Tammy and Shawn Anderson with their two children, 2-year-old Zion and 4-year-old Simeon, on the front porch of their Taylor Street home. After Shawn got the call to Sycamore Reformed Presbyterian Church in downtown Kokomo, the couple was able to buy a home right next door. Staff photo by Kelly Lafferty
After graduating from seminary in Pittsburgh back in June, Shawn Anderson received the call to lead Sycamore Reformed Presbyterian Church in downtown Kokomo.
A young couple with two children looking to locate in and take advantage of all the downtown has to offer, Shawn Anderson and his wife, Tammy, might be the epitome of what city officials had in mind in the initiative to bring a new generation to downtown.
"When I got the call to this church, one of the decisions was where I want to live,” Shawn Anderson said. “I wanted to live as close to the church building as possible, so I could get to know the community and our neighborhood."
The Andersons were able to find a home right next door to the church, in the 300 block of East Taylor Street. The home was being marketed by the Kokomo Urban Enterprise, which aims to renovate and redevelop old houses in the downtown area and sell them to families, who in turn receive tax credits on the purchase.
Being part of a downtown in the midst of redefining itself has been exciting for the Andersons, but the couple hopes the residential community surrounding all of that development will be able to grow along with the influx of businesses and other amenities.
"What we really want to do is connect with our neighbors," Anderson said. "We want to be involved in the life and community of this neighborhood. Which is why downtown needs the church, too, so that there's not just a bunch of things to go to.
"I don't want to see the downtown focused on just commodities and amenities and lose the residential aspect of downtown,” he added. “But you also can't have the residential downtown without having things available downtown. That's what makes it so appealing is the accessibility. It's got to go together."
Looking to rejuvenate old, blighted buildings and develop new housing as well as centralized entertainment options has become common in large and mid-sized cities across the country. As administrators look for ways to make their city the most attractive regional option for young people to live and work in, many cities have experienced some of the ill effects of those growing pains through gentrification.
Gentrification has led to higher residential costs in big cities like New York, San Francisco and Boston, leaving longtime residents — often minorities and lower income families — unable to afford the neighborhoods they’ve lived in for decades.
So while attracting Millenials and baby boomers to Kokomo remains a high priority for the city, Mayor Greg Goodnight said the process of redevelopment must be carried out with great care and an eye toward the future.
“You want a community that’s not segregated based on income levels,” he said. “You want everyone to enjoy the activities in the city and not be held back based on their economic status.
"I don't think we've had enough development to the point where we've come to those types of situations here," Goodnight said, referring the potentially negative effects of gentrification. "Could we in the next few years? If everything goes in the right direction, we could run into those types of problems in that balancing act. The key is when you do those things, as in the areas where gentrification takes place, that displacement options are viable for the people that live there.”
Japonica Brown-Saracino said gentrification has become increasingly prevalent in neighborhoods across the United States. Many cities expect it to take place with continued growth, with economic base often playing a big factor.
Brown-Saracino has published two books among the nine publications she's appeared in focusing on gentrification, including "A Neighborhood That Never Changes: Gentrification, Social Preservation, and the Search for Authenticity," which received the 2010-11 Urban Affairs Association Best Book Award, and "The Gentrification Debates," which is composed of excerpts from defining book chapters and articles on gentrification published over the last 45 years.
Brown-Saracino said gentrification can bring some diversity to neighborhoods in its early stages, but that is often temporary.
To break down the impact gentrification can have on cities, Brown-Saracino said it is best to avoid labeling the changes as positive or negative.
"It's really about for whom [the effects of gentrification] are positive," she said. "New residents will enjoy a greater number and wider range of shops and restaurants. Improvements to the housing stock and historical preservations are all benefits, but it's less about the benefits and more about who it benefits."
In recent years, Brown-Saracino said, long-term residents who have remained in neighborhoods during the stages of gentrification have benefited from the improved amenities and commercial variety in their neighborhoods. However, she warns that the impact of changing stores and introducing a new demographic of people to a culture can have more far-reaching, long-term impacts than anticipated.
"You can't just think about the physical displacement of the residents, but also the social and cultural displacement," she said. "The idea of going to the neighborhood restaurant or bar or place you used to go and having people there who don't share your class or ethnicity is consequential."
