Businesses on MLK give revitalization another shot

December 22, 2008
Martin Luther King Jr. Street is surrounded by golf courses and parks, but run-down businesses and vacant lots dot the area between West 38th Street and Fall Creek Parkway.

Not for long, though, at least if the newly organized MLK Business Revitalization Association succeeds where others have failed.

Founded six months ago by Flanner House Executive Director Myron Richardson with help from Wendy Cooper, a senior project manager for the city's Department of Metropolitan Development, the association aims to bring new life to the area by uniting area business owners behind a common goal-cleaning up the community to attract other entrepreneurs.

The group also would like a say in what happens to $3.3 million left over from a tax increment financing district established in 1995 to support redevelopment projects in the United Northwest Area, where the blighted street is located.

Hopes are running high. About 65 residents and business owners attended the association's town hall meeting last month, and another gathering is planned for Feb. 10 to form small working groups.

Unlike previous efforts that fell short, the MLK Business Revitalization Association is intent on getting buy-in. Another difference: the commitment of Richardson.

A resident of Carmel, Richardson is a former manufacturing manager who found a new career at Flanner House, an MLK Street community center. His philosophy is summed up in a motto taped to the wall beside his desk: "Change your thoughts, change your life."

He put that attitude into action at Flanner House, and he wants to do the same for the rest of the community where he works more than 60 hours a week. Fueled by the Starbucks coffee he picks up on his way to the office each day-the chain hasn't yet found Flanner House's neighborhood-his goal is to convince business owners they can change their community for the better. And he wouldn't mind a Starbucks within walking distance.

But Richardson knows he doesn't have all the answers. That's why he is soliciting advice from others who have led similar efforts, like Mary Clark of the Lafayette Square Coalition. The Lafayette Square group was instrumental in attracting Wal-Mart to the retail district near Lafayette Road and West 38th Street even as stores like Sears and J.C. Penney announced plans to leave.

"[Business associations] need people that are so passionate and committed to their community and don't mind working extremely hard to spearhead the growth in their area," Clark said.

Ultimately, Richardson's group also wants input as the city decides what to do with the $3.3 million in leftover TIF funds.

As IBJ reported in September, Mayor Greg Ballard's administration has been reviewing all of Indianapolis' TIF districts to make sure they're still necessary. Officials said revenue that continued to accumulate after TIF bonds were paid off could be used to shore up the city-county budget.

Richardson knows that getting business owners involved in the association early will be key to success. Keeping the group on track is equally important.

"The reason nothing ever happened [before] was that you need someone in the community to lead the people," he said. "I don't think the city can do it."

Area business owners Ja'Net Edwards and Kevin Gill already are on board. They co-own Write On!, a verbal poetry venue on 34th Street, and she owns Nosey's Smell Good, a nearby body oil and home fragrance store.

Edwards thinks this effort will be successful because the timing seems right.

"Sometimes you can attempt things before everything is aligned. I feel that everything is aligned," she said.

The partners think the area has gotten a bad rap. Sure, there's a liquor store that opens at 7 a.m., plus a fair share of crime and poverty. But the area also has a sense of community, Gill said, citing neighborhood children who bring in their report cards to show him.

Richardson invited local police to set up shop-unofficially-at Flanner House, where they can keep a close eye on the area and even use the fridge.

Business owners and residents alike have a stake in the business association's success, Edwards said. "Ultimately, all of us here are very proud to call it our home."

Greg Andrews' Behind the News column will return Jan. 5.
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