By Elizabeth Granger
KOKOMO – The flowers are blooming – effusively – in basket after basket in downtown Kokomo.
So is just about everything else.
Welcome to Kokomo reinvented. There’s a robust can-do attitude that more than matches the physical changes so apparent here. It comes after some hard times, especially around 2008 with a downturn in the automotive industry and other businesses, and then two years of back-to-back tornadoes. But Chrysler’s recent reinvestment in the city, post-tornado renovations, clever re-use of public spaces, a redesign of traffic patterns, and a pervasive optimism have transformed the city of 58,000. Its downtown is more alive than it has been in decades.
There were some die-hards who never gave up on their city. It had joined the national Main Street program in the 1990s to improve its downtown, and it remains a member. “We started to focus at a time when no one was focusing on downtown,” says Susan Alexander, manager of Downtown Initiatives, a branch of the Greater Kokomo Economic Development Alliance. She says there was always a belief that things would get better.
Over time that belief grew.
It shows, for example, in the hanging basket program. This year 200 volunteers planted 1,000 baskets. “We engaged the community in the project,” Alexander continues. “People support what they help create. Our community is engaged.”
Increasingly engaged as time has gone by.
Proof is everywhere, perhaps most of all downtown. Public art served as a catalyst. Alleys were closed to vehicular traffic, cleaned up, and turned into charming public spaces showcasing public art – in Artist Alley, Garden Alley, Geek Alley, Courthouse Alley, and Depot Alley. There’s even a tattoo/art back alley to come. All include changing public art pieces, movable seating, lighting. “These are 24/7 galleries, open to the public,” Alexander says.
Dynamic First Friday celebrations welcome residents and visitors alike with a different theme each month. Earlier this year, for example, “May the 4th Be With You” capitalized on the Star Wars craze. In November, “Main Street Mystery” will invite visitors to help Detective Friday solve a live-action murder mystery. December’s “Hometown Holiday” will provide horse-drawn carriage rides, cookie decorating opportunities, kids’ workshops, and Santa and Mrs. Claus.
Downtown has two-hour free parking on streets and unlimited free parking in public parking garages. A free trolley – the largest free public transportation system in the state – offers five designated routes.
Downtown’s improved aesthetics have led to renovated and new businesses which are leading to new residential possibilities. There’s an increase in options for dining, shopping, browsing, …
Palmer’s Jewelry has been in its downtown location since 1944. Owner Mike Freed’s dad bought the business in the late 1940s. “He did not have enough money to change the sign so that’s why it stayed Palmer,” Freed says.” And why he was known as Mr. Palmer.”
Freed joined the family business in the 1990s – he says he’s known “when downtown was it, when downtown was not it, and back to being it again.”
The store expanded and remodeled earlier this year. “Downtown is more vibrant,” he says.
And new businesses have been the order of the day for a few years now.
Shawn Hilton’s Comics Cubed store opened eight years ago. “I came when there were a lot of tumbleweeds and one-way traffic – and the city offered a low-interest-rate business loan,” he says. “I love comics; hence the comics store.”
He’s a couple doors down from Mike Wilson’s American Dream Hi Fi vinyl store. That’s vinyl as in records, not flooring.
Between them is Kokomo Toys & Collectibles. “Traditionally toy stores were downtown and we wanted to keep that vibe, especially since we have vintage toys from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s,” owner Amber Jordan says.
Hilton says the three related businesses provide an appealing option for “geeks” because they’re close to one another but each owner is an expert in his own niche. “You have three specialists who have a deep love of each of their categories,” he says.
Locals and not-so-locals have taken to calling the street Geek Street. Visitors have even been known to wander around, looking up at street signs. “I had someone come to town and call me, saying, ‘I can’t find Geek Street,’” says Sherry Matlock of Visit Kokomo.
It’s really Sycamore Street.
Lori Fritts opened P.F. Hendricks three years ago. It specializes in upscale outdoors items that include brands from Patagonia to Pendleton. She’s one of just seven Indiana shops with Stormy Kromer merchandise – including Stormy Kromer hats for dog.
And then there’s Bind, DeAndra Beard’s hybrid coffee shop/café/language learning center/bookstore/gathering place on North Main Street. The café offers an international menu, with a specific country’s cuisine having the spotlight for two months. But there are always tacos, no matter what. In warm weather they’re served outside on the sidewalk, under a tent, and are called street tacos.
But for Beard, it about more than food. It’s about connecting people.
Greater Kokomo Visitors Bureau
700 E. Firmin St., Suite 100
Kokomo, IN 46902