Give the people what they want
Tamika Taylor looks in one direction and sees a complex going up for homeless veterans and in the other direction a new parking garage from her job post at Fashions on the Go on East Taylor Street. As a military veteran, she's glad to see the city is providing a home for disabled and homeless veterans just down the block in the soon-to-be-opened Jackson Street Commons.
She often talks to her father, who lives in Michigan, on the phone about the city’s progress as a destination. It’s all in an effort to become more “city-fied,” as Taylor calls it, but the longtime Kokomo resident wonders if there will be enough demand to support the increased housing and commercial stock.
“At first I was kind of skeptical,” she said. “I didn’t think there were enough people or businesses for it. In the long run, it attracts business. I think we’re trying to grow and do better.”
Taylor, who lives downtown on Mulberry Street, said some people who have lived in the neighborhood for a long time have expressed concern about the possibility of being squeezed out in favor of redevelopment. The key will be whether the needs of those long-time residents are addressed as changes occur.
“Personally, I know a lot of us around here don’t like change,” she said. “With these new apartments coming, it’s not like we want the best of the neighborhood, but we don’t want the worst of the worst to end up over here and disrupt what we do have.
“In general, I see what the mayor is trying to do by attracting businesses and trying to keep them [downtown],” she added. “You’re fixing it up, but what’s going to happen after that? Is it going to be maintained? Are we actually going to have businesses there or is it going to be a pretty building?”
Before gentrification can truly take place in Kokomo, the city must hold up its end of the deal in the classic movie quote, "If you build it [they] will come."
Kokomo has wasted no time this spring advancing a number of construction projects in the downtown area while continuing to work with private investors to bring diverse housing and commercial options to neighborhoods that haven’t seen development in years.
An apartment complex already has gone up for seniors 55 and older on the corner of Washington and Taylor streets, providing low- to moderate-income senior housing inside the $9 million project. Another complex, Kingston Square Apartments, opened late in the fall of 2013 on North Courtland Avenue, offering another new rental option on the site of the former Kingston Products plant. There, all the of the spots were leased out prior to its opening.
With new student apartments at The Annex expected to open this fall on Washington Street across from Indiana University Kokomo, and another complex, Sargent Hall, planned across the street from City Hall, Goodnight said the plan is to diversify the options for people of all ages to be able to live within a close proximity of the city’s amenities.
“Studies have shown nationally that there’s a desire for Millenials and retiring baby boomers to have more of an urban setting,” he said. “It’s not for everyone, but we have to make sure it’s a viable option. Once people start living in an area, statistics show that they pretty much remain in that region. Maybe not in one specific city or suburb, but you’ll remain in that region.
“It’s important that young people have an immediate option in our community before they move elsewhere,” he said. “With baby boomers and grandparents, they all want to be close to their children and grandchildren. If young people remain here in the community, it only increases our chances of retirees staying here as well.”
Stacey Grills, who has lived in Kokomo most of her life, said the city’s major focus should be on cleaning up and re-purposing old and abandoned buildings before it concentrates on building new ones.
Grills lives in a neighborhood that has seen many families leave since flooding destroyed their homes last spring along West Park Avenue. She hopes to see the effort of rehabilitating the city’s housing stock continue.
“I just see all of these empty buildings just sitting here making Kokomo go downhill,” Grills said. “I don’t see the need to build new apartments when all of these vacant houses and apartments are falling apart. If they could knock down some of these homes that have been condemned, I would rather have them do that.”
Corey Storey, 45, has lived in Kokomo for most of his life and believes the city is addressing the needs of all of its residents by continuing to provide affordable housing options across demographics.
Storey speaks optimistically about the future of the city from his barber’s chair inside Davis Barber Shop & Beauty Salon at 906 N. Apperson Way, while another customer thumbs through the Bible and discusses passages with intent to Storey, who obliges him.
The shop, which has stood the test of time despite some tough years, serves as a spot for area residents to congregate and speak on current issues as much as it is a place to get a haircut. As owner Earl Davis talks about the maintenance issues the shop is dealing with, he proudly shows off pictures of his daughters while Storey sounds off about his excitement for the downtown’s future.
One of the most positive changes to the current housing stock, Storey said, has been the code enforcement done by the city in an effort to clean up nuisance and abandoned properties.
“I think the mayor is doing a great job with some of the stuff like the housing projects,” he said. “I can’t wait to see how all of this turns out. The people living here in Kokomo are living well. The apartment codes and standards in this area are good. You look at some of the bigger cities, they don’t have that.”
