by Eric Stearley
On the morning of Thursday, Aug. 14, ten committee members from Wabash waited with those from five other communities at the Indiana State Fairgrounds for the designation of the 2014 Stellar Communities. The moment was years in the making and a two-hour bus ride from home.
“We were very positive,” Mayor Vanlandingham said about the atmosphere during the bus ride. “We felt good about our program, so I think when we went down, everybody was pretty upbeat and positive. We were hoping”
“I think for all of us that were riding on the bus together, there wasn’t ever really a worry, just more a feeling of great anticipation,” said Christine Flohr, committee member and executive director of tourism at the Wabash County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “There wasn’t really a worry of, ‘this is going to be devastating if we don’t receive the designation as a Stellar Community,’ more of an anticipation of, ‘it will be even greater if we get this, it will speed things up if we get this.’ It really wouldn’t have sucked the wind out of our sails if we hadn’t gotten this. I think we would have been a little disappointed, but we would have kept moving forward.”
As the group waited for the announcement, they noticed the six community groups, from Decatur, Huntingburg, Marion, Mt. Vernon, Nashville, and Wabash, were seated alphabetically in the room. When it was announced that the first Stellar Communities designee was Huntingburg, those from Wabash hoped that the two designations would come in the same order.
“They announced Huntingburg first, and we were thinking, ‘Man, I hope they’re doing this in alphabetical order,” said Patrick Sullivan, executive director of Wabash Marketplace and committee member.
“I was hoping everything was done alphabetically,” said Mayor Vanlandingham. “I was really nervous when Huntingburg got it.”
After Huntingburg, there was one designation left. Wabash came in third last year, a result no one wanted to repeat. The committee members in Indianapolis shared an anxiety with those waiting for the news at home. When it was finally announced that Wabash was officially a Stellar Community, there were a variety of reactions.
“I may have squealed a little in my seat,” said Flohr. “You were so elated with this intense amount of joy, you jumped to your feet and you started clapping.”
“I had ‘Wabash Is Stellar!’ ready to tweet, and as soon as they made the announcement, I hit the tweet button,” Economic Development Group President Bill Konyha said. “The atmosphere was one of celebration.”
“You want to know the truth about it? I cried,” said Mayor Vanlandingham. “When I heard that, I said to myself, ‘Oh, wow!’ When I walked up to the podium, I was crying. It was really touching for me.
“I was raised in this town, I graduated from this high school, I spent 31 years as a building administrator and principal, four years as a councilman, and 11 years as a mayor, and this is probably the proudest moment I’ve had in my life in regards to me and my community.”
An emotional Mayor Vanlandingham spoke to the crowd following the announcement, thanking the selection committee and the community members who worked on the proposal. He also took a moment to tell those members of the four finalist communities that fell short that he was in their shoes last year, encouraging them to regroup and go after it again.
In addition to great excitement, the announcement brought the realization that the committee’s hard work had finally paid off.
“This is what we’ve been working for, to receive a designation of this caliber and the recognition by our state,” said Flohr.
“It was a relief, because I’ve been involved in this for 30 months, and after 30 months, it was an acknowledgement that the community had really done a great job at developing the strategic investment plan,” said Konyha. “Now we actually have to do the work.”
The designation as a Stellar Community serves as both an end to a long journey and the beginning of a new one. The Wabash proposal includes nine projects. The Paper will outline and explain each project in an upcoming nine-week series. All nine projects will be completed within four years.
“We realized as soon as we exhaled that the real work was starting,” said Sullivan. “It’s certainly a ton of work, but that’s obviously a great problem to have.”
Stellar Communities is a joint program between the Indiana Department of Transportation, The Office of Community and Rural Affairs, and the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority. While the designation is not a grant and does not guarantee specific funds, it does put Wabash and Huntingburg in an elite group with six other Stellar Communities: North Vernon, Greencastle, Princeton, Delphi, Richmond, and Bedford. It also makes it much easier for these communities to find the funds needed to complete their projects.
