Lawrence struggles to emerge from Indy’s shadow
By ROBERT KING and KRISTINE GUERRA October 27, 2012 4:46PM
Updated: October 28, 2012 1:41AM
LAWRENCE (AP) — The City of Lawrence, trying to carve itself a unique identity as more than just another bedroom community, came to a crucial juncture this week.
The city adopted a balanced budget, but it required tough choices that raised concern about whether Indiana’s 18th-largest city is still fiscally viable. More broadly, the budget process sparked an existential conversation about what the future holds for a community that has long struggled to emerge from Indianapolis’ shadow.
To close a $2 million hole in Lawrence’s finances, Mayor Dean Jessup laid off every emergency medical technician on the city’s payroll, shifting their life-saving duties to firefighters. But it was another cost-cutting suggestion -- one rejected -- that spoke more specifically to Lawrence’s identity issue. Maybe, some murmured, the city’s police force should be farmed out.
Farmed out as in absorbed by Indianapolis, the giant neighbor at Lawrence’s doorstep whose unrestrained sprawl washed over the farming and military community in the 1960s and has never receded.
The mere mention of such a drastic notion, coupled with tight finances, might give the impression of a community in angst struggling to hold on. Nothing, Jessup told The Indianapolis Star, could be further from the truth.
Less than a year after being elected mayor, Jessup is convinced Lawrence will do more than just move past this momentary budget “glitch.” He also boldly predicts a new era with a somewhat surprising vision: Building a Downtown Lawrence with a core as lively as Broad Ripple or Fountain Square, one that will give the city something it’s never had: an identity distinct from Indianapolis.
“It is my earnest hope that our visions and our dreams come true,” Jessup said recently, “that Lawrence will be the gem of Marion County one of these days, with phenomenal growth and beauty.”
That is quite a leap from the present, as anyone knows who has ever exited Interstate 465 and traveled up Pendleton