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Downtown plans in flux

BY Carolyn Muyskens - cmuyskens@chronicle-tribune.com

The city has key decisions to make before it can apply for grant funding from the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA) to help revitalize the downtown area.

At a meeting of downtown stakeholders, including building owners, city council members and leaders of local nonprofit groups, regional OCRA liaison Andrea Kern explained the city will have to pick specific projects that fall under either facade or streetscape improvements in order to apply for the Main Street Revitalization grant, one of OCRA's Community Development Block grants.

Positioning the city to apply for the up-to-$600,000 grant is one of the reasons the Grant County Economic Growth Council has hired Scott Burgins of SB Research and Planning to draw up a new downtown Marion revitalization plan at a price tag of $18,000. A downtown plan is one of the requirements of the grant's application process.

The Growth Council and Burgins looked for input from stakeholders Wednesday about which downtown projects interest them.

“We're trying to capture the dynamics of these people that are investing their time into downtown,” said Tim Eckerle, Growth Council executive director.

Kern said options that could be funded through the OCRA grant fall into two categories: facade improvements, and streetscapes, which include sidewalks, parking, landscaping, curbs, gutters, bike racks, benches, lighting and crosswalks, among other potential projects.

The Town of Fairmount, for example, won $500,000 through the Main Street Revitalization Program for improvements to its downtown streetscapes which included repaved streets, new sidewalks and new light posts. 

Facade improvements are already in the works on several downtown buildings, notably the former Wolfe building, but Kern said the grant funding could not be retroactively applied.

Ultimately, Eckerle said the decision-making power about which projects are proposed will lie with the city.

Although the project right now is being directed by Main Street Marion, the Growth Council and individual property owners and stakeholders, the city will ultimately be the body that applies for the grant and receives the funding.

To submit an application for the grant, Marion's City Council will have to pass a resolution declaring that it has the funding in hand for the 20 percent match.

The matching funds have already been put up by the Community Foundation of Grant County, which awarded $120,000 to downtown revitalization efforts earlier this year for the purpose of securing another grant.

The City Council will also have to designate the downtown area as an area of blight and slum to be eligible for the grant.

Where the boundaries of downtown fall, for the purposes of the grant, will be another key question.

One property owner at the meeting Wednesday said she was concerned all the money would go toward the courthouse square and not the surrounding blocks of downtown, which she felt sometimes get left out of these discussions.

Jacquie Dodyk, executive director of Affordable Housing and Community Development Corporation, said the city needed to be “thoughtful” about how it chose the boundaries of the downtown area for the project because the designation can affect other types of grant funding.

Kern said the $600,000 Main Street Revitalization grant is competitive and she tells communities to essentially plan on applying at least twice before winning the funds.

Typically, between 5 and 10 cities apply for the Main Street Revitalization grant in a given cycle, Kern said.

Kern said the amount of funding is variable and dependent on federal appropriations. Some years OCRA can fund more block grants than others.

Burgins said the city is cutting about a year off of the typical time it takes to do this sort of project because it's not going through OCRA for a planning grant first.

“The schedule's all up in the air,” Burgins said.

Eckerle said plans were still in flux and it wasn't clear yet which grant cycle the city would shoot for, but he said it was key to keep momentum up.

“There's a sense of urgency,” he said.

Burgins said it's not clear yet how much work will need to be done on the plan by Main Street Marion and himself and how long that will take. He's still sorting through the existing downtown plans and determining how much work is left to be done. That timeline will also affect when the city can apply.