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Alexandria’s Downtown Revitalization

By Chris Flook

Downtown Alexandria is currently undergoing a revitalization effort. Centered around the Mercantile Project, a well-coordinated and data-backed effort from the city has removed a food desert and established quality housing for low-income residents. This in turn has attracted new investment, revitalization, and foot traffic to the city’s downtown corridor.

As with many other small and rural communities in east central Indiana, the latter half of the twentieth century hit the downtown Alexandria commercial district hard. The result was a loss of retail space, deterioration of historic buildings, and movement away from the city-center.

This trend wasn’t unique to east central Indiana, or even Alexandria. The Urban Planner Andy Kitsinger of PlannersWeb wrote in 2013 that “a number of factors have contributed to this indifference toward our central cities. Several decades of bad public policy, private market forces, as well as individual prejudices have all worked counter to the health of central cities.” The end result was less people, decrepit historic buildings, and economic stagnation, or even outright decline. Alexandria’s Mayor Ron Richardson and native of the city, witnessed the change first hand, “Back in the earlier days, our downtowns were full of businesses and energy, places for people to go. We must be creative and think outside the box.”

Warren Brown, Alexandria’s director of economic development, identified these same problems within his community. He saw the decline of the Alexandria downtown as one of the largest inhibitors of economic growth and community development. “The data shows that when our downtown started to decline, the town itself lost a lot of its vitality and growth. A sense of identity and hope for the future was also lost. If the buildings look abandoned and crumbling, it says something negative about the community.”

Kitsinger would agree, writing that “Downtowns are iconic and powerful symbols for a city and often contain the most iconic landmarks, distinctive features, and unique neighborhoods.” In a 2015 report, the EPA wrote that “Downtowns help define a community’s identity through distinctive, often historic architecture; shops and restaurants; and community gathering places.” The report also cautioned that “No two communities are the same-they do not face the same challenges, and they cannot recover from economic downturn by merely replicating efforts that have succeeded in other places.”

Alexandria followed this spirit of the strategy, but developed a unique project, custom fit for the community. They designed something specifically to spur investment, remove the food desert, and provide affordable housing for Alexandria’s low-income residents. They did so with a one-of-a-kind project, which has never been done before in Indiana.

The end result was the Mercantile Project, which provided an anchor institution in downtown Alexandria. The Mercantile features a new grocer, Marion based Horner’s Butcher Blockand several low-income and senior apartments in the old Cox Supermarket building. The project was spearheaded by Milestone Ventures Incorporated, a development firm headquartered in Indianapolis. The Mercantile is an adaptive-reuse and new construction project, with a total investment of $6.9 million dollars.

Photo by Dale Pickett

Along with the Horner’s Midtown Market grocery, the Mercantile offers 26 affordable housing apartments for seniors and low-income residents. The apartments are on the second and third floor of the historic building and Milestone completed several new structures on the same block to serve as residential housing.

The project was funded privately and with support from the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority. Brown indicated that all apartments currently have residents and Horner’s is doing well and that “the goal was to be proactive for the long term. We wanted an investment that would work to solve the problems we have now, but also help to bring in new investment.” Mayor Richardson agreed, adding that “Our hope is that Alexandria can give people more reasons to visit and to spend some time in downtown Alexandria, Small Town U.S.A.”

The project was up and running in early 2018 and since then, a few new retail stores and health services have moved downtown. Brown reiterated that “Our hope that with this anchor project, more businesses and residents will see downtown Alexandria as an option.” Mayor Richardson cited several new businesses to the area, including Soap and Sunshine Apothecary on Harrison Street, the Jane Pauley Community Health Center on Washington Street, the Madison County Community Health Center on Harrison Street, Updegraff Furniture and The Fringe Salon also on Harrison, and the Sweet Water Pump Flea Market and B&D Bargain City on Washington Street.

As for other communities attempting something similar? Mayor Richardson suggested that planners should “be open to exploring new ideas with the valuable downtown area that you have. We are not only building for today, we must build and invest in the future of our community.”

Brown agreed and encouraged other communities to “not ever give up. The Mercantile project was just an idea and we had a lot of people telling us to not waste our time…it’s just too hard. We just stayed with it and overcame every obstacle. For those trying something similar, just stay with it. Rural communities can be world class.”

That seems just what Alexandria will become in the years ahead, a world class rural community in east central Indiana.