Heart of the community

2012-01-15T00:00:00Z 2012-01-16T13:15:18Z Heart of the communityBy Susan Erler susan.erler@nwi.com, (219) 662-5336 nwitimes.com
January 15, 2012 12:00 am  • 

People throng to downtown Lowell each year for a host of events from the October pumpkin decorating contest to the July taste of the town.

A handful of volunteers puts out the decorations, bakes the cookies, roasts the hot dogs and does the cleanup, all to bring in a trickle of dollars.

The money goes to efforts to preserve the downtown, including work last year to install plaques identifying historical buildings in town.

Their reason is simple, said Lowell Main Street Association President Dianne Boylan.

"If you have a historic downtown, it's the bones of your economy," Boylan said. "As it goes, so goes the rest of the town."

Lowell is working to preserve its center, but not all downtowns in the region have fared as well.

Some have yet to recover from a staggering loss of business during downturns in the steel industry or from the shift of major retailers to shopping malls.

Still others, including those in Crown Point, Hobart, Chesterton and Valparaiso, survive and even thrive, often thanks to efforts of small groups such as Lowell's Main Street Association.

Among community planners looking to the future, the focus appears to be shifting back to the centers of towns, after years of looking to develop on the outskirts.

"Downtowns represent the heart of the community," said Michael Burayidi, a professor and the chair of the Department of Urban Planning at Ball State University in Muncie.

"If the heart is not healthy, the rest of the body cannot be healthy," he said.

Increasingly, downtowns are becoming more attractive to Baby Boomers seeking "walkable communities with lots of amenities," rather than flocking to retirement communities, Burayidi said in an article in the November 2010 issue of Downtown Idea Exchange, excerpted from Burayidi's book, "Resilient Downtowns of Small Urban Communities."

Strategies endorsed by Burayidi for communities looking to strengthen their downtowns mirror some of the very ones embraced locally, including keeping civic buildings in the center of town, preserving historic buildings and, in some cases, reinventing themselves.

"The downtown is where a community can identify its uniqueness, its sense of identity for the community," Burayidi said.

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