Sunday, September 9, 2007

Trip to Madison, Indiana

Over Labor Day weekend, I spent some time in Madison, Indiana. The reason for the trip was to visit my father. After my mother died in 2003, he sold the house in Michigan and re-located with his new wife to Madison. I spent an over-night there since, but really didn't see much of the town. He visited me last year so it was my turn to visit him and, for many reasons, I'm glad I did.

They say there are no coincidences and this trip to Madison proved that. Of all places that my father could have moved to (or better put, of all places his new partner could live), he chose one that had been one of the three pilot cities chosen by the National Trust for Historic Preservation for the Main Street Program in 1977. CLICK HERE for a link to the National Trust website. CLICK HERE for more information on the Main Street program. To say that Madison's downtown was a "time capsule" would be a complete understatement. But, I am getting ahead of myself.

Madison, Indiana is located on the northern side of the Ohio River, roughly equidistant from the Cincinnati and Louisville metropolitan areas. I happened to arrive in Cincinnati by plane and rented a car, traveling through Kentucky and then crossing the bridge (built in 1928, by the way - very narrow and the same type of construction as the one that collapsed in Minnesota). The road along the south side of the river in Kentucky was particularly picturesque.

I include a map of the general area so you could see the city's location in relation to the river, interstates and metropolitan areas. Madison is indicated by the red star in the center of the map. Madison has a population of about 13,000 and is the largest city in Jefferson County.

Here is an aerial from Google which helps explain a little about the geography and geology of the area. The urbanized area along the northern edge of the Ohio River is made up of the old part of the city. Madison was incorporated in 1809 and gained much of its early economic success as being a trading port on the Ohio River. It was once thought that the then largest city in Indiana would be its capital. For this reason, its streets were platted as broad avenues and boulevard to ensure views of prominent public buildings. However, as settlement continued to move west, the population of Madison stabilized and Indianapolis - located in the center of the state - took on the role of the capital city.

In the Google aerial, the northern edge of the older urban area reflects the steep rise of a bluff, that in some prehistoric time contained the river. My father lives on the bluff that over looks the river and the bank on the Kentucky side. New development including the Walmart and traditional winding street subdivisions all took place later on and away from the older areas of the city. This helped in the preservation of the city, as did a long period of economic restructuring.

According to Linda Lytle of the Convention and Visitor's Bureau, the citizens of the town recognized the uniqueness of their downtown area in the 1960s and established zoning designed to protect the existing structures. The city now has a Historic District Board of Review and a Plan Commission. The entire downtown is designated as a National Historic Landmark.

Below is a brief promotional video that was put together using state dollars that stresses the scenic beauty of the area.

The following pictures were taken on the Sunday afternoon of Labor Weekend. The sidewalks were more crowded than represented here, for some reason. It was apparent that the downtown area attracted people from a wide area.

In fact, during my conversation with Linda Lytle, she made the point that they are very aware from where the visitors come. She said that most of the visitors come from the central Indiana area, with the largest secondary market coming from the Cincinnati metropolitan area. Even though the Louisville area is closer, they don't draw much from the south part of their market area. Lesson #1 in the success of a downtown commercial area is knowing your market and where your area draws from.

And this brings us to the Madison Main Street Program. They have a storefront on the main street that is open to the public and contains a lot of literature (more on that in another post). They also work closely with the real estate community and are very aware of the various buildings and spaces that are available for retailers. Realtors direct prospective retailers to available spaces and direct people towards "clusters" of shops that would be conducive for the type of goods and services that they plan to provide. The Main Street folks also target and attract businesses that will serve the surrounding neighborhoods - like hardware and clothing stores - so that they are not over-run a few predominant uses - like bars and restaurants. They also provide a lot of information regarding the care and maintenance of historic buildings. One thing you will notice in these pictures is that there are no neon "open signs" - instead, they have uniform "Open" flags that are mounted outside the business

The point here is that in order to have a successful downtown, you need to work at it. This is especially true in a crowded retail market like we find ourselves in South Florida and Palm Beach County, in particular.

Above is an example of the uniform informational signage program that the convention and visitors bureau has provided.

The following series of pictures represent a vestige of the past. It's the main headquarters for the volunteer fire department. This is right on the main street and that's "Jimmy" - the weather vane at the top of the tower, with his bugle pointing to the next fire. This is a serious undertaking for the volunteers. The picture which shows the door to the fire station has a sign in the window asking for volunteers - "No Experience Necessary - Training Provided".

Below is one of the unique storefronts done in retro fashion. Notice the "Open" flag.

In the picture below, you can see the central part of the downtown area. There were a lot of motorcyclists there over the Labor Day weekend - it looked there were a lot of organized tours.

This is a bank that had a real "frontier" look to it. It dates from the 1830s - real history for us, but still short of the old world standard.

A surprise find - a horse and carriage service. I found out that they have one operating during the day on weekends and holidays, with more scheduled during festivals and special evening events.

Following is a side street that leads to the Ohio River. They have a lot of vacant land along the river that is primarily park space.

The following two photos are of something really cool. The sign announces the existence of public restrooms and vending machines. The City used its discretionary monies to buy and refurbish a former gas station to provide for these amenities. This is important for a couple reasons - it comes in handy for people that are just strolling through the downtown without the intent of shopping and burdening business owners in the use of their bathrooms. And it also uses a gas station - which can be problematic with environmental issues and lack of appropriate uses to house.

Be on the lookout for another post regarding a comparison between Lake Worth and Madison. Many differences, but some surprising similarities.

Check out the City's website and its e-government section. CLICK HERE
(Remember, Madison has a population of 13,000, roughly a third of Lake Worth's)