By AMANDA BEAM
NEW ALBANY —
Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany. Read all installments by clicking on the bicentennial link under the “seasonal content” header at newsandtribune.com
Some call it a rebirth, others a renaissance. But no matter how people describe it, there’s no denying something transformative has recently happened to downtown New Albany. Thriving businesses have started moving in to once vacant buildings. Clusters of different restaurants serve food and fun throughout the week. Project upon project have made the small river city a destination once again, much like it was in the days of old.
“It’s wonderful to see how the downtown is coming back,” said Sally Newkirk, the director of the Carnegie Center of Art and History.
Like so many in the community, Newkirk remembered making the trek to downtown New Albany as a child. Back then, the Grand was the place to catch the latest movie, while the White House department store and Woolworths always seemed to have the latest fashion. And if you got hungry, Grants was open for a tasty lunch. The relative hustle and bustle of life, it seemed, had found a center.
Even today, Newkirk remains active in downtown life. Through its Public Art Project, the Carnegie Center infuses art and culture into the area she called the heart of the community.
“[The downtown] is a place where everybody can come together,” Newkirk said. “It’s what helps identify a community. It’s not the only part of that, of course. We have so many other things that help to define what New Albany is and who we are. But for me, I think it begins with the downtown.”
Much as people have a hard time dating the recent revival of downtown, its decline can be just as difficult to pinpoint. Like its rebirth, the movement away from the area didn’t happen all at once.
New Albany Brewing Company owner Roger Baylor said he believes the flight of both businesses and residents to the suburbs played a huge role in the subsequent decay. Fewer shops and restaurants meant fewer reasons to visit the downtown. As the people left, so did the money to keep the buildings maintained.
“It was just the development pattern of America after World War II. After World War II was the beginning of what they now call suburbanization, or exurbanization, if that’s really a word,” Baylor said. “We thought it was better to have a donut hole. Everything is on the periphery; nothing is in the middle of it.”
Things started to pick up about 20 years ago, according to Nick Cortolillo. That’s when Develop New Albany (DNA), the nonprofit he ran for nine years, was founded. Building on the local merchant organizations that existed prior to its 1990 formation, DNA focused on the “economic revitalization and historic preservation” of the downtown.
“It’s just a long process,” Cortolillo said. “It takes a long time. It takes a lot of events to occur. It takes a lot of people to help make it happen.”
Through campaigns and partnerships, DNA began to actively renovate old buildings. A grant from the state “business incubation” program as well as a loan from the Redevelopment Commission allowed the group to restore, and subsequently bring new occupants to, the White House structure. A capitol campaign was soon begun to refurbish the old bank known as the Parthenon. Later the music venue Dillingers moved into the once vacant building.
Attracting new commerce became a goal for the organization as well. DNA formed a restaurant committee which actively sought out entrepreneurs to start businesses in New Albany. Although distinct from DNA, the opening of the YMCA also brought more people into downtown.
“Every time you do something like this, someone will come downtown and say, ‘Oh that’s pretty cool.’ And if they’re a business person, they’re thinking to themselves, ‘Hmm. They’re doing something down here,’” said Cortolillo. “Every one of those little pieces has a positive effect on how people think about the downtown.”
In addition to the redevelopment, DNA became involved in several other organizations that would help its mission. In particular, joining the Main Street program allowed it to focus on four specific pillars that included organization, economic restructuring, design and promotion. Likewise, a funding source for DNA arrived when the state allowed for the formation of an Urban Enterprise Zone. This money, in part, helped pay for façade grants, giving older buildings a much needed facelift.
“As this process evolves, all these little pieces start to come together,” Cortolillo said. “At some point, you reach the tipping point. I don’t know exactly when that was, but it was probably sometime around when Wicks came in.”
Step by step, changes began to be implemented and successes and the new vitality started to be noticed. All the work has culminated in more than 90 new businesses moving to the area in the last five years, according to the DNA website.
Baylor sees the reemergence of New Albany as being primarily entrepreneurial-driven. Business owners and developers saw an underused value close to a major metropolitan area and took a risk. In the past few years, all those risks have started to see dividends.
“This has been an almost 100 percent entrepreneur-driven phenomenon. It’s small independent businesses,” Baylor said. “There were enough people here willing to take a chance.”
Both Baylor and Cortolillo agreed the redevelopment of downtown New Albany is far from over. Work still needs to be done to ensure the area remains strong.
“You can very easily lose that,” Cortolillo said. “It’s important for people to stay connected to downtown, and that’s why it’s important for Develop New Albany to make sure that connection stays in place. They need to promote downtown. They need to bring in new businesses. They’re not done.”
Insisting a comprehensive plan by the local government needs to be made, Baylor added other changes must be instituted to further the revitalization of New Albany. Apartments and other residential dwellings should be added, he said, and other structural modifications, such converting one-way streets to two-way, could allow for even more growth.
“What’s happened in the last eight years is a revolution by New Albany standards, any way you want to cut it,” Baylor said. “So you can’t just say, ‘well we’re done.’ You can’t do that.”