Pandemic slows, but doesn't stop, progress in county: Officials tout successes during State of the Communities

By Joseph Slacian

COVID-19 took a toll on communities around the nation and world, and Wabash County was no exception.

Yet in spite of the woes brought about by the pandemic, officials from Wabash County’s five municipalities still had things to boast about on Thursday, April 1, during the fourth annual State of the Communities gathering sponsored by Grow Wabash County.

The event took place at the Historic Eagles Theatre, and gave Honeywell Foundation officials a chance to show off the newly restored venue on one of the first times since the pandemic hit. The event began in the ballroom with a light breakfast, and culminated in the theatre itself, with officials from Roann, Lagro, LaFontaine, North Manchester, Wabash and Wabash County speaking about what successes their community had during the previous year.

Lagro, for example, saw progress on the Lagro Canal Foundation’s plans to renovate three buildings in the downtown area, town representative Justin Gillespie said.

In addition, several other homes and businesses are undergoing renovation, largely spurred on by the Foundation’s work.

Work on the Wabash River Trail also is progressing, with two bridges expected to be installed along the trail sometime later this year.

LaFontaine also was busy with street and sidewalk repairs, Clerk-Treasurer Diana Heath noted. Funding for that came from the state’s $169,000 Community Crossing Grant.

“We’re hoping to finish that this year,” she said. “Every street in LaFontaine will be repaved. New sidewalks. New curbs.

In addition to the repairs, five new street lights were placed in the downtown area, she said, adding that a fundraiser to help with money to purchase new Christmas decorations for the lights will take place later this year.

She also noted that the community has a new limestone sign welcoming visitors to the community along State Road 15.

Roann Clerk-Treasurer Bob Ferguson noted the community unveiled a new mural on the side of the Community Building last fall.

In addition, it welcomed a new community, a radio-controlled car raceway that is attracting people from around the area, not just Wabash County, to participate.

He also offered advice to all those in attendance.

“Focus on the future means we want to make sure that we can retain the people that we have, the talent that we have right here in Wabash County,” he said. “By doing that, we have to have a plan.”

Quoting author John Maxwell, Ferguson said that “if you focus on goals, you may hit goals. But that doesn’t guarantee growth. If you focus on growth, you will grow and always hit goals.”

NM Town Council member Allen Miracle boasted that the town is a great community to raise children and grandchildren. He also praised the work of the North Manchester Early Learning Center.

“The Manchester Early Learning Center is a great, state-licensed preschool for infants and toddlers up to 5 years old,” he said. “With the challenges of the pandemic, they have openings and are looking for students. A lot of places you can’t find child care, but it’s available in North Manchester right now.”

The town supports the facility, Miracle said, because “it’s a great asset to the community and something a lot of communities don’t have access to.”

Manchester Community Schools has handled the situation brought on by the pandemic well, he continued, noting that its small COVID spread, which is less than 1 percent, “is attributed to its excellent staff and its willingness to go above and beyond” what is needed.

He also spoke about the Chester Heights housing development.

“It’s really beginning to take off,” Miracle said. “There is plenty of availability and you can work with ideal builders to design the home of your dreams. It’s a very nice development. We see potential growth there in the future for years to come.”

The town also is working to develop a trail walk around the housing development.

“It’s not just for the people who live in the housing development,” Miracle said. “It will be for the community of North Manchester and will be a place that people can take their families. Children can ride their bikes and not have to worry about sidewalk bumps and things like that.

“We’re working to develop this with a public-private partnership to help us. We own the land where the trail will be developed, and so we’re working on the permitting process.

“Hopefully this won’t be a year’s away process. Hopefully we’ll start working on this this year.”

Permits are also being waited for to create a pavilion at Ogan’s Landing.

“They added a playground there,” he said. “Last year they added a local farmer’s marker there. … We’re very excited to have the ability to expand on it and as the years go by, add even more to it.”

The City of Wabash had an exciting first quarter of 2020, Mayor Scott Long said.

“We continued to have various construction meetings and development meetings on our GDX property, meetings with INDOT for our railroad overpass, which will be constructed in two years, our Imagine 1-85 process, and our improved city website,” he said. “February included meetings on our Safe Haven Baby Box which was installed at the fire department, the Eagles Theatre opening, the State of the Communities last year, international travel planning, which we intended to go back to the Far East but obviously didn’t make that.”

Community representatives made a few trips to Edinburgh after being selected by the state as a parent community to that municipality, Long continued, among other things.

“Then came March,” he said. “March 12 was my birthday and the world came to a halt. … So, then the new key words were coronavirus, COVID-19 and pandemic.

“We immediately pivoted to a pandemic response in the community, and I gathered all the leaders in the community to the Honeywell Center to see how we attacked the new pandemic. What are we dealing with and how do we deal with it. None of us knew, and I’m not sure we still know.”

“Decisions had to be made. When do you close things? When do you open things? What metrics do you use? The primary goal is how do you protect your citizens. There were too many unknowns. Who do you listen to? The CDC? The State Department of Health? It seemed like every day there was conflicting reports coming out. But, the show must go on.”

Construction work continued along Cass Street. Phase 3 of the city’s long term control plan was finished.

Plans for housing continued at the Parkview Wabash Hospital continued, as well as along East Market Street.

Plans for free downtown Wi-Fi progressed and should be installed later this year.

Long, along with several others, where honored by Wabash County Commissioner Brian Haupert for their efforts in battling the pandemic.

Along with the mayor, Parkview Wabash Hospital President Marilyn Custer-Mitchell, North Manchester Town Manager Adam Penrod, Keith Gillenwater, president and CEO of Grow Wabash County, and Keith Walters, Wabash County EMA director and Wabash County Health Board president, received certificates from the commissioners for their efforts in helping the community deal with the pandemic.

“While the COVID-19 pandemic has kept us apart in many ways – and we have suffered losses of loved ones, jobs, and the freedom to gather with our families – it has also brought us together in unexpected ways,” Haupert said. “If it were possible, we would need a semi-trailer for of certificates of appreciate to truly recognize the contributions people have made toward fighting the COVID-19 virus. So many of our citizens, especially those involved in health care profession and emergency services, have put themselves and their families at risk to care for our community.

“I would like to say thank you to them for their service. … I would also like to say thank you to the Wabash County government office holders, department heads and employees for their service during the pandemic. We may have slowed things down, but we didn’t close.”

Posted on 2021 Apr 06