Despite being known for some gritty areas – all of which are ripe for a desperate rebirth – the outlook for revitalizing the Southside looks promising, especially in the eyes of David Wantz, who serves as special assistant to University of Indianapolis President Rob Manuel.
And on Jan. 29, those gentlemen and representatives from Fifth Third Bank, the Local Initiatives Support Corp. and the Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership laid out their plans to support an 18-month quality-of-life study designed to spur economic development and build a sustainable community.
The endeavor is being funded through a $100,000 grant from the bank to the LISC. UIndy has been asked to get community leaders and neighborhood organizations involved.
“The grant will strengthen our community partnership and support the ongoing progress on the Southside,” said Steven Alonso, president and CEO of the bank’s Greater Indiana region. “We were curious how we could help the area. Curiosity is how great things get started.” The bank’s philosophy is to challenge itself, “to be curious, to create new ideas and to make things better. This is all about getting educated and understanding what we can bring to the table, not only as a bank but also all the organizations that are part of this.”
The 4.25-square-mile focus area (bounded by Raymond Street, I-65, I-465 and Meridian Street) faces many challenges, including a 20 percent poverty rate, higher-than-average unemployment and an overabundance of empty homes and storefronts. According to a news release provided by the bank, the district’s population is about 40,000; with approximately 84 percent being Caucasian, 10 percent Latino and the rest African-American.
Several neighborhood organizations are also taking an active role in the project, which will identify ways to strengthen all aspects of life in the area while creating a vision for the community, which is rich in tradition but with a history of migrating businesses and residents.
Following the officials’ remarks, a bus tour of the area was held for government, business and community leaders and media personnel.
The bus meandered throughout various neighborhoods and down Shelby Street to Garfield Park, where the passengers disembarked and braved a nippy wind in front of the conservatory and sunken gardens, both landmarks at the city’s oldest park. D. Mark Bowell from the Friends of Garfield Park made a few comments about the ground’s history and how his organization has raised $20,000 to fund the maintenance of the garden’s fabulous fountains this year.
The tour also traversed along Madison Avenue and East Street and through Southern Plaza before stopping in front of St. Roch Grade School, where Principal Joe Hansen, a passenger, briefly summarized the institution’s mission. In addition to providing a sound education, he said, “We try to shape our kids to be leaders in the community.”
As for all the multitude of ribbons streaming from the fence that fronts the school, Hansen explained that they signified prayers said for the Rev. James Wilmoth, the parish pastor who had been hospitalized before being released last week.
Also serving as points of interest were the Historic Hannah House and the shopping center at the southeast corner of Hanna Avenue. The latter, along with an old Village Pantry across the street, reinforced the grittiness that Wantz mentioned.
The crown jewel of the area is UIndy, and its luster shows no sign of tarnishing.
“We can’t very well have a thriving university in a declining neighborhood,” Wantz said in an earlier interview. “We have always believed in being a good neighbor, and we are genuinely interested in being good neighbors. We are an anchor of the community, and we believe in bringing it along. We are spending more than $50 million over the next five years. No one else is spending that kind of money in the area.”
A little more than half of that is being spent on a four-story health pavilion, which will house the school’s health-care and wellness-related academic programs and clinical facilities. The building will be a new gateway to the campus, a landmark for the neighborhood and an integrated hub where faculty, students and health-care professionals can collaborate on education and research. The pavilion, scheduled to open in August, is a key component in the university’s blueprint for growth.
Other projects include renovating Krannert Memorial Library, replacing the aging student apartments on Shelby Street, expanding science laboratories, launching new academic programs and hiring additional faculty.
“The health pavilion will create space to expand some of our strongest programs and strengthen our ties with the health-care industry, which benefits students and faculty in multiple ways and makes our educational product relevant to the real world,” Manuel said in June.
The school made big headlines when its new air-supported domed Athletics and Recreation Center served as the practice facility for the New York Giants when they were preparing for Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2012. The facility houses a six-lane track, weight room, golf range, multipurpose courts for basketball and other sports and offices. Another major enhancement was the completion of the Hanna Avenue restoration project in 2011.
There is a lot of great stuff happening on the Southside, said Adam Thies, director of the Department of Metropolitan Development. “There is the university and Garfield Park and its conservatory and sunken gardens. We need to package all of these things.”
“We are reaching out to our neighbors to see how we should implement ideas over a five-year period, said William Taft, LISC president and CEO. “We share the vision to re-establish community ties in our effort to lead change.
With this undertaking, those by the Greater Southside Business Alliance and the creation of the Madison Avenue Corridor Economic Development Area, which opens the door for even more economic stimulus, the future of the Southside looks bright, albeit a lot of work lies ahead.
Wantz said he would like to see a more walkable community, alternative transportation, places where folks can go to get a cup of coffee or something to eat and where other people will say “that’s a good place for me to take a risk if I want to start a small business in the area.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing what this place in going to look like in five or 10 years,” said Wantz, who praised Manuel for his community leadership.