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Investing in Franklin reaps rewards

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Ten years ago, a retail shop owner had never thought about opening a store in downtown Franklin.

Then, Diane Stracks came to Franklin to go antiquing and noticed the new sidewalks and landscaping downtown, the new lighting on North Main Street and newly restored facades on business buildings. Back when she lived in the Center Grove area before 2002, the only reason for her to come to downtown Franklin was the Artcraft Theatre, she said.

Now, she is willing to drive 45 minutes from her home in Hancock County to be a part of a redeveloping downtown. In October, she opened Curly Willow in a historic home on Jefferson Street east of downtown, which seemed like the perfect spot to sell rustic decorations and furniture. And she and her family are trying to find a house nearby.

Curly Willow is one of 11 businesses to open in or near downtown Franklin last year. In past years, one or two new shops might open. Mayor Joe McGuinness said more than 20 others have contacted the city about available spaces or grants to pay for facade improvements.

Tax dollars the city has been investing in downtown streets, sidewalks and storefronts is starting to attract the new economic development the city was hoping for, McGuinness said.

The Franklin Development Corp., a nonprofit agency created by the city and funded with tax dollars, gave out $900,000 in grants for nine projects around the downtown this summer and approved three new facade grants for $125,000 in January. The city received a $250,000 grant from the state to help eight downtown businesses restore historic facades on their buildings. Franklin also finished multimillion-dollar projects to improve downtown parking lots, rebuild East and West Court streets and reconstruct North Main Street.

About 20 businesses are planning, are in the process of completing or have completed facade improvements since last year. Those range from small projects, such as $5,000 for new signs and window work at Geek in Pink on North Main Street to a planned $200,000 renovation at Jeff Street Pub.

Franklin spent more than $6.6 million to reconstruct North Main Street, rebuild downtown parking lots and improve East and West Court streets. The Franklin Redevelopment Commission also has used tax dollars to fund projects, such as $200,000 for the local Elks Lodge to renovate and move into a former antique store on Jefferson Street. And the city is planning more projects, including more than $4 million to rebuild the rest of North Main Street to U.S. 31 and

$15.6 million to reconstruct Jefferson Street, replace sidewalks and add new lighting and landscaping.

“You can’t really expect or ask businesses to invest money into our community if we’re not investing back into it,” McGuinness said. “If you just have a run-of-the-mill downtown, how can you expect those to pop up?”

The progress made in Franklin was something Nicole Nicoloff and her husband didn’t find when they were looking to open a vintage shop elsewhere. Franklin has been working toward restoring the historic charm of the downtown, which was a perfect fit for her shop, Marshmallow Monkey, she said. After running their shop since July, Nicoloff also wants to buy a house and move to Franklin.

“Franklin has changed with keeping the integrity of the historical downtown. It makes me feel like it’s happening, and I want to be a part of it,” Nicoloff said.

Several vintage shops have opened around downtown and often refer shoppers to one another despite technically being competing businesses, Stracks said. Each shop has different items, she said, and by working together they’re starting to attract shoppers looking for antiques or vintage pieces from all around central Indiana.

Keeping and restoring the historic look of downtown Franklin was not done just to make the buildings look good again but to spur new economic development, Franklin Heritage director Rob Shilts said. By fixing up one property at a time, officials hoped other business owners would see a newly renovated building and want to follow suit. That’s now starting to happen, judging by the amount of restoration work downtown that started last year, Shilts said.

“They have actual excitement about being in this town. You wouldn’t have heard that 10 years ago, and the revitalization effort has really gotten some legs to it,” he said.

After the city completed parking and streetscape work on East and West Court streets, Theresa Matthews, owner of Ann’s Restaurant, saw an improved look around the courthouse. A neighbor on South Jackson Street was starting a facade project and nearby Sharp Graphics was getting a new look through the state grant program. Matthews wanted to update her building because nothing has been done since it was rebuilt after a fire in the 1980s.

A co-worker at Tara Treatment Center, which Matthews also owns, was familiar with grants and suggested Ann’s Restaurant could apply to the Franklin Development Corp. facade program. The organization’s board approved up to $50,000 toward the $170,000 project to transform the restaurant to look more like a 1950s diner.

“Now is kind of the time to get on board and join the rest of the community to try to beautify the downtown,” Matthews said.

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