Area residents have spoken.
They want places to eat, shop and be entertained in Portland’s downtown.
A plan to revitalize the city’s downtown and help bring those features to the area is almost complete.
Portland’s downtown revitalization plan, which is being paid for by a $30,000 grant awarded from the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, is about 80 percent complete, Brent Mather of R&B Architects said at a planning meeting Tuesday.
Preliminary results from a survey taken as part of the planning process were released at the meeting. Participants were asked what drew them to downtown Portland, what kept them away and what they would like to see there in the future.
More than a third of the respondents said they visited downtown Portland daily. But a lack of things to do and parking frustrations were two of the biggest reasons people stayed away.
In addition to the survey, R&B conducted a gap analysis, determining what kinds of businesses were missing from the area that could be generating tax dollars. One of the biggest needs, of course, is a grocery store.
“There is 8 million dollars of money that the average American would be spending to buy groceries that’s not getting spent in Portland,” Mather said.
And while it wouldn’t be feasible to place a large grocery store in downtown, it could be close by and would still benefit the area, he said. Another option would be to have several smaller grocers. Other needs included dining options, general merchandise stores, new car dealerships and gas stations.
Part of the plan includes focusing on how to make the downtown attractive to potential investors and helping existing businesses improve. Several business and building owners expressed frustration at Tuesday’s meeting that it was difficult to get information about potential grants and loans available to them.
That problem could be mitigated by an integral part of the plan, Mather said. This spring, Portland was designated by a Main Street Community through OCRA. With that comes the stipulation that a Main Street committee form.
The group will be volunteer-based to start, and will focus on creating events and marketing the downtown, working to beautify the area, spurring economic development and maintaining itself as an organization. It would be a resource for downtown business and property owners.
“So in this idea, you use this tested state and national model, to create an impartial — it’s not city-based, it’s not organization-based, it doesn’t have to say I only work for my members, it can work for everybody — group that collects all that information and makes sure you get to the right spot,” Mather said. “This is not something to wait three years on.”
Placing the plan in the hands of the Main Street committee could solve some of the problems with previous plans, Mather said, such as changes in city administration resulting in plans being shelved or a lack of manpower.
“Most of these Main Street organizations take a plan like the one we’re just finishing and they become the stewards of the plan,” Mather said. “This organization can be across politics. It can be more flexible in the way it goes out funding mechanisms. It can still partner with the city to make an application to one of the state grants. It can still ask for redevelopment commission money.”
The plan is playing off of the revitalization plan put together by Ball State University students in 2016, Mather said. That plan included a suggestion to narrow Meridian Street from four lanes to two lanes as it passes through downtown and to replace the current parallel parking with angled parking.
“The idea is that major arterials, like your Meridian, need to be just as friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists and electric golf carts, even,” Mather said. “They call it ‘Complete Streets.’ … It’s wider sidewalks, dedicated bicycle lanes, finding a way for street trees to work by bringing them out further away from buildings.”
Another focus is the intersection of Main and Meridian streets as a business hub. It would be a good idea to start any beautification projects in that area, he said, which includes the Jay County Courthouse.
The plan also includes fixing up many of the buildings in the downtown area, including specifically targeting several endangered buildings. There would be two phases of facade updates, which would involve 25 of the structures downtown.
The plan is expected to be complete in mid-December, Jay County’s director of community development Ami Huffman said after the meeting, and should come before Portland City Council for ratification shortly after that.
The push toward making and updating revitalization plans took place throughout several municipalities this year, as Jay County is considering applying for a regional Stellar Communities grant from OCRA early next year. Dunkirk’s and Pennville’s plans are expected to be completed in December, and Redkey’s was approved in August.