The total cost of the strategic investment plan is $28.3 million dollars. Local public and private investment will contribute $15.6 million. The designation will help fill the $12.7 million funding gap.
“We’ve always wanted to do these projects. We’ve been planning to do some of these things for quite a long time, and Stellar allows you to do them in 4 years versus 15 years, so this kind of puts us on a faster track,” said Mayor Vanlandingham.
Sullivan used the example of the Neighborhood Owner-Occupied Rehabilitation program, a $350,000 project, which will provide grants to qualified homeowners for specific home repair and improvement projects. Wabash Marketplace has already received 17 qualified applications, and the recent designation makes the grant much easier to get.
“We were a little nervous. It’s a highly competitive grant, but being a Stellar designee now, we essentially don’t have to compete. As long as we meet our threshold, we’ll receive that. So that’s a huge win for Wabash,” said Sullivan.”
The Stellar Communities designation means big changes are coming to downtown, but the impact of the projects will extend far beyond the improved streets, buildings, houses, and parks. As State Representative Dave Wolkins said, “These projects have the potential to usher in greater economic development.” The real focus of the designation is moving communities forward and, as Lt. Governor Sue Ellspermann put it, working ‘as a catalyst for positive developments in their communities.”
“I think what this is about is the 21st century,” said Konyha. “Today, it is critically important to attract a workforce. Companies today will tend to look and locate where there’s a workforce that meets their needs. What this really does is it moves us further own the path to being a livable, walkable community in the 21st century. Today, for the first time, 50 percent of our population lives in urban areas. If we’re going to compete as a community, both Wabash and North Manchester have to adapt to the 21st century, and I’m happy to say that those communities are. Those that do not, will not survive, because by the year 2050, economists are predicting that 75% of our population will live in urban areas.”
“This will have such a profound impact beyond just buildings and community infrastructure,” said Clint Kugler, co-founder of the Wabash County Promise and CEO of the Wabash County YMCA. “It is something that is going to be able to attract people who are looking for a dynamic, collaborative community. They want to bring their business here, and when they bring their business here, it brings new jobs; it brings opportunities. It’s just going to have a ripple effect that will be felt for decades to come. We buy into the belief that cities are either going forward or going backward, and it’s clear by the momentum that’s building in Wabash that our community is going forward.”
“I wear two different hats, but really serving the same purpose, and that’s community development,” said Jason Callahan, Wabash Marketplace president and superintendent of Wabash City Schools. “We want to make the quality of life and living in Wabash competitive, if not the place to be. With Stellar, it speeds things up and maximizes what we’re currently doing to develop downtown and develop Wabash. The inclusive playground is an exciting project. It’s about our kids and being inclusive and bringing all kids together, and really, that’s what were all about, is serving the needs of all our kids in this community.”
“We’ve got a tremendous amount of good young people that have a lot of energy, and I think those young people are going to grasp these next four years. I think you’re really going to see it roll,” said Mayor Vanlandingham. “When we get a few of these things done, I think this city is really going to take off. If they maintain that same cooperative working attitude, in four years, it’s endless what they could do.”
“It’s an overall win that will make a comprehensive change in Wabash,” said Sullivan.
As the projects begin, so does the planning for a “Stellarbration,” Though the date has not been set, a community-wide celebration is in the works to mark this historic occasion.
“One of the things that has been really good about this whole Stellar thing is that it really makes you look at your community, where you’ve been, where you are, and where you want to go,” said Mayor Vanlandingham. “I think 10 years down the road, they’re going to look back at this time and say this is just like a rebirth of Wabash. I think this is going to be looked back at in history as a really, really eventful time for us.”
For a closer look at the projects that the Stellar Communities designation will help make possible, follow The Paper’s upcoming weekly series. Also look for information about the “Stellarbration” once the date is set.