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Older neighborhood makes good

The North Anthony corridor is just a step away from being that bustling, pedestrian-friendly commercial district the city is looking for.

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2006-12-05


Fort Wayne devotes a lot of time, energy, and (consultant) money to thinking of ways to reinvigorate some of our older neighborhoods. City leaders travel to other towns to see what, for example, a baseball stadium did for downtown Dayton, Ohio, or how loft development helped create a thriving residential community in… well, name your mid-sized Midwest city.

But if you look around Fort Wayne, you’ll find examples of older commercial districts that have not only managed to survive, but thrive, all without the benefits of massive subsidization or city reinvestment. Granted, there aren’t many of them; for the most part, Fort Wayne’s exodus from the older neighborhoods outwards is typical of national trends, with the shopping needs of brand new subdivisions accommodated by a seemingly endless bounty of brand new, half-filled strip malls…

Yet the area called the North Anthony corridor — the boulevard of shops bordered by Crescent on the south and Coliseum on the north — could serve as an excellent case study of an older commercial district doing a lot with seemingly a little. The shopping centers that line North Anthony don’t look as though they’ve received any major updates for a while. But as of this writing, all but a few of the store fronts are filled. On the west side of North Anthony you’ve got a Scott’s, a video store, ABBA House, Belmont Liquors, Atz ice cream, the Jam Crib, Jamison’s meats, the Health Food Shoppe, and the Firefly coffee shop, just to name a few. On the east side of the street you’ve got Coney Island, Wooden Nickel records, Retroactive, the Bookmark, Old Crown, a jewelers, the Bead Shop and many more. Right around the corner on Crescent is Tip-Top Tatoo and art gallery and Every Other Book.

In other words, the area covers a wide range of services — a grocery store, a liquor store, a butcher’s, a record store, two bookstores, two of the city’s best coffee houses… “It also has what a lot of the new wisdom in revitalization calls for,” says Mo Palmer, chairperson of the North Anthony Alliance. “A lot of those family owned and locally owned businesses that you don’t find in a bunch of the strip malls anymore, and that’s what makes it unique and the thing that I think will keep it thriving.”

“You’ve got a few businesses that have been there for… 25 years or so,” says Mike Woodruff, who owns Old Crown Coffee Roasters with his wife Jennifer. Woodruff grew up in the neighborhood, and says when he opened Old Crown seven years ago, the longevity of businesses like Jameson’s and Atz was part of the selling factor for him. “I’ve been going to these places for most of my life. They’re still here. They’re doing okay, they’ve found their niche.”

Of course, like any older neighborhood in Fort Wayne, the North Anthony area has seen its ups and downs. Lanni Connelly, owner of The Bookmark, says when she first opened her business there in 1993, the Belmont general store was still the anchor in the shopping center. Belmont closed about a year-and-a-half later. Another store took its place, but didn’t last long. “We ended up using most of our tenants,” Connelly says. “It had gone from a nice little shopping center to hardly anything.”

But now, despite a couple empty store fronts (one will soon be filled), things are healthy again. Connelly isn’t sure where things started turning around, but sites two reasons why she thinks business bounced back. First, she credits landlord Max Shambaugh for keeping up his investment. Second… “The word you’re looking for is ‘community,’” she says. “A lot of community shops our area. A lot of the community is on that campus (IPFW); a lot of the community lives in the area. It’s convenient.”

Most businesses site the proximity of IPFW and Ivy Tech — and the recent growth of both facilities — as an enormous factor in the health of the area. Cindy Demaree, who owns the Firefly coffee house with her husband Paul, says the schools were one of the reasons they chose that location when they opened seven years ago. Indeed, the Firefly is a pretty popular student hangout, even with a few Concordia students from across the street.

But if Ivy Tech and IPFW play a big part in the area’s present success, business owners see increased accessibility to the institutions as essential to North Anthony’s future. “The reality is that that campus is getting so big, and we have to start looking at the area like some of those college towns,” says Lanni Connelly. “It’s not just ‘little old Fort Wayne with an extension school.’ It has grown.”

Tim Hogan, manager of the Wooden Nickel Budget & Collector’s store for around 20 years, adds that the area should probably look beyond IPFW and Ivy Tech to the institution a few miles south on Anthony. “I look at Indiana Tech down the street,” he says. “With all the growth they’re going through, we should be able to capitalize on that.”

Mo Palmer is chairperson of the North Anthony Alliance, an organization of area business owners and residents working on making the west side of the North Anthony corridor more pedestrian friendly. “We’re very interested in reinvigorating the area and connecting it to the nearby campuses,” says Palmer, describing part of the North Anthony Alliance’s mission. “I know Broad Ripple can have a negative connotation for some people, but (we want to create) that kind of ambiance there.”

Actually, Palmer isn’t the only person to invoke Broad Ripple, the commercial district in suburban Indianapolis. Though no actual college is within easy walking distance of Broad Ripple Village, the area has the distinct feel of a college town. During the day, it’s a great strolling area; the shops and restaurants lining the streets are a good mix of locally-owned establishments and chains. At night, it’s a party destination, with plenty of bars and music venues. Mike Woodruff says that he has long thought the North Anthony corridor is the one area of Fort Wayne that has a chance of duplicating something like a Broad Ripple. “We don’t have the aesthetics. We don’t have the old buildings, we don’t have the quaint village,” says Woodruff, who is working on establishing a restaurant in the area. “However, we’ve got a commercial district, it’s very accessible, we’re close to a couple of schools… it’s viable.”

Viable, certainly, but most of the business owners know that that kind of transformation might be a long way off. Despite good business and few vacancies as of this writing, some of the shopping centers look a little down-at-heel (“I think it would do better if it had a face lift,” says Cindy Demaree). But most importantly, many tenants say the whole area could be a lot easier to get to. Accessibility — to pedestrians, bicycles, and wheel chairs — is the first thing business owners site when asked what the North Anthony corridor needs to take it to the next level. After all, North Anthony boulevard is six lanes wide as it runs through that area, which makes that Broad Ripple style “village ambiance” difficult to evoke.

One of the points of the North Anthony Alliance proposal calls for eliminating a third lane of traffic on the west side, and replacing about 50,000 square feet of asphalt with green space. “Right now, it’s virtually a sea of concrete and asphalt,” says Mo Palmer. “That entire west lane of traffic in the current plan will be removed, and that’s where the additional green space and a sidewalk will be put in. Lighting and benches and all that kind of thing will be installed.”

Palmer adds that there are 22 driveways on the west side; the plan calls to reduce those to seven, and have a winding multi-use path as opposed to a regular sidewalk.

So, you’ve got an older but still vital neighborhood hoping to maximize its potential with a sizeable renovation project — how does that make the North Anthony corridor any different from any other area ripe for revitalization? According to the business owners along that section of North Anthony Boulevard, it’s a combination of having a solid foundation to build on and a manageable project. The students are already there, whether you’re talking IPFW/Ivy Tech or Indiana Tech down the road; the residential community is already there; the stores are already there. Now, it’s simply a matter of having something to tie all the elements together. One person involved with the North Anthony Alliance references the many hopes and plans for Fort Wayne’s downtown, saying he’d love to see that area brought back. “But it’s a huge, huge project, and it’s going to take millions upon millions of dollars, and a lot of time. It’s almost too big of a project to get started. But this (North Anthony) is a manageable project. It’s something that can be done.”

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