Downtown planning at heart of survey, workshops


JASPER — What do you think of when you picture downtown Jasper?

Maybe you see it as “oasis between Bloomington and Evansville that could be a destination.” You might think the “downtown area has great potential and I believe there is much positive change happening now.” Or, while “it is a charming downtown, there is a need to update the streetscape and add more restaurants and retail into the mix.”

The above quotes were collected from a Main Street America survey that nearly 250 people completed in regard to the city’s downtown. Community members met with representatives from the National Main Street Center and Indiana Main Street Center on Monday and Tuesday for transformational strategies workshops that focused on downtown planning. Jasper was one of only a handful of communities in Indiana selected to be part of the economic development strategy workshops led by the entities.

“I think it gave them (the attendees) some energy and some really ... thinking about what can we do next,” said Nancy Eckerle, the executive director of the Jasper Chamber of Commerce. “Not only (in the) area of promotions, but let’s start looking at our downtown and what kind of businesses we want there, and what spots would be good for various businesses. So, I think it’s really giving them an opportunity to think ahead. Not only a year ahead but 10 years ahead.”

Kathy La Plante, National Main Street senior program officer, said the biggest goal of the workshops was to identify the downtown’s major market opportunities. The survey results were supplemented with market data to discover ways to further strengthen the downtown economy.

“Downtown Jasper’s got a lot of assets going for it,” La Plante said. “No. 1, hardly any vacancy. But when those vacancies do come, what do we want? Rather than take the first business that comes along with the first month’s rent, can we be more strategic so they’ll strengthen our business mix?”

Though a final direction was not affirmed, some attendees — who were also elected officials or part of the downtown business association — agreed that honing in on food, entertainment and arts destinations could be a good strategy to enhance the area.

A description of the Main Street Centers’ arts, entertainment and culinary district strategy includes daytime and nighttime components, offering a variety of food and drink establishments at different price points, arts performances and more. Benefits of the strategy include bringing people to Jasper for reasons other than shopping, extending economic activity into the evening and the repurposing of historic buildings into businesses and housing.

In addition to restaurants and the arts, La Plante said downtown Jasper also has existing strength that could grow in the home furnishings and home living sector as well as the health and fitness sector. She stressed that the workshops weren’t about her telling the city what is needs, but were instead a way to spark conversation with those in attendance. La Plante arrived in Jasper on Sunday with an idea of what the current downtown would be like, and said Monday night that it is even better than she expected.

“It still has a real strong retail core,” she said, explaining that courthouse squares are typically surrounded by bail bondsmen and attorneys. “And that’s not anything the community necessarily comes to use. Your downtown is an active downtown because you have such a great variety of retail shops. That is a real strength.”

Moving forward, Eckerle said the city will bring Indiana Main Street back to Jasper for more work sessions to further assess downtown Jasper as an “economic engine for our community.”

“Manufacturing is a huge part of our community, but so is retail,” Eckerle said. “And so how can we make the downtown an area that’s just alive, and hopping and bringing the tax base back into the community in a bigger way?”

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