August 12, 2022

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Defining the Downtown: Johnson shaping the role as city’s first Main Street manager | News Sun

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KENDALLVILLE — Kristen Johnson wonders how she used to shoehorn downtown promotion around the rest of her work.

Before she left her role as executive director at the Kendallville Area Chamber of Commerce to take the city’s newly created Main Street manager job, all of the downtown support and promotion was being handled on the side pro bono along with the day-to-day work with chamber members.

Now, after Johnson separated from the chamber and took on the city’s downtown promoter job full-time, she looks back and tries to figure out how she did both.

“The work was already here, as far as Experience the Heart of Kendallville, but there were certain things that just weren’t getting done for a lack of time,” Johnson said.

You can get the sense that there’s plenty to do, just by looking into Johnson’s small closet-like office at City Hall next to the police training room.

About a quarter of the room is filled with supplies for the upcoming third-annual Fairy, Gnome and Troll Festival. There are stacks of freshly printed marketing materials piled on the desk — brochures and events cards and a new, stylish maps of downtown. Johnson spins in her chair and looks left and right, trying to figure out where she stuffed the architectural schematics for the PreservINg Main Street project, eventually finding them tucked partway before her file cabinet.

A reminder: This position hasn’t even existed for a full three months yet and already it’s playing a big role amid Kendallville’s downtown transformation effort.

So what is the job all about, anyway?

Johnson gestures to her wall and the star-shaped mural painted on the wall.

“Our four pillars,” Johnson said. “Everything I do is designed around the four pillars.”

Those include economic vitality, design, organization and promotion.

Right now, the job is front-loaded with all of the management of the city’s $2 million PreservINg Main Street grant, which is there to do restoration and revitalization of historic facades in the downtown.

That project is on a warp-speed schedule, with bids needing to get out to contractors this summer. The city is still in the midst of finalizing its list of projects, with right now 15 buildings out of 25 who applied in the running for a cut of the funds.

Johnson is one of the city’s key figures in working with the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, Indiana Landmarks and Indiana Humanities, architects, the mayor and other city officials, to ensure that project stays on track and meets all of the state’s requirements.

But the grant money and the construction to come has also created secondary work that will fall heavily on the new Main Street manager’s office.

First, the city created a new historic preservation commission that will, long-term, oversee new development and physical changes to buildings in the downtown in an effort to maintain the city’s historic charm. That new board, which is only likely to meet once a month, maybe more if there’s a lot of tackle, will lean on Johnson as its day-to-day point person for building owners who need to submit projects for consideration.

Second, Johnson is likely then serve as a liaison between the Kendallville Historic Preservation Commission and the Kendallville Redevelopment Commission, as building owners often seek the RDC’s 50/50 facade grants to help fund the changes to their buildings.

Johnson previously served as president of the redevelopment commission before moving just outside of the city limits and having to resign her seat, so she’s familiar with that group’s funding, mission and thought process — primarily because she was at the helm over the last year when the RDC set its new priorities now being carried out by its new slate of members.

Third, as a requirement of the PreservINg Main Street grant, the city will have to seek accreditation through the national Main Street program, a designation that comes with a fair share of paperwork and administration but that can also open doors to new grant opportunities and other resources.

“There are only 15 Main Streets in Indiana that are on the national Main Street level and that’s one of the next things we’re going to be working toward and are required to do as part of this grant,” she said. “We’re hoping to apply as a national by the end of this year and with that comes additional requirements and standards … but we would love to be No. 16.”

And none of that even touches on the other stuff lined up — planning and running events both big and small, answering questions and assisting downtown building and business owners who are looking to grow their business or reach new audiences and working toward next steps for the downtown like ushering in second-floor housing development.

One of the first steps being taken this summer is working on a rebranding for the downtown, which includes stepping back and reviewing what the city offers, what atmosphere it projects and what it wants to become.

For example, does Kendallville want its downtown to be a family-friendly zone for activities and events, a trendy spot for adults with some money to throw around, a charming old-time community drawing people antiquing or taking a leisurely weekend off?

Downtown Fort Wayne is very different from downtown Shipshewana, which is different from Indianapoilis, which is different from scenic Brown County.

Noble County as a whole has always projected a sort of leisurely, pastoral vibe — it was a matter of consternation a few years back when the Noble County Convention and Visitors Bureau went through a rebranding process — but charting the course of businesses in a downtown is very different than changing the landscape and natural resources of an entire county.

“What we want to do is try to identify our own identity. What are we now and what do we want downtown to be, and the types of businesses and the feel?” Johnson said. “We’re trying to figure out what that identity is and then try to design our new brand logo and everything around that.”

That analysis will not only help the city focus its marketing strategy now, but determine where the downtown might be headed in the future.

Even once the big projects are done — and it’s almost a certainty that Kendallville will keep looking for its next project even after the current ones are completed — the day-to-day will still keep the Main Street manager job relevant for its promotion and business support.

In that respect, it’s similar to the chamber of commerce, except with a different scope and a different, although sometimes overlapping, constituency.

Right now, Johnson is riding the wave and trying to keep above water with the tsunami of activity happening in the downtown. But long-term, the changes and progress that have been made are already starting to turn the tide.

Buildings are spruced up. Events like the fairy festival and Food Truck Fridays are being scheduled and drawing big attendance. Empty buildings are turning over and there’s a buzz growing.

“This grant has been really cool because we’ve had businesses reach out and say ‘How do I get my business in downtown Kendallville?” Johnson said.

And, as just one more sign of things changing in downtown, Kendallville now has a dedicated person to help figure that out.

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