at the meetings, but almost 400 people did the online survey. We do want to continue gathering input, so we may plan another public event soon to try and narrow our proposals even more.”
Forrester said the most popular feedback was developing the old Cotton Mill that sits empty and dilapidated on the riverfront. It is the largest building in downtown and has sat idle for many years. Other priorities include developing the empty Tower Tack Factory on West Second Street and the empty shopping center plaza on the hilltop at Clifty Drive and Michigan Road.
Also ranking high was rehabilitating the Ohio Theater, which is now owned by the nonprofit “Friends of the Ohio Theatre.” The proposal also includes finishing the Madison Connector pedestrian and bicycle path across the hilltop and from the Saddle Tree Factory downtown to the riverfront. The Madison Connector was a primary component of Madison’s plan in the America’s Best Communities contest.
Forrester said the team realizes it cannot do all the proposals on the table, “so we are trying to narrow the focus to three components.” They are 1. Gather community input on those projects proposed; 2. Examine the financial feasibility of the projects proposed; 3. Explore whether the state agencies would have enough money to fund them.
“There is no hard figure for how much money we could possibly be awarded, but there’s a potential for up to $6 million,” Forrester said. “Stellar is a designation; not a grant program, and designation opens up grant funding opportunities that we would have priority to receiving.”
Forrester said that although the final proposal is a hard plan, “this a unique program, so plans may change, and they are willing to work with us.”
Team member Lindsay Bloos of the Madison Area Chamber of Commerce recently attended a Stellar informational meeting in Indianapolis, where she said “there was a lot of positive comments about Madison by agency representatives. The focus for us now is how we go from good to great. So we are very excited about that.”
Considering that much of the plan evolved from community input, Bloos added, “It’s really the community’s plan more than anything else.”
Bloos said it is the team’s job to narrow the focus to the projects that are financially feasible. “We have to be reasonable about what we really think we can accomplish.” She added that, either way, the experience will enable Madison to better compete in the future to attract developers and industry.

North Vernon’s Stellar experience was positive

In March 2011, the city of North Vernon was selected as one of two cities in Indiana to win a new grant from the state called Stellar Communities. This selection occurred during the first year of the Indiana Stellar Designation Communities Program.
Forty-two other communities applied, but only North Vernon and Greencastle were picked to receive the grant, which amounted to millions of dollars for roads, housing, brownfields revitalization, storefront facades and other programs.
North Vernon was given three years to launch the projects that were detailed in the proposal. Almost all of the work was directed toward downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods to transform how the center of town looks and operates.
As of July 2016, North Vernon had completed more than half of the projects identified in its strategic community investment plan and continues to work on its remaining projects. For example, the Carnegie Library restoration was completed in 2012, and the historic building now serves as North Vernon City Hall. Short Street Plaza is complete with street furniture, planters, signage and other decorative elements.

Photo by Don Ward

Stellar grant funding could help the nonprofit Friends of the Ohio Theatre rehabilitate the historic theater in downtown Madison, Ind. The project is among the priorities.

However, city officials experienced a setback in the aftermath of a massive fire in the historic district in November 2014. A total of 11 buildings were damaged in the blaze. Six of the buildings were part of the city’s project improvements. Construction of the city’s downtown facade improvements are now moving forward in the aftermath of the fire. Streetscape improvements are complete along Main Street and have begun along Fifth Street.
The Stellar Team also finalized property acquisition for the city’s popular, one-mile multi-use trail, which now connects North Vernon to Muscatatuck County Park. As of July 2016, the path had been laid and paving had begun.
The city finalized investment projects in its Irish Hill Neighborhood, which included the renovation of 14 owner-occupied homes and infrastructure improvements of Irish Hill.
Kathryn Ertel, executive director of the Jennings County Economic Development Commission, helped guide the city’s Stellar program, both before and during the designation initiatives. She praises the program for giving small, rural communities the chance to do big things, financially, that they would otherwise not have the funds to do.
“This has been a huge change for North Vernon,” said Ertel, a Jennings County native who joined the staff in 1999 and became its director in 2005. “Without Stellar we would never be able to put that kind of money in our streets and sidewalks. It has enabled us to make a large impact in our infrastructure with one fell swoop.”
Ertel said the Stellar designation has amounted to nearly $12.3 million in investment in North Vernon. And the rewards are still coming in. In the past 18 months, the county landed a $70 million new industry with a projected 300 new jobs.
“It was a real learning experience for us,” Ertel said. “You submit your comprehensive plan and then learn a lot about the various state agencies and what they can do to help a city. Some, I had never worked with before. So I my advice to Madison would be to expect the unexpected because there will always be something that pops up.”
Ertel said that implementing the project initiatives is also challenging, adding, “Sometimes you think you’re not getting very far, and the next thing you know, you’re cutting the ribbon on a project.”
Since the inception of the Stellar program, many of the rules – and the people involved at the state agencies – have changed, she said. The guidelines also have become more restrictive on what type of projects are allowed. “There is a misnomer about Stellar that it is an open checkbook. But there are certain things you can and cannot do.”
She said she believes Madison has a good chance of winning this round. “Madison is a beautiful community, and it has a lot of areas to highlight. I think Madison can prove its case by looking at what it has already done, and I think the judges would agree it would be money well spent.”
With the Stellar initiatives winding down now in North Vernon, Ertel says they are entering the post-Stellar phase to update the comprehensive plan and move forward.
“I lived Stellar for five years, so you could say that I am a big proponent of the program,” Ertel said.
Madison Stellar Team members, meanwhile, are hoping that such a life with the program is about to begin.

• For more information on Madison’s efforts to earn a Stellar Communities Designation, visit the website: www.StellarMadison.org.

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