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Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2008 03:54 am

Leaders visit Indianapolis for ideas

Will this work on the east side of Springfield?

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Community leaders at Fall Creek Place
PHOTO BY Sarah Wolin

Gail Simpson envisions a brighter future for east Springfield, complete with bustling thoroughfares, attractive mixed-income housing, and diverse residents.

“There’s a lot of value in that area — it’s convenient, it’s just off downtown, it can be so much more than it is,” the Ward 2 Alderman says. “You have South Grand as a corridor coming in and Clear Lake as a corridor coming in.

“We should do so many things with it. I think we would be remiss if we didn’t.”

Even before taking office, Simpson encouraged new and innovative development. She saw that initial plans for South Grand Avenue called for the construction of only houses and decided that wasn’t enough.

“Why would we do that? That’s already been done,” Simpson says. “Why don’t we do something that’s going to last long-term — 15, 20 years longer down the road?”

Simpson carried her idea for multipurpose space to the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce and the Quantum Growth Partnership, an initiative created to work on such issues as diversity development and neighborhood redevelopment. Soon after, Simpson and a handful of community members traveled to Indianapolis to visit Fall Creek Place, a 400-home mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood that has won four national awards for excellence in planning, design and community development since its 2001 inception.

What Simpson discovered there, an area located two miles north of downtown that was once called “Dodge City” for its high crime rates, was both impressive and exciting, she says.

“The first time I saw it, I was just in awe of the change from what it had been to what it is now,” Simpson recalls.

Jim Lestikow, the chairman of the Chamber board, recently accompanied Simpson and 30 other Chamber and community leaders and staff on a second tour of the Indianapolis development. He brought back several concepts that could help the capital city move forward with its own redevelopment plans.

The area was more blighted than anything in east Springfield, Lestikow says, but had been transformed into a cohesive neighborhood that made it possible for a single mother with multiple children to live in a $100,000 home next door to two doctors in a $500,000 home. The houses looked like they fit together, he says, boasting similar architecture and tri-color palettes.

“These houses were all well-maintained and the grounds were well-maintained,” Lestikow says. “People had bought into this concept of having pride in their neighborhood.

“The thing we learned is that we can’t just do a low-income type development and we have to have architectural controls within an acceptable range to make it attractive.”

Mike Farmer, the city’s director of planning and economic development, traveled to Indianapolis with the delegation and was motivated by what has been accomplished with Fall Creek Place (now in Stage IV, building 110 additional homes). If Springfield decided to duplicate the development on a smaller scale, he says, it could call on Indianapolis-based Mansur Real Estate Services Inc., Fall Creek Place’s master developer, for potential assistance.

Springfield can also learn a few other lessons from Indianapolis, Farmer adds. Indianapolis attacked “Dodge City” with a coalition of many groups and organizations and was supported by a unique $4 million Home Ownership Zone grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. For a similar project to work in the capital city, Farmer says, a coalition between such organizations as the city and county, the Springfield Housing Authority, and the Chamber would be needed, as well as other funding avenues.

“There’s a lot of details that have to be structured,” Farmer says. “It’s a monumental task with a huge coalition to make that succeed, but I would hope that we could do something that comes close to that effort.”

Now that the Chamber has witnessed firsthand how a blighted area can be resurrected, Sarah Wolin, director of communications and investor relations, says the next step is to talk with east Springfield neighborhood associations and to possibly host a community summit in early 2009 to enhance project partnerships.

“Now’s the time more than ever to focus on what we can do to improve and how can we stay competitive as a community. Without that, we’re lost,” Wolin says. “You look back, five, 10 years ago, the Chamber wouldn’t have been talking about east-side redevelopment. Three years ago, we wouldn’t have been.”

Simpson and others from the trip admit that any redevelopment project faces a major funding challenge, but hope that help eventually comes from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and maybe even U.S. president-elect Barack Obama. If anything, Simpson says, it’s encouraging that people are talking about east Springfield development.

“Because there was a multi-faceted group of people who attended, it’s a make-up that’s going to help drive this idea and this change,” Simpson says. “I think that’s good.

“I was telling an individual in the first group that I can talk until I’m blue in the face to somebody, and they will never get it. But someone who they have a close affinity to, and maybe travel in the same circles with, can say, ‘Look, you need to get on this wagon, because this is going to be good.’”

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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