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Revitalization beckons in downtown Bargersville

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Visitors to downtown Bargersville would be able to pick through fresh tomatoes at a farmer’s market, dine at a family restaurant or hop on a dinner train under a new proposal.

A long-term development plan recently approved by the town’s plan commission calls for

downtown revitalization. Downtown Bargersville has the potential to become a place that people could visit in the evening or on the weekends, and that could draw in out-of-town visitors, said consultant Jackie Turner with Ratio Architects.

The consulting firm developed a long-term development plan for the town that calls for recruiting new businesses downtown, encouraging more investment and beautifying the area with more green space.

The town could try to attract one or more new restaurants, establish a downtown group, pursue grant funding for various improvements, bring back a dinner train that was discontinued in 2001 and possibly set up a tax-increment financing district that would keep local property tax dollars in the area, according to the plan.

Other options could include making wireless Internet access available to the entire downtown area and adding a small concert venue.

The town is the latest Johnson County community to look at revitalizing its downtown. In Franklin, the city applied for a grant for façade improvements to various downtown buildings, and a city-created organization is helping with those costs along with having started a new coffee shop. Greenwood is consolidating government offices in the biggest office tower downtown and planning to redevelop the former pool site into a new splash pad.

The goals for Bargersville are part of a new long-term plan that looks at how land should be used, where parks should be built and what the town should strive toward in the future.

The plan, for instance, calls for a new business park at State Road 37 and County Road 144, more industrial land on the south side of town and higher development standards along State Road 135.

New businesses that have come to Bargersville in recent years, such as a pharmacy and a pancake house, have been opening along State Road 135, but the town shouldn’t neglect its downtown, Turner said. A charming and vibrant downtown would give people more amenities to enjoy, help attract new residents and give recently annexed residents in the south Center Grove area a stronger sense of community, she said.

“What people remember as the hub is being underutilized,” she said.

Eventually, downtown Bargersville could attract visitors from across central Indiana, who might for instance shop at a farmer’s market and then go to a concert at Mallow Run Winery, Turner said. Bonge’s Tavern near Anderson, where people often tailgate in the street while waiting for tables to open up, proves that Indianapolis area residents will travel to places they might consider out of the way if they offer a unique experience, she said.

Residents who attended meetings about the long-term development plan have expressed skepticism about whether the downtown could be revived, said consultant Scott Burgins with Bloomington-based Strategic Development Group, who did a market study for the plan.

But the downtown has a lot of positive features, including older homes a short walk from downtown and the demographics of Bargersville residents, who earn more than the average Hoosier, he said.

“People have lost a little confidence in downtown,” he said. “But a lot of smaller communities around Indiana have been able to revitalize their downtowns, and there is a good stock of buildings in Bargersville.”

Bargersville’s downtown along the Indiana Rail Road Co. tracks is smaller than other communities, because the town consisted of a few hundred residents for most of the 20th century.

But the town’s population soared by more than 180 percent during the last decade, largely because of annexations. Bargersville could now benefit from a revived downtown that would provide a shared sense of place to residents who are scattered across the older part of town, newer subdivisions along State Road 135 and rural areas, Turner said.

“If you really want to bring the newly annexed people into the fold, there should be a fun, lively place that everyone wants to be a part of,” she said.

The downtown was busiest during the 1940s and 1950s, when it still had two grocery stores, a pharmacy and a second grain elevator. But the downtown is now mostly home to offices, including for the town government, insurance agents and a construction company, Turner said.

About a quarter of the 19 buildings are vacant, according to the comprehensive plan.

Little happens at night or on the weekends, and Red’s Place pub is the only attraction, Turner said.

A key would be to bring in more restaurants, which would give people reasons to visit and walk around, Burgins said.

“The tough thing will be to steer people away from the usual habits,” he said. “They’re used to driving north on State Road 135 to get whatever they want.”

The town could get people in the habit of coming downtown by setting up a farmer’s market, having a group market the area and promote special events and bringing back the dinner train, Turner said.

Indiana Rail Road Co. spokesman Eric Powell said the dinner train had been popular, but was discontinued largely because of an increase in freight traffic on the tracks.

The company would be open to discussions about bringing it back, especially if a third party would agree to operate it, he said.

Turner said the town should set up a steering or economic development committee to handle such matters, after adopting the plan. The town council will consider giving final approval to the comprehensive plan at its meeting this month, she said.

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