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Many downtown projects slow to progress

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A city organization spent tax money on plans to renovate a downtown Franklin building and to explore an idea to form a nonprofit to attract youth sports events, but both projects were dropped without being completed.

Two other projects promised more than $300,000 in tax dollars, a downtown arts garden and a plan to build new restaurant space and shops, haven’t started, more than a year after the grants were approved. Several more projects that should have been finished by end of June are still being completed.

The Franklin Development Corp. now has eight incomplete projects totaling about $1.8 million. The board has extended deadlines through the end of the year for all unfinished projects, board president John Ditmars said.

The backlog of work is why Franklin Mayor Joe McGuinness doesn’t want to give any new funding to the organization until the pending projects are finished. Board members have been making a list of new projects to take on, such as more façade renovations or fixing rundown homes, but McGuinness wants to hold off on granting any new money until old projects are done.

“Some of these projects, there is a lot of money involved, and some are potentially risky. The money from the FDC side should be a sound investment, so we’re not just throwing money out there in hopes of catching that next big project,” McGuinness said.

In the past two years, the development agency offered more than $2 million total for projects that would help spur economic growth in Franklin. Those big projects turned out to be more complex to complete than expected. Now, the organization is trying to pin down details on what is going to be built, how it’s going to look and what costs weren’t clearly defined at the start, Ditmars said.

In progress

More than a year has passed since the Franklin Development Corp. approved giving tax dollars to several local projects. Some of those projects are still in progress after delays, and others are stalled while city officials continue to work out details. Here’s what’s happening with some of the projects:

Jarvis Alexander building

Address: 91 E. Monroe St.

Amount promised: $775,000

Amount spent: $218,530.71

Status: The original developer, Indreno, was dropped from the project. The city organization now is considering a proposal to turn the building into small office spaces. The developer is asking for the group to donate the building and $500,000 for renovation costs. Board members are meeting with other city officials to discuss the project.

Jeff Street Pub

Amount promised: $197,550

Amount spent: $28,580.56

Status: The project was delayed for several months after a new architect took over the design and the organization verified financial information with the pub’s owner. Workers have since started on the project to repair the roof and renovate the façade.

Arts garden

Address: South Main Street

Amount promised: $90,000

Amount spent: $0

Status: Previous board members added a requirement that the city parks department take ownership of the garden. Park board members didn’t want it due to concerns about design, accessibility and safety. The board has since removed that requirement but is now waiting to get approvals from the Department of Natural Resources and an agreement about maintenance.

Former Sparkel Cleaners, Hydro buildings

Address: 188-176 W. Jefferson St.

Amount promised: $245,000

Amount spent: $0

Status: Developer Fred Paris is waiting for the Indiana Department of Environment Management to give final approval that the former Sparkel Cleaners is free of contamination after the 2008 flood. Paris has agreements to buy both buildings once the final notice is given. He plans to present building designs for the shops and restaurant in September.

White Star Service Station

Address: 298 W. Jefferson St.

Amount promised: $75,000

Amount spent: $13,541.91

Status: Construction plans weren’t ready until late fall, which pushed the work off until spring. Workers are making progress on the masonry, window replacements and some custom metalwork and are expected to finish by November.

Franklin Chamber of Commerce

Address: 120 E. Jefferson St.

Amount promised: $151,800 (included donation of the building)

Amount spent: $104,471.12

Status: The chamber is hosting an open house for contractors this month and plans to select a firm by early September. The construction work to replace two staircases and landings in the building would take place this fall.

Franklin Heritage

Amount promised: $100,000

Amount spent: $53,915.30

Status: Franklin Heritage must raise $200,000 in order to get the full $100,000 grant and is still doing fundraising. Franklin Heritage is using the money for renovations to the Artcraft Theatre and nearby buildings in order to host more live entertainment.

Franklin Sports Corp.

Amount promised: $50,000

Amount spent: $21,486.91

Status: Two studies were conducted that showed the economic impact of local sports and assessed Franklin’s different facilities. But the group, composed of city officials, Franklin Community Schools, Franklin College and Johnson Memorial Hospital, decided forming a nonprofit with a paid director was not a sustainable idea, so the project was dropped.

Ivy Tech land

Amount promised: $400,000

Amount spent: $400,000

Status: Ivy Tech Community College purchased the land adjacent to its current campus to make way for expansion. Ivy Tech doesn’t have any immediate plans to expand the campus, which may still be five to 10 years off, so the land likely will remain vacant for several more years.

Franklin housing grant

Amount promised: $100,000

Amount spent: $100,000

Status: The Franklin Development Corp. gave $100,000 to the city to bolster funds available to make home improvements for low-income residents. Repairs and upgrades on more than 20 homes started this summer and work is ongoing.

Ideas that sounded good, like a nonprofit sports corporation, turned out to not be feasible after paying for more than $20,000 for professional studies. A $775,000 renovation of the Jarvis Alexander building on Monroe Street was plagued by permitting issues. Other projects haven’t progressed as quickly as anticipated because of problems buying property, lining up construction groups or waiting for the weather to break.

The organization’s board also was overhauled shortly after all of the projects were approved, so six new members needed time to learn about each project and came in with new questions or concerns, which also slowed the process, Ditmars said.

Board members haven’t received any information that the remaining projects are in jeopardy of not getting done, so they’ve been willing to give business owners and developers a little more time.

“We listened to the stories they had when they came in and asked for extensions, and I can’t think that anything wasn’t extended,” Ditmars said.

The new board has sacrificed time in order to make sure the tax dollars that are being used are going to projects that are well-designed and benefit the community, McGuinness said. For example, he said city officials never had much background or information about the developer that wanted to renovate the Jarvis Alexander building across from city hall. The $775,000 project faltered when the developer couldn’t get state approval for its building plans after more than $200,000 was spent for demolition and supplies. Board members pulled the rest of the funding and are now searching for a new project.

The board is considering a new plan to turn the building into small office spaces but is first meeting with other city groups to build a consensus about whether it’s a good fit for the community instead of launching into the work, McGuinness said. In the meantime, the owner of the property plans to consider other offers on the property.

“The FDC now is all about, ‘We think it’s a good fit but let’s vet this through the proper chains. Even though we don’t need their approval, it would be sure be nice to have their consensus,’” McGuinness said.

When details weren’t worked out early in the process, projects have been delayed as board members or city officials try to get answers.

For example, the day board members approved money for an arts garden on South Main Street, they added a stipulation that the parks department had to agree to take ownership of the garden when built. Park board members weren’t aware of the project and spent several months asking questions and debating about what the garden would look like, making it safe and handicap-accessible and whether it could be built for the price quoted. Those delays caused the property owner to miss planting opportunities last fall and this spring, and issues with permitting from the Department of Natural Resources have stymied the work.

“We thought we had a handle on the concept, but we didn’t have sufficient definition around what it was going to look like when it’s finished,” Ditmars said.

Since several projects haven’t been completed, the city can’t gauge how successful the organization was in spurring economic development, McGuinness said.

For example, the organization spent $400,000 to buy land for a future Ivy Tech expansion, but construction is likely five to 10 years off. The board has promised $245,000 to help former Mayor Fred Paris buy and redevelop two buildings into a restaurant and four shops, but he hasn’t been able to buy either building yet because of environmental contamination from the former Sparkel Cleaners.

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