Indy to host Urban Forum: Group that helps revitalize properties to showcase city’s projects

Visitors in Indianapolis for the Urban Forum in April might patronize Jockamo Upper Crust Pizza in Irvington not only to sample the food but also the success of a neighborhood business district revitalization program.

The pizzeria benefited from an effort called Fostering Commercial Urban Strategies, or FOCUS, through a $16,000 facade grant from the Indianapolis chapter of the Local Initiatives Support Corp.

Indianapolis is one of 30 cities boasting LISC chapters. Nationally, they invested more than $1 billion in low-income neighborhoods last year by leveraging local and national resources. On a $2 million annual budget, the local LISC acts as an intermediary that provides grants and loans to neighborhood groups.

The progress it’s making to help revitalize seven urban commercial corridors caught the attention of its New York-based parent, which chose Indianapolis to host its Urban Forum national conference, an event that takes place every 18 months. About 400 people involved in similar programs across the country are expected to attend and tour the neighborhoods.

This year’s forum will run April 28-30. It most recently stopped in Miami and San Francisco-cities seldom mentioned in the same breath as Indianapolis.

“We like to select sites that have, or are, engaged in [commercial] work to really showcase them and to share information, so I think Indianapolis is ideal,” said Mary Burkholder, senior vice president of housing and economic development for the national LISC organization. Launched in 2004, FOCUS is a partnership between LISC, the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, the Indianapolis Coalition for Neighborhood Development, and the city of Indianapolis. Loans, grants and technical support available to small-business owners along several designated corridors ultimately decreases their risk and gives them a better chance of succeeding, said Maury Plambeck, director of the city’s Department of Metropolitan Development. The seven corridors are: 16th Street East 10th Street Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive Fountain Square Irvington North Meridian Street West Washington Street Irvington and North Meridian Street are the latest to join the five original corridors selected for their “untapped potential,” said Bill Taft, executive director of the local LISC chapter. LISC tabbed just two corridors when the last selections were made in April 2006 despite interest from 10 neighborhood associations. The not-for-profit funds a point person to coordinate activities at each corridor and lacked the financial means to support any more areas at that time. Some of the program’s participants, particularly Fountain Square, are showing tangible results, Taft said.

Progress promising

There, the local LISC chapter loaned Southeast Neighborhood Development Inc. $740,000 to finance construction costs for three dilapidated buildings at State and English avenues. SEND is renovating the historic structures to convert them to residential and work spaces as part of its Fountain Square Corners development. Two of the buildings are finished but are not yet occupied.

Businesses that have benefited from the program include Joe’s Cycles on Virginia Avenue and Santorini Greek Kitchen on Prospect Street, as well as a graphic designer, marketing firm, and video and editing company that occupy space in a renovated building at 1014 E. Prospect St.

Along the East 10th Street corridor, DataSmith Technologies owner James Smith is toiling to convert the former Mustang Sally’s biker bar into a headquarters for his computer consultancy.

Smith purchased the building in a tax sale for $1 three years ago, but paid $7,000 in back taxes and a few thousand dollars more in additional fees. He since has invested $12,000 in a new parking lot and $5,000 in a nearby utility building, not to mention hundreds of hours of sweat equity.

A LISC grant reimbursing him for a $26,000 facade enabled him to begin restoring the century-old structure.

“The front of this building literally looked like a bunker-no windows, everything boarded up and falling apart,” Smith said. “It probably should have been knocked down, but what I saw was a diamond in the rough.”

Indeed, he renamed the building the Mayfair after the original bar that occupied it. The inside has been gutted and is undergoing reconstruction to rid the property of any evidence from its latest life as a magnet for vagrants. Smith’s six employees will continue to work from home or at client offices until renovations are finished.

The plan is to have DataSmith inhabit 1,000 square feet on the first floor by the end of the year, with a coffee shop leasing an equal amount of space. Smith would live in a 2,000-square-foot condo upstairs.

The decision to reside in the building where he will work has been made easier by what is transpiring in the neighborhood. An empty residence next door has been rehabbed and is occupied, an eyesore across the street that also housed a tavern has been razed, and the John H. Boner Community Center to the east invested $6 million in a new addition.

Further, a former Kroger is leased to Teachers’ Treasures Inc., and a scrap yard accused of buying stolen materials closed.

“None of this was even in the works when I bought my building,” Smith said.

At the 16th Street corridor, LISC provided pre-development funds ranging from $5,000 to $50,000 for Herron High School, a public charter school sponsored by the Indianapolis mayor’s office.

LISC also provided funding to get the Herron Museum Building renovated and leased to the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art. In addition, it’s provided a facade grant for the Herron Foundry Building at the corner of 16th and Alabama streets. LISC is negotiating with tenants and may finance the entire project.

Signs of life in Irvington

Newcomer districts North Meridian Street and Irvington are beginning to show progress as well.

The North Meridian Street corridor near downtown has a number of buildings, most notably the WXIN-TV Channel 59 offices, which have struggled with vacancy problems. Some redevelopment of office buildings between Interstate 65 and Fall Creek Parkway has occurred, however.

In Irvington, Jockamo opened in October on Washington Street across from the neighborhood branch of the Marion County Public Library. The matching grant that owner Mick McGrath received from LISC permitted him to renovate the front of the building that a bank formerly occupied.

Another restaurant in the same building, The Legends Classic Irvington Cafe, has expanded, as has the Lazy Daze Coffee House. New arrivals include a Huntington Bank branch and Starbucks cafe.

Amandula Henry, executive director of the Irvington Development Organization that is spearheading FOCUS initiatives for LISC there, credits the program for the area’s overall revival. The organization tapped FOCUS to create a business directory and to commission an economic development plan for the corridor.

It also received a $1 million federal transportation grant to improve intersections and light fixtures, and install new benches and trash receptacles in 2009.

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