A northeast Kokomo neighborhood that some residents believe has taken a backseat to the city’s downtown is now the focal point of a program that will sink tens of thousands of dollars into commercial improvements.
The initiative, say city officials, will retain and attract businesses to an area along the Apperson Way corridor, between East Walnut Street and East Havens Street, that sits just outside downtown and hopes to see an expansion of the growth that has touched the city’s center in recent years.
Earlier this month, the Kokomo Common Council approved two resolutions that will combine to provide $100,000 in funding, including $50,000 for improvements and renovations to the Kokomo Housing Authority’s administration and maintenance building, at the intersection of North Apperson Way and East Walnut Street.
More notable, perhaps, is the $50,000 in grant money being made available to commercial businesses located on the Apperson corridor, an effort one councilman hopes will lead to a domino effect of growth.
Businesses in the area – including multiple barber and beauty shops, a clothing store, gas stations and mixed storefronts – can apply for and potentially receive up to $15,000 in grant money through the commercial exterior improvement project.
The funding, explained Common Councilman Steve Whikehart, the resolutions’ sponsor, can be used for aesthetic and infrastructure improvements like siding and roofing, while also ensuring ADA compliance.
Kokomo Deputy Mayor David Tharp said the city’s administration has approached around five to seven property owners in the targeted area about being involved in what is officially titled the Apperson Way Façade Improvement Program, although he would not disclose the specific businesses.
It’s a continuation, noted Whikeart, of past and existing improvement projects like a downtown façade program and the 50/50 sidewalk that city officials believe have a lasting impact on economic vitality.
“Commercial businesses can look at that and say, ‘We’ve needed an update for a long time, we need a facelift. But it’s going to be costly.’ Suddenly there’s a grant that’s available to them,” he said.
“And we want to get people to apply for this, we want to encourage it. Because the more success we see in this, the more money we can move to continue and expand this program.”
A city document outlining the program laid out five goals for the northeast neighborhood: to attract new businesses; upgrade property appearances; retain and create new jobs; retain and expand businesses; and increase retail sales and property values and improve the business climate.
While $50,000 is unlikely to accomplish such lofty goals, the city is hopeful the program's anticipated success will build on itself and even lead to diversified business opportunities.
“I would say it’s probably a two-pronged approach,” said Whikehart. “Number one, if we can go ahead and improve the existing commercial businesses that are there, that’s another win for the community.
“But if we suddenly attract – and we know there’s a food desert – some people to come in, that’s just going to be advantageous for us and the community.”
Business owners eyeing the neighborhood, he said, would “see that the city of Kokomo is reinvesting in this area and that commercial business owners are reinvesting in it. So they see that people take pride in this historic east side area.”
This focus on the Apperson corridor comes just months after neighborhood residents clashed with city officials over a homeless housing facility slated for 711 N. Purdum St., just a handful of blocks east of Apperson Way inside the targeted stretch.
The state of Indiana announced last week that the facility, titled Sargent Place after former Kokomo mayor and Howard County sheriff Bob Sargent, was approved for $2.02 million in state tax credits and federal funding.
Construction is expected to start in spring 2019.
The project, which received rezoning approval from the Common Council this summer and still requires development plan approval from the Kokomo City Plan Commission, received major pushback following its announcement.
The $7.5 million, 35-unit housing development is planned as a three-story complex offered to homeless families in need of affordable housing and substance abuse and mental health treatment. It will include 20 two-bedroom, 10 three-bedroom and five one-bedroom units.
The project could further stigmatize the neighborhood, some worried, and affect an area they believe has been left out of the city’s otherwise widespread economic development progress, minus an influx of low-income housing to their part of the city.
“I am absolutely for this shelter, this housing being built. I’m absolutely for it. Absolutely. It’s what we need, this community,” said DeAndra Beard, the CEO of Beyond Borders Language Learning Center and owner of Bind Café and Beyond Borders Bookstore.
“But at the same time, I’m from this neighborhood that continuously does not get development that is going to be value-add, meaning all the way around value-add. Not just property value, not just property value. …There’s no grocery stores; there’s so many things that could be done in that same lot, so many projects.”
The city is working to soothe those concerns, responded Whikehart.
“This is an example of expanding beyond the downtown core,” he said. “There’s been some criticism in the past of just focusing on downtown. But there have been a number of opportunities where we’ve one beyond that that really doesn’t get a lot of light, a lot of traction.
“This is another example of that.”
Whikehart, who also pointed to east side infrastructure work like medians and bumpouts and road redesigns, also pushed back against the specific arguments made by opponents to the Sargent facility.
“This is providing that [the criticism] is anecdotal and it was never necessarily the case. This has been something this administration has done for years, when it came to the redesign of Apperson Way,” he said.
“And things take time. I think people sometimes aren’t as patient, but they also realize that some of the fears they have don’t necessarily come true. Or some of the things they are being told may not necessarily be the truth.”
The Kokomo Housing Authority is also receiving $50,000, in Economic Development Income Tax funding, from the city to improve its structure at the intersection of North Apperson Way and East Walnut Street.
KHA CEO Debra Cook did not return a request about what specific improvements will be made.
Whikehart explained, however, that the KHA is prohibited from using its own money on buildings that are not inhabited by residents, pushing the city to intervene.
He the city needs “to be able to help the governmental units that can’t help themselves.”
“If we’re going to spend $50,000 on a commercial exterior improvement program, and we’re going to ask individual residents to do that, but yet the housing authority can’t do it with their own funding, that’s not really fair,” he said.
“And there’s the hope that once the housing authority building is modernized, it’s going to be a jewel there. And suddently people are going to start looking at their businesses and thing, ‘Wow, I want to improve mine.’”