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November 14, 2013

VAN HOY: Belief in Y’s benefit has paid off

— Although the YMCA opened just five years ago, it’s hard to picture downtown New Albany without it. When I took the job as editor of this newspaper in November 2005, there were some people that didn’t want to imagine it at all.

I remember reading and editing stories throughout 2006 when the city council — and members of the public — were debating whether or not to finance a yearly payment of $137,500 to help fund the construction of a new downtown Y, priced at more than $22 million.

The majority of the project — $20 million — was to be funded by a gift from Caesars Casino via its charitable foundation.

Sure, the city and Floyd County had some fiscal responsibility in the deal, but I remember thinking, why would anyone pass this opportunity up?

Some still weren’t convinced.

“I’ve never believed that it will do what it’s been touted to do,” a New Albany resident said, according to a June 2006 New Albany Tribune article. “The growth is on Charlestown Road now ... downtown’s not the heart anymore.”

The majority of the city council fortunately disagreed and by a 5-4 vote funded a project brought about by the hard work of visionaries and supporters of the Y. And now, downtown feels like the heart again, certainly more so than the suburban reaches of the city.

There have been some hits and some misses, for sure, but here’s a sampling of what’s followed the Y into downtown New Albany:

• A revamped — yet currently underused — riverfront amphitheater.

• A downtown farmers’ market location.

• A new park.

• A winery and a brewpub, and other options to purchase upscale carry-out beer, wine and spirits.

• Restaurants such as Feast BBQ and The Exchange Pub + Kitchen which are getting recognition far beyond New Albany’s borders.

• New French, Italian and Cuban restaurants.

• Trendy boutiques, consignment and gift stores.

• A coffee shop that’s open past lunch time.

• A music venue featuring national acts.

• New Albany outposts of popular Louisville spots Wick’s Pizza, Dragon King’s Daughter, Toast on Market, Quills Coffee and Regalo. All of these businesses chose to open in New Albany rather than another Southern Indiana location.

• Art installations.

• Bike lanes, although more are sorely needed.

I liken these arrivals to dominoes falling, and the YMCA was the one that got the momentum going. These unique restaurants, stores and attractions breed more of the same.

It’s like the practice of car dealers locating next to one another. Even though they are competing, they are vying for an audience they know wants to buy a car.

These businesses opening and thriving downtown around the Y are doing so because of each other rather than in spite of each other.

Another aspect of New Albany that has changed, or at least is changing, is perception — just ask someone from Louisville or elsewhere who has been lured to downtown New Albany by one of its shops or restaurants.

I think the self-perception from residents also is different these days. Like it or not, New Albany is getting “cool.”

Was that what scared the people opposed to the Y’s funding and subsequent opening? Was the status quo that appealing?

Working for a news organization that covers Clark and Floyd counties, I can tell you with confidence that there are some people in Jeffersonville and Clarksville jealous of New Albany’s success. And some of that, without a doubt, is due to the downtown YMCA — a organization that has improved the quality of life in New Albany simply by building a structure aimed at improving the quality of members.

So, where do we go from here?

There are lessons to be learned for sure, that nothing is going to be gained without a vision and desire to propel our communities forward.

New Albany can continue to do that by ridding itself of a confusing one-way street configuration downtown. Just as important, more attractive housing for young families is needed for downtown, and then services to support those residents.

In a sense, Jeffersonville stands where New Albany stood seven years ago with the Y — with a choice to make to seize an opportunity before it.

Falls Landing Park is a good start, but the city council needs to work with the mayor’s office to rebuild the marina on the Ohio River and to develop property surrounding the Big Four Bridge. These opportunities should be as obvious as the YMCA funding was, but remember that one city council vote could have changed the Y’s fate in New Albany.

Clarksville needs to work harder at aiding development of the former Colgate-Palmolive property.

Charlestown and Jeffersonville should prepare fastidiously for development at River Ridge Commerce Center, which will bring a wealth of opportunities to those cities.

The downtown New Albany YMCA serves as an example of return on investment for a community and standing up for progress, even when there is resistance. And Friday’s five-year anniversary celebration for the Y is proof that one decision can make a difference in a city’s future.

— Shea Van Hoy is editor of the News and Tribune. Reach him via email at shea.vanhoy@newsandtribune.com or by phone at 812-206-2130.

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