Davis, who has operated the business since he moved to Kokomo in 1972, said he has seen the neighborhood along Apperson Way go through its share of hard times, with the barber shop being broken into on a number of occasions over the years.
“When I opened up the business I had seven employees,” Davis said. “Now it's just me. By being self-employed, I've got to be the plumber and I have to do the electric."
Despite some financial difficulties, Davis still sees things changing for the better in the neighborhood since the economy bottomed out in 2009, and he hopes efforts to instill community pride will go a long way, pointing to the construction of a Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Monument planned for the corner of Lafountain Street and Apperson Way.
"I thank God we've got people like [Kokomo Common Council member] Janie Young, because she talks about the positive attributes of the neighborhood,” he said. “She's been doing some positive things to make the area better."
Tammy Anderson said she has been pleasantly surprised with the downtown's structure and the different amenities that already are provided.
Being able to purchase a home in a city that has consistently topped various lists as one of the most affordable places to live in the country, Anderson added, has allowed her family to start a significant chapter in their lives together as homeowners.
"We like to walk all through the downtown and feel very comfortably doing so," she said. "Different people have different standards of what is a safe and comfortable place to raise a family. We hoped for and found our expectations fulfilled when we found out it was just fine, that it's family friendly."
Looking to the future
A quick stroll through Kokomo’s downtown provides an immediate illustration of what the future holds, as construction crews move forward on a four-story parking garage on North Union Street and an urban section of the Industrial Heritage Trail is installed on a seven-block stretch of North Buckeye Street.
A pizza/brewpub called The District and the Laugh House Comedy Club are in the works on Sycamore Street, bringing more food and entertainment to the downtown, while work continues on the old Firestone Building, which could provide office space and new retail possibilities.
Add to the mix a new YMCA — construction is expected to start in September on a new $16-million, 73,000-square-foot facility on North Union Street — and there have been plenty of reasons to anticipate what the downtown will look like a few years down the road.
Goodnight said the city and private investors are now reaping the rewards of initiatives put in place to encourage business growth over the last few years.
“Success breeds success,” he said. “I think IUK bringing their sports to the downtown, the trail extensions and Ivy Tech moving a lot of their offices downtown and some of the facade grants are all big factors. The inexpensive things a few years ago started laying the groundwork.”
Indianapolis-based Mecca Companies President and CEO Kyle Bach, the developer of the sites at Kingston Square and The Annex, said the recent surge in apartment construction has been spurred by the city’s demand for more rental properties.
What has set Kokomo apart during this crucial time for development, he said, has been its willingness to work with developers.
“When we were originally developing that project, we estimated that it would take seven to nine months to fill all of the units,” he said of the Kingston Square Apartments. “It only took us three. Certainly, when you look nationally and across the Midwest, the trend right now is that a lot of people are renting rather than buying. The population base in Kokomo has been on board with this from the start.”
Scott Pitcher, who began working as a developer nearly 30 years ago in Kokomo, believes Kokomo's recent growth in the apartment and rental market falls in line with national trends.
Currently, Pitcher said, there are waiting lists for condos that used to stay empty for months after they were vacated.
Pitcher, who has developed more than 80 properties in downtown Kokomo, said he's never seen the interest levels this high for those looking to locate downtown and anticipates any remaining space above downtown buildings soon will be filled.
"It certainly makes you feel good to bring young people downtown," he said. "I've been working here since 1982 and this is one of the first times we have young people wanting to live downtown. When you see the apartments [become vacant] downtown, they fill up right away.
"With mortgages getting harder for young people [to pay], you're seeing people much more inclined to rent apartments," he added. "The city's driving of development downtown has made it a destination tailored for the empty nester, with no yard to maintain or place to maintain. Young people that don't have children seem to be our main clients."
Goodnight said the city is always careful in deciding the shape of development in the downtown area, but also knows the objective is to be a more attractive option than its surrounding neighbors like Noblesville, Lafayette, Logansport, Peru, Bloomington, Zionsville and Carmel.
Functionality and historical value will be taken into account in the city's decisions as it continues the task of reshaping its downtown.
“There’s a difference between historic buildings and old buildings,” Goodnight said. “We need to preserve historic buildings and there are maybe some older buildings that have seen better days. I want to always make sure we differentiate between the two. Every time we have an opportunity, our objective is how do we leverage that to the fullest extent.”