By: Ty Morton—
To many folks in Muncie, particularly those downtown, the past seventeen months may have seemed like an eternity; but they will have yielded decades of improvement in business development and quality of life.
It all began with fulfilling a federally-mandated requirement from 1972 that our combined storm and sanitary sewer lines be separated, ending the result of sewage overflow being discharged into the White River, following rainstorms. Later, other federal requirements, such as public access under the ADA, were becoming unavoidable issues.
While these were expensive propositions unto themselves, visionary community leaders saw within them an opportunity: Sure, for the sewer projects, we could have made a simple saw cut in the asphalt, and trench in a new pipe; and simply paved the non-ADA compliant sidewalks with asphalt, and told all the businesses that they could not use the sidewalks for outdoor dining, citing the federal mandates; but, what if in addition to fulfilling these federal requirements, we could also make significant improvements that would improve both our ability to cultivate a healthy downtown business environment, and improve the quality of life for Muncie residents?
In 2012, Mayor Tyler’s administration, in concert with a number of local business and development partners – the City of Muncie, Muncie Downtown Development Partnership, Muncie Sanitary District, Flatland Resources, the Muncie Redevelopment Commission and Delaware-Muncie Metropolitan Planning Commission and others – held a series of public forums and focus groups to identify the various assets, opportunities, and challenges in the downtown area, which hadn’t seen a major infrastructure overhaul in several decades. They also asked what people wanted to see developed and improved downtown.
The responses ranged from the easily-predictable, such as increased parking, safer sidewalks, and bike-friendly streets; to the more audacious, such as a new hotel, a parking garage, and rain-garden storm drainage. From that, the Streetscape initiative was cultivated.
In the three years that followed, the city was able to partner with the ARC of Indiana to develop and build the Courtyard Marriott Hotel and Erskine Green Training Center, build a new parking garage, fulfill many of the ADA requirements, and add bike lanes throughout the downtown area (making Muncie one of only ten Indiana cities to earn a Bicycle Friendly Community designation).
The real challenge, however, for downtown business owners, residents, and patrons, would come the following year. Streets throughout the area – some of which hadn’t been excavated in a century – would have to be torn up and modernized. Multiple meetings were held to poll merchants along the affected areas, and offer them a choice: Perform all of the work in one fell swoop over the course of a year, essentially “ripping the band-aid off;” or spreading the work across two summers, and opening the streets back up for the holiday shopping season. The latter received near-unanimous approval, and while it resulted in increasing the overall project cost, the city accommodated the merchants’ wishes.
So began our own local “Big Dig.”
While the city had a sewer and pipe infrastructure “atlas,” many of the additions made over the past several decades hadn’t been adequately documented by the utilities that made them. As such, nearly every dig encountered heretofore unknown assets. Workers found long-abandoned steam trunk lines, water and sewer lines, electrical conduits, and even the occasional underground vault. Every time that happened, work would grind to a halt while various entities were consulted to determine what changes had to be made either remove obsolete elements, and accommodate existing ones.
Nevertheless, in October of 2015, the work was packed in, on schedule, and all of the roads were opened up for the holiday shopping season.
In April, 2016, work commenced and that was when project managers learned that the previous year was just an appetizer. This next phase involved tearing up the Jackson and Walnut intersection, one of Muncie’s oldest intersections. Abandoned (or not) gas, water, sewer, sanitary, steam, and other lines – even an internet fiber-optic backbone line, connecting Columbus, Ohio, to Chicago – emerged at every level [image]. Upon the discovery of each of these, various utility companies needed to be consulted before work could commence. Again, though, thanks to the planning and cooperation of the partners involved, those issues were able to be resolved in a matter of days, instead of weeks.
Throughout this entire process, the project management team was able to address every obstacle and maintain both the original timeline and budget. The significance of this cannot be understated. Other community projects have been hindered for months, or even years, by such delays. In Muncie’s case, we will finish every aspect of this project undertaken as intended, and according to the timeline originally laid out.
Completing this massive accomplishment is something that our city rightly deserves to be proud of. We took a number of federal mandates, and turned them into an opportunity to develop monumental downtown improvement projects that will benefit our community for years to come. Few cities can claim as much.
Not stopping there, the team that heralded this project expanded to include marketing and media professionals that will assist downtown merchants with maximizing the promotional opportunities that this project completion offers, ahead of the 2016 holiday season. To address long-term concerns, The Muncie Action Plan’s Muncie Neighborhoods’ project is developing a Downtown Neighborhood group, that will provide numerous collaborative opportunities.
The DWNTWN area has come a long, long way since the old “Walnut Plaza” days of my youth. The most dramatic growth-friendly changes in decades, however, have all happened in the past year. Thanks to the new hotel and parking garage, the convention center is doing booming business, bringing all sorts of new people to visit and shop the area. New retail and restaurant businesses have opened. It really is an exciting time, and it’s all the result of clear vision, quality planning, continuous cooperation, and lots and lots of hard work.
Be proud Muncie. It’s good to be here.
Ty Morton is a downtown resident, and runs Tylonius Studio, an online media design and development agency.