SOUTH WHITLEY — Twenty years down the road, you may be surprised to find a bustling downtown, full of active young people, recreation facilities, infrastructure and business success in the small town of South Whitley.
This will not come about spontaneously.
It will require hard work and many dedicated hands.
At the Sept. 12 town council meeting, Councilmen Randy Cokl, Bill Boggs and Les Hoffman approved a second reading of an ordinance creating the South Whitley Redevelopment Commission. While the council is currently in the process of selecting members to appoint to the commission, Hoffman is excited for the future of the town.
As he explains, the redevelopment of South Whitley is an integral part of Hoffman’s time as a councilman, and in fact was part of the reason he ran for office.
“I looked at several things and why I should run and one of the things that kept coming up was that people would like to have businesses established downtown,” he said. “When you get down to it, there were a lot of issues such as infrastructure that we’ve looked at, worked on things like potable water and the sewer. We’re looking at street paving and sidewalk improvements.”
While Hoffman credits Jon Myers of the Whitley County Economic Development Corporation and Executive Director of Planning and Building Nathan Bilger for their contributions along the way, both men turn the acclaim back to him. Hoffman, they said, has been the one asking tough questions and driving the process along.
Vision for the future
South Whitley was once a booming town, with residents thriving. It is this glance at the past that drove Hoffman to take the lead on redevelopment.
“I had the fortune of going to a meeting at the library where there was a film that showed [South Whitley] back in the 40s, and there were 50 businesses in South Whitley at that time,” he said. “People were bustling, you saw people walking up and down the streets very well dressed, very well attended.”
Rather than woefully looking at the past, Hoffman sees a different future for South Whitley than trying to relive the past. With the advent of the automobile and modern communication technologies, to do so would be impractical.
The solution, according to Hoffman, will be in serving people’s wants rather than needs.
“People today seem like they’re more into recreational avenues, and we don’t have any hiking trails here,” he said. “Maybe there would be some supply shops who could get into personal fitness types of things with bikes and hiking.”
Competition for businesses like general stores or groceries will be too great for South Whitley, so the focus should be on providing wants that would normally warrant a trip to Warsaw or Fort Wayne, Hoffman said.
South Whitley also has the moral support of the county and Pierceton, according to Myers. “I was at a Whitko meeting with him and Jerry Kreger, who is the town clerk in Pierceton, was talking to Les about it and Jerry said, ‘Pierceton did this 20 years ago and it’s the greatest thing we ever did. It takes time to build it up and have it be of value, but since we’re trying to rejuvenate the entire Whitko community, it’s something I would encourage,’ he said.”
How it will come about
Infrastructure improvements are the catalyst to developing the town.
According to Hoffman, many people in town think that a large factory moving in would solve the town’s woes. This, he explains, would actually complicate the situation rather than resolve it, “because we don’t have our infrastructure set yet.”
“We’ve got to build some things first, then we could start to key in on something larger. Right now, it would be very impractical, it’s not going to work unless we have somebody who’s a millionaire come in here and lay a lot of things out at once,” he said.
Before improvements can start, the commission still needs members. Hoffman hopes the town council can “find some people that we think would be very instrumental in getting this off the ground, and we’re developing that group right now.”
The group will be composed of people who will come up with ideas and always keep an eye on the future.
“We’re hoping to get a lot of younger and experienced people in it and see what types of needs and wants people are really after and try to guide toward those areas,” Hoffman said. “We’re very excited because some of the people we’ve contacted to help participate will have that same type of passion and drive, and that’s what is going to make things go.”
Among the first tasks the commission will face is finding target areas for protection under their historic district as well as making the town more amicable for businesses. They will also look at addressing vacant buildings in town, infrastructure and the direction they want the town to move.
A major tool at the disposal of the commission will be a TIF (Tax Increment Funding) district. TIF districts allow towns to collect and use taxes from increases in assessed property values within the district to bolster the redevelopment plan, Myers explained.
The TIF can work in conjunction with the historic district, according to Bilger. “A TIF for downtown would help with the funding of projects – historic preservation helps to give encouragement for developing what’s there and retaining the historic character and building upon that,” he said. “Using them together can help build the character and the character helps build the funds.”
Redevelopment in the long-term
The commission, Hoffman emphasizes, is “just another piece of the puzzle,” in building the future of South Whitley.
A five-year or even 10-year plan would be rushed, and the council worries something so short-term might have unwanted consequences for the town.
“I wish this would be something that’s like a five-year outlook where I could show people what we’re going to be doing, but I think realistically we’re looking at about 20 years,” Hoffman said.
Bilger agreed, saying that because of state statutes and procedural duties that come with establishing a redevelopment plan, things will likely start slow for South Whitley. “Nothing really will happen for the first year or so that you’ll see walking down the street,” he said. “You might be getting input on that economic development plan and there might be things being talked about, but actually seeing the product of it would be at least a few years out.”
“It’s not terribly aggressive but it keeps everybody’s eye on the ball and moving toward the goal because it may be 20 years but time continues to pass away,” Myers said.
Despite the long timeline, Hoffman feels the time is ripe for South Whitley to rise again. “We have a great group of people in town, and we proved that when we went and started the festival,” he said.
When the town restarted the festival last year, it was slow-moving, but this year’s well-attended festival drew a crowd and young families into leadership positions.
Ultimately, Hoffman stresses that redevelopment will take time.
“It took a while back in the 40s and 50s when things started going downhill,” he said. “It was a gradual thing, and I don’t think people saw it much while they were living here – it’s going to be the same thing when we build it back up. Someday 20 years out, people will look back and question ‘how did they ever get this thing started?’
“I am confident things will go in the right direction, it’s just going to take time. South Whitley will not be a Columbia City, but we have a lot to offer here. It’s a well-kept secret.”