LOWELL | Phillip Kuiper has spent all of his 50 years in this south Lake County community, growing up one block off the downtown where a department store, men's and women's clothing shops, two jewelry stores, a movie theater and more met locals' needs.
Back then, the town's eastern boundary ended at Burr Street, where on the other side Kuiper's father had 45 horses for trading.
Today, the commercial hub of the town lies east of Burr Street, and the historic downtown, while still home to retailers, has vacant buildings.
"The changes have been gradual in the last 45 years," Kuiper said.
Last year, the town faced those changes by forming the Lowell Redevelopment Commission, a highlight of the year which jump-started a number of growth-related initiatives.
"Definitely, 2012 was the busiest I've had since I was on the council," said Kuiper, who has represented the 4th Ward as councilman for 10 years.
"I knew we needed some kind of draw," Kuiper said. He approached SEH of Munster, whose Matt Reardon coached town leaders through the process of forming a redevelopment commission. Out of it grew the eventual creation of a tax increment financing district, an annexation recommendation and a revitalization area designation for the downtown.
"This is good stuff. ... The downtown has several vacancies. We've had businesses want to come, and we have no vacancy. They all want to go east." Kuiper said. By designating the revitalization area, investors in vacant buildings have the opportunity to receive 100 percent tax abatement with council approval, he said.
Kuiper said having everything in place makes it easier for businesses such as Trilogy Health Services, a nursing home and assisted living facility, to come to town. With plans approved last year, it will break ground in the spring, as will a Franciscan medical center, both on the east side.
Kuiper said Trilogy is expected to hire about 60 people, mirroring the number of jobs lost with Ashland Products' departure.
Trilogy was granted tax abatement, as were the owners of George's Family Restaurant, who successfully sought reduced taxes on their planned $1 million banquet hall.
"That was a first," Kuiper said of approving tax abatement on real estate for a commercial enterprise rather than just industries.
Lowell's welcome mat was burnished when extensive paving and an intersection project were completed at the beginning of last year.
"We did over $1 million in blacktopping in this economy. How many towns can say that?," Kuiper asked.
With a new superintendent of the Tri-Creek School Corp. last year, Kuiper said a "big highlight" has been the continued, good working relationship between the town and school district.
"When I got on the council there was no relationship at all," Kuiper said. "Now, they've included the council on everything ... There is a School Board member on the RDC ... People in town forget how important the school system is (to economic development)," he said.
"I think we're coming out from the bedroom community (label)," Kuiper said. The future of the town will be economy-driven, he said.
"I think we'll see us stretching south and west for sure," Kuiper said of annexation. "East, we know, is a pot of gold. The problem is getting there. It's not inexpensive, and there will be trials and tribulations for people I grew up with," he said of those living along Ind. 2 east toward Interstate 65. "It will happen eventually," he said.
Kuiper said he and others know the town is poised for growth.
"We know there's a draw here. ... We have businesses like Buffalo Wild Wings and Starbucks knocking on our door. ... We're thrilled Lowell town folks bought the Rieter property. They came in asked us what we'd like to see there. We said light industry," Kuiper said of the site that once housed the town's largest employer.
The Redevelopment Commission has recommended annexation south and west, too, to bring in much-needed land for light industrial development.
While well-positioned now for physical growth, Kuiper said he believes Lowell will retain the homey charm that pulls people to its doors.
"I think we'll always have that small-town feel," Kuiper said. "I think we can hang on to it as long as we hang on to our library, our Fire Department, our Police Department."
"This past year has been the payoff from the work of the last, three years," Kuiper said. "It's rewarding, so much fun, to see the benefits," he said.
And the future?
"We've got good energy," Kuiper said.