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June 18, 2014

MOSS: Mike Kopp has his hand in progress in area downtowns

A little forward thinking goes a long way

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — It was 2 p.m., a time restaurants must hate. This one, though, Red Yeti Brewing Co. in downtown Jeffersonville, still was hopping like it had at noon. Anyone who noticed had to be impressed.

Mike Kopp had to be proud.

A hustler of commercial real estate, Kopp helped make Red Yeti happen. He likewise lends a strong and steady hand to downtown New Albany’s reformation and figures on adding further to the buzz in Jeffersonville.

Kopp, vice president of commercial sales at Re/Max First, is far from the quickest to claim credit but is high among those deserving. Like too few others, Kopp pushed a vision, sparked momentum, all the while preaching both patience and confidence. A salesman, he talks more easily about his next hope than his last one.

“I just happened to be somebody who put things together,” Kopp said of a now decade-old run.

“I’ve still got a lot more to do.”

Both downtowns, long struggling, bask in all-but giddy optimism. Each has obvious advantages on which to build — such as for Jeffersonville, the walking bridge and for New Albany, the YMCA.

Lo and behold, in both downtowns, more businesses finally open than close. Expensive risks are being taken left and right. Those gambles suddenly seem smart, though, not quixotic. Elected leaders no longer alienate suburbanites by leading cheers for downtown.

“We need to make sure everybody knows we want people downtown,” Jeff Gahan, New Albany’s mayor, told me.

Jeffersonville always has had the better riverfront but did not always have the will to exploit it. It now spectacularly and regularly does. While a New Albany strength too better is put to use — a larger downtown with lots of worthy old buildings to use anew. Kopp convinced himself, and increasingly others, to believe that downtown New Albany was worth saving.

“It seemed like someone was waiting on someone to do something,” Kopp said. “I figured it was me.”

Of a dozen or so restaurants to open in that downtown in recent years, Kopp was crucially involved in many. That included a crucial campaign for liquor licenses to be reasonably priced and readily available. Kopp’s fingerprints are less in Jeffersonville, but wow is he revved up. He mentions a winery and a steakhouse as if they are a matter of when, not if.

“We’ve got to figure ways to capitalize off of it,” Kopp said of the excitement that Red Yeti reflects.

Ian Hall, owner of the New Albany Exchange Pub + Kitchen, a restaurant, and a partner in the Comfy Cow ice cream shop, said people embrace new being made from old. Energy downtown is genuine.

“It’s heading in the right direction,” Hall said. “A lot of people are being reintroduced.”

Gahan agrees momentum in New Albany, though exciting, must not be taken for granted. Predecessors in city leadership counted on ballyhooed initiatives such as a parking garage and spiffy sidewalks to turn the tide. They did not.

“It’s a long way from where it can be,” Gahan said of downtown. “There will be peaks and valleys. That’s just the nature of how business works. We’ve got to keep pushing, keep focusing, keep reinventing.”

Gahan points to the possibility of two way streets and mentioned a higher priority on catering to bikers and walkers. In Kopp’s world, New Albany needs much more downtown residents — precisely, more nice places to put interested people — to anchor the commercial progress. Kopp also works for heightened commercial activity to the west of downtown. He urges relentless downtown promotion and, of course, the New Albany riverfront requires dramatic action, not just talk.

“We’ve got to get up over that floodwall, to see the river and the bridge,” Kopp said.

Riverfront plans have been floated, and floated and floated, seemingly since the Scribner family settled the town.

At a corner table at the Red Yeti, Kopp watched servers scramble to keep up with the full house. Kopp also looked outside at sidewalks brimming as if Jeffersonville was a tourist town. He handed me his business card and promised to keep me up on efforts to continue the turn around.

“I’m a patient man,” he said.

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