Story by ELIZABETH GRANGER
The mannequins in the windows moved. They were Callie Jones and Amy Ziuchkovski, aka Annie and Miss Hannigan, who were in the storefront windows on Aug. 2 to invite shoppers to their upcoming production of “Annie” at the Muncie Civic Theatre.
The scene highlighted multiple aspects of Muncie’s downtown revitalization. A restored theater. A renovated shop. A renewed spirit of camaraderie energizing the community. And a growing desire for increased inclusivity in this north-central Indiana city of 70,000. All coming together during that First Thursday event.
The actors were in the window of the Hayloft Boutique. Owner Debbe Caine opened the clothing shop in 2015 when she returned to central Indiana from years in Florida.
She was intrigued by the revamped Muncie and spirit of entrepreneurship. “People say it’s like the old days with people walking about downtown,” she says.
“Everything’s in cycles. And now we’re back to small businesses with unique items and personal service. We have the coffee, the couch, the champagne. We don’t treat people like customers; we treat them like friends. For the first time in my life, I’m passionate about my job.”
Muncie Downtown hosts monthly First Thursday events with gallery openings, shopping, and dining. The Hayloft sponsors “Pose for a Purpose” with live mannequins in the windows; they’re typically shoppers who are trying on new clothes. The store donates 15 percent of what it makes during the event to
And there it is, that attitude of fun, of service, of inclusion. It’s obvious here, from curb-less downtown streets to moveable seating in the theater to the new Courtyard by Marriott at the edge of downtown with more than the normal number of accessible rooms. It’s an Arc Teaching Hotel—the only one in the country—to train persons with disabilities to work in the hospitality and medical industries.
“One of the issues important to people with disabilities is employment,” says Kim Dodson, executive director of The Arc of Indiana, which advocates for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“They want to be able to have access to jobs.” Arc found the perfect setting in Muncie. “One of the things that made us choose Muncie was the collaborative business community, (and) the public transportation system. We had a lot of choices of where we could have done this, but nobody did it like Muncie.
”She continues, “People appreciate staying in a hotel with such a strong mission. ”A modern hotel with class and comfort, often catching guests by surprise because its mission is so seamlessly stitched into the fabric of the lodging that it isn’t initially noticeable. It’s connected to the Horizon Convention Center and the Muncie Children’s Museum.
“We’re not a typical Indiana Main Street community,” says Vicki Veach, executive director of Muncie Downtown Development Partnership, which helps make things happen by partnering with other organizations and agencies versus the typical committee structures. The goal for “DWNTWN, The Original Muncie,” a recent branding campaign, was developed to create an environment resulting in sustainable economic and cultural growth.
Like many cities, Muncie suffered from the national ’80s and ‘90s mindset which sent not only residents but also businesses to the outskirts of town. In addition, the infrastructure was aged, and one-way streets and a walking plaza sent drivers around rather than through the center of the city. Muncie’s downtown was a ghost town.
“And then the world started changing and people started wanting to come back to the center of their city,” Veach says. Multiple changes have revitalized the area. New infrastructure, the return of two-way streets, the elimination of the walking plaza, and an upbeat, can-do attitude have created a downtown more vibrant than ever.
“We were 92 percent vacant on Walnut Street,” Veach says. “We are now 98 percent occupied.”
There are new businesses, living spaces, a new urban park, and an increase in the number of entertainment events. DWNTWN Muncie is vibrant and re-energized.
Even in the bad times there were events, but the arts and entertainment scene has exploded in recent years. The Muncie Arts & Culture Council, created in 2009, is an arts partner to the city and actively encourages art of all forms through projects that include the Muncie Arts & Culture Trail, PlySpace artist-in- residency program, and That One film festival. “Art is for everyone,” says executive director Braydee Euliss. “It inherently adds value to everything on earth.”
The Cornerstone Center for the Arts, in the former Masonic Temple, is all about art education with about 100 different classes that include visual arts, dance, music, theater, even martial arts. “Arts education is our number one priority,” says director Jeff Robinson. “We like to consider ourselves ground zero for the arts in Muncie. We believe art is vital to a student’s education.”
Inclusivity is big at the newly renovated Muncie Civic Theatre. “We’ve always had Main Stage productions and an incredible emerging youth education program,” says business manager Nick Fatout. But there was no space for growing that youth program. Marketing director Britany Covert adds, “So in 2011 we changed our mission to be the theater for the whole community, which really changed the focus for us. It became less about choosing shows and focusing on more diversity.”
That brought community support, which helped fund recent renovations. The theater is now Indiana’s only barrier-free theater with, for example, moveable seating to accommodate wheelchairs, ramps to allow actors access to the stage, and elevators. “We reached out the community, and they reached back,” Covert says. “They rallied around us; they’re the only reason this renovation was possible.”
The Muncie Three Trails Music Series is a free concert series July-September. It’s at Canan Commons, downtown Muncie’s urban park, which also hosts community and cultural events, al fresco films, and “Foodie Fridays” concerts during warmer months.
Forms of art are visible in downtown storefronts, too. Heidi Hale moved her online jewelry design business, HeidiJHale Designs + Details, to Walnut Street in 2015. The front of her shop showcases her wares; behind the counter, open for all to see, are her crew members who design jewelry and fill online orders.
“Our really big thing is handwriting on jewelry,” Hale says. The message created by its author, in that person’s handwriting, is transferred via laser to a necklace or bracelet or other piece of jewelry. “We thought it would be fun,” Hale says. “What we did not anticipate was the emotional connection. It is so much more than just a piece of jewelry.
”Debbie’s Handmade Soaps also had an online presence. Owner Debbie Acree started making soap because her daughter suffered from eczema and nothing seemed to help— until Debbie found the perfect formula. For 17 years she worked from her home. “I had so many people stopping at my house—I thought, ‘I’ve got to get regular hours, a regular place to do this,’” she says. Two years ago she moved downtown.
Madjax, at Madison and Jackson streets, is a center for innovation and design; it brings together makers of all kinds converting the energy of ideas, power of problem solving and grit of making into entrepreneurship. The first tenants of Madjax are Tribune Showprint Posters and The Guardian Brewing Co. “Coffee is community,” says Frank Reber at The Caffeinery, an award-winning coffee shop opened in 2013. It’s also an unofficial tourist information hub. “Anybody that comes downtown gets sent here to ask where they can go.”
Dining possibilities, to name a few, include Vera Mae’s Bistro and The Neely House: offering “love, beauty, and food” in the restored 1850s Neely Homestead. Elm Street Brewing Company is in a former ice house. “We firmly believe that the more success we have in the center of the city—the heart of the city—the better it will be for everyone as the successes radiate outward,” DWNTWN’s Veach says.
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