Walker Legacy Center to start endowment with proceeds from real estate sales

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Printing plate from an advertising flier for a grooming product from Walker's early-1900s empire.
Printing plate from an advertising flier for a grooming product from Walker's early-1900s empire. - Photos by Eric Learned

The Madam Walker Legacy Center has sold off the last of its superfluous real estate holdings along Indiana Avenue, with a plan to put the proceeds toward a new endowment.

The organization, which on Oct. 20 is expected to unveil a new strategic plan, closed on the sale of the Walker Plaza building at 719 Indiana Ave. on Wednesday. The 300,000-square-foot Class B office building was purchased for $7.2 million by the Indiana University Foundation, which plans to use the building for administrative functions.

The move is considered the last needed to fulfill the Legacy Center’s previous strategic plan created in 2018, which called for the offloading of its properties and exiting from property management, as well as establishing a goal of being debt-free and creating an endowment.

The Madam Walker building at 617 Indiana Ave. is still owned by a holding company for the Legacy Center, having gone through a $15 million overhaul that was completed in 2020 through funds from the Lilly Endowment. Indiana University’s Capital Planning and Facilities department led the design and restoration of the landmark through a partnership with the center. Staff for IUPUI oversee management and event rental for the property, while part of the school’s Africana Studies Program occupies a portion of the center.

The sale of Walker Plaza, which was built in 1989, also clears the way for the center’s leadership to usher in a new plan for the Legacy Center, which is expected to focus on further educating the public about C.J. Walker and her work as a businesswoman and prominent figure in Indianapolis in the early 1900s. It comes as the city begins a strategic planning process for the Indiana Avenue corridor as a whole.

“What we’re focusing on is becoming more fiscally sustainable and updating or creating new programming,” said Kristian Little Stricklen, president of the Legacy Center. “We want to continue to draw people back into the Walker and onto” Indiana Avenue.

in January 2022, the Walker organization sold a property adjacent to the Kurt Vonnegut Museum, 501 Indiana Ave., to local real estate developer Arrow Street Development. Rodney Byrnes, CEO of Arrow Street, said the firm is in the early stages of a potential redevelopment of property, which it purchased for $3 million. The site includes the building that previously housed the Indianapolis Eye Care Center.

Stricklen said most of the proceeds from the real estate sales will be used to create the organization’s first endowment. She said the board must still determine the exact amount that will be used to start it.

“We’re talking about [use of funds] now … we are looking at a couple of options as to how we want to move forward with the endowment, now that we have sold the properties and we have the funds,” she said.

The Walker Legacy Center first tried to sell the Walker Plaza property in 2020, through a deal with Indianapolis-based Buckingham Cos, which planned to raze the 2.6-acre site to build a $70 million mixed-use project featuring 350 apartments, first-floor retail and a parking garage. But the proposal was met with extensive pushback by residents and the company ultimately withdrew the idea, citing the pandemic’s strains on the commercial development market as the driving factor.

Stricklen said the unveiling of the new strategic plan will come during an open house event celebrating the dedication of Madam Walker Memorial Way—a designation passed by City-County Council last week—on Oct. 20 at 5:30 p.m. The plan is intended to get the ball rolling on the center’s centennial in 2027.

“These transactions were not only an important step in fully executing the center’s prior strategic plan but also a vital step in ensuring the long-term sustainability of this historic site,” Nichole Wilson, chairwoman of the Legacy Center, said in written comments. “Across this nation, so many historical black sites have been lost. We did not want that for the Madam Walker Legacy Center, nor for Indianapolis.”

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