Huntingburg Stellar enters final year

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Huntingburg is in the final stretch of Stellar projects as it enters 2019.

The state named Huntingburg a Stellar Community in 2014 and that designation ends this year along with the state funding that came with it.

Huntingburg originally listed nine projects as part of the Stellar program: redevelop the St. Joseph’s Hospital campus, create a maintenance/emergency shelter facility, build a park on behind the Old Town Hall, replace or update a century-old cast-iron water main under Fourth Street, extend Ninth Street, reconstruct 14th Street, add workforce housing, create a community-wide walking path and add gateways to the entrances to the city.

By the time the designation ends in 2019, the city will have completed or be in the process of completing six of the nine projects. Those projects include the updates to 14th Street, the completion of Progress Parkway (the overpass and Heritage Trail extension), the Ninth Street extension, Fourth Street water main replacement, Fourth Street Heritage Trail, Market Street Park and the new Street Department building which will facilities for the Dubois County Emergency Management office.

“We are in the closeout year so to speak,” Mayor Denny Spinner said. “It’s rewarding to see these projects coming together.”

Accenting the need for emergency vehicles to access the north and south side of the city was this moment as the Huntingburg Volunteer Fire Department ladder truck crossed Progress Parkway with a train underneath it during the grand opening held in November.

Current projects underway include the street department’s move to its new location on 19th Street in the former Fox Metal building. Along with the new home for the street department, the project will provide storage for the Dubois County Emergency Management Office’s equipment.

The Fourth Street Heritage Trail project is set to begin, weather permitting, sometime in January. The council awarded the project designed to renovate Fourth Street between Geiger and Jackson streets to Milestone Contractors for $3,433,239 on December 26.

The project is a natural extension of Market Street Park and will completely alter the heart of the city once completed. Though, getting there is going to be painful this year.

“We have some very, very committed merchants in our downtown,” he said. “I know it’s going to be a tough year with all the construction going on but I have heard from all of them that this is going to pay off in the long term.”

To help alleviate some of the construction woes the city is prioritizing good communication with the residents, property owners and businesses impacted as the project moves forward. The plan is for much of the work to be completed by the time the Christmas Stroll comes around in November.

Also underway is the $5.8 million Huntingburg Wagon Works workforce housing development at 419 N. Washington Street. Construction hit a snag with less than ideal soil sample results that have sent developer Paragus back to the drawing board. While delayed about three to four months, the 56-unit apartment complex is expected to move forward in 2019.

On the St. Joseph’s Hospital property, developer MVAH Properties — a company split from Miller-Valentine — announced plans to add 56 housing units in the form of apartments and townhomes. The $11 million project could be underway in 2019.

Meanwhile, Dr. Ijaz Mahmood and partners, the owners of the remainder of the hospital, has construction underway on Crossroad Behavioral Health, a new mental healthcare facility on the property.

While those projects are expected to be completed under the umbrella of Stellar, three projects have been moved out. The planned senior center has been delayed for the moment but the city plans on seeking grants and funding opportunities available through the Office of Community and Rural Affairs to make the update a reality.

Spinner reiterated the city’s commitment to the project. “We’ve made that commitment but we also have to be fiscally responsible as we make those decisions,” he said, “But I see a path to get there.”

The two gateways have also been removed from the Stellar projects list but plans are still underway for their completion. One of those gateways is also designed to serve as the Heritage Trail’s connection across State Road 64 into Niehaus Park. According to Spinner, they will have to examine the INDOT funding cycles and determine the city’s best course.

“That would have also been one of our gateways to the city,” he explained. “But with the governor’s announcement of increased funding for trail projects, we are exploring what those options might be. We have some ideas.”

Mayor Denny Spinner with the Stellar Designation
File photo: Mayor Denny Spinner with the Stellar Designation Certificate in his office. “Is there a $10.3 million check behind here,” he joked as he opened up the certificate designating the city as a Stellar Community and opening access to $10.3 million in funding for major community improvement projects between now and 2019.

As usual, Spinner credits the city’s past administrations with establishing processes that have eased the path to completing the Stellar projects. “It’s due to the great work by anybody that was in office before me that set the table for all of this. I don’t want to take the credit for any of that at all,” he said. “We were in a position to make an impact and we started with listening sessions asking where we want to be in five years. Everything that is on the Stellar map was mentioned in those sessions.”

Stellar just elevated the game and accelerated the process.

“These were our goals all along,” Spinner added. “This is the vision the city created for itself six, seven years ago.”

It also placed Huntingburg on a short list of other Stellar communities and allowed them some name recognition with these state departments. Spinner expects this experience will assist the city as it plans future projects with state or federal involvement going forward.

“I have probably learned more about navigating through the (state) processes and relationships over the past three years than I could have ever imagined,” Spinner said.

Stellar appears to have been good for the city.

A study completed by the Sagamore Institute compared Huntingburg in 2013 — before the Stellar designation — and in 2016. The majority of the indicators were positive. The population had grown by 6.5 percent while the percentage of families living below the poverty line had decreased by one percent. Employment was up by 4.5 percent and the median household income had increased 10 percent.

Additionally, in 2019, the assessed value of Huntingburg increased about $9 million compared to 2018. Projects like Hunters Crossing, Market Street Park, the overpass and trail project as well as improved streets and infrastructure play a part in that increase.

“You can see through the years that the AV had started to climb but there was a pretty good spike (this year) and I think that’s because of private investment,” Spinner noted regarding the housing projects that have been added in the area and the revitalization of the St. Joseph’s Hospital property.

He expects the other projects will likely lead to more private investment as well. “The benefit the city will get out of Market Street Park as a recreational facility for the community and the region will be outstanding,” Spinner said. “Everything I read indicates that those quality of place initiatives are what makes a difference in small communities attempting to grow.”

Stellar has had a physical impact on the city but the process has also had some long-lasting and less seen impacts.

“There is a sense of pride in our community that comes from completing these projects,” Spinner said. “There’s also a lot of new interest in Huntingburg.”

Market Street Park’s amphitheater/pavilion welcomes visitors from the Fourth Street entrance.

Spinner said the next step is to update the city’s comprehensive plan — a process set to begin this month — by examining the city’s strengths and weaknesses again.

“I had a great deck to play with when I came in and I want to make sure the deck is strong moving forward,” Spinner said. “We’ve pretty well had our foot on the gas for the past four or five years. We’ve done well and not impacted the property taxes but it’s time to reassess, reevaluate and rebuild those resources we have.”

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