State officials tour Stellar sites

By Joseph Slacian

Officials from several state agencies toured the City of Wabash on Friday during a “Stellarbration.”

The event was designed to show off the various projects made available around the city thanks to its being named a Stellar Community in 2014. The officials, from the Office of Community and Rural Affairs, the Indiana Department of Transportation and more, visited the Rock City Lofts, toured the Eagles Theatre, saw the results of the façade refurbishing program in downtown Wabash and the improvements along South Wabash Street.

The tour ended at Friendship Hill, the city’s inclusive park, where a private showing took place for the officials as well as for select donors to the project.

During the park visit, former Mayor Bob Vanlandingham and current Mayor Scott Long were among those who spoke during the 45-minute ceremony.

“The road to Stellar wasn’t always easy,” Vanlandingham said. “In fact, it was rather rough and bumpy at times, kind of like South Wabash Street.”

To get people interested in investing in a community, the former mayor said he was often told, a community needs a vibrant downtown.

“People who want to come in and invest want to know what kind of schools you got?” he said. “Well, we’ve got great schools, great churches, the sports complex, golf course, Honeywell Center, two reservoirs. We have a lot of things, but something was missing. We just couldn’t seem to get people involved and that was because we didn’t have a vibrant downtown.”
After J.P. Hall became director of Wabash Marketplace Inc. -- a change requested by the city, Vanlandingham noted – things began to change. More people became interested in downtown and the revitalization began.

“Facades started changing,” he said. “Things started getting better a lot faster.”

In 2013, the city was a finalist for the Stellar program, but failed to win.

“I was really ticked,” Vanlandingham said.

The city then studied the program, revamped some areas, changed other areas, and won in 2014.

“I was extremely, extremely proud of this community and what that group had done,” Vanlandingham said. “And if you look around today, I want to tell you, I’m more proud of what this community has done … I really appreciate Stellar and what it’s done for this community. But what I’m really most proud of is the changes in attitudes and what it’s done for this community.”

The inclusive park almost didn’t happen, as OCRA didn’t fund parks. However, the agency later gave the city $200,000 toward the program, and the city contributed another $200,000. Another $1.2 million was raised through private donations.
“I want to say,” Vanlandingham said in conclusion, there isn’t anything this community can’t do with an attitude like you have now. Don’t get complacent and let it slip.”

Keith Gillenwater, President and CEO of Grow Wabash County, discussed some of the economic impact Stellar has had on the community before Shelly Myers, one of the driving forces behind the inclusive park, spoke.

She thanked the two mayors for believing in her idea, as well as those present who made major contributions to the project. She also discussed how the idea for the park began, thanks to a video about a similar project in Portland, Ore., and dreamed about such a park her son, Cason, and other special needs children could enjoy.

She shared her idea with her husband, Brian, as well as Sam and Shelly Hipskind, who also have a special needs child. Hipskind approached Todd Titus while Myers spoke with Vanlandingham, and it was decided to include the park in the Stellar project.

A committee was formed for the project and that was important, Myers said, “because these people, they gave me their time. Without their time this project wouldn’t have happened.”

People wondered, she continued, how such a park could cost $1.6 million.

“There are just a lot of costly things,” she said. “But I think you can see it was well worth it.”

The completion date on the project was originally October 2018, Myers noted. However, there have so far been 170 rain days to delay work at the site.

“Despite all of those setbacks, by August, sometime, the fence be gone, the gates will be open and everyone will be free to come in here and play,” she said.

Without everyone’s help, she said, her idea would have simply been an idea.

“And it would probably be something that I would have taken to my grave with me, as a ‘I sure wish I would have done that” she said, reminding everyone, “this is not just a playground, and it sure as heck isn’t a playground for handicapped kids. So, if you hear anyone say that, correct them.

“Thank you all for believing in my dream. I cannot wait to drive by here and see people playing because of what you all helped me do.”

Jodi Golden, director of the Office of Community and Rural Affairs, called the park “an amazing facility.”

She also congratulated the entire community of Wabash for being a real Stellar community.

“You’ve done an amazing job,” she said. “I have no doubt you will continue to be a Stellar community.”

Long updated those present about the projects, noting that the barrels along South Wabash Street have been removed, street lamps for the roadway are coming, noting that the Nebraska factory in which they were made was underwater because of flooding in the Midwest.

He said that with the conclusion of the Stellar projects, he wanted to look ahead to the future. The city has formed a committee to look at projects that were discussed but not included in the Stellar program.

“Are they still viable projects?” he asked. “Do we still want to complete them? And if we don’t let’s take them off the table and let’s plug something in.

“We’re thinking five, 10, 15 years down the road. The key is to grow our population and try to draw our young people back to the community.”

He said he realizes that young people, once they graduate college, are going to go to Indianapolis, Fishers and other larger communities.

“But I keep telling them, when you want to start a family, what can I build now that’s going to draw you back to Wabash?” Long said. “So, we partner with Wabash City Schools and Metropolitan schools to make our school districts better so they want to bring their kids here for their education. That’s how we evolve.”

The city is a star in the state of Indiana, the mayor continued.

“I’ve had the mayor of Tipton n my office,” he said. “I’ve had mayors from around northern Indiana in my office. And I tell them, steal our ideas and take them back and implement something that you see here. If you’re successful, Indiana’s successful, and we lead the Midwest.”

Posted on 2019 Aug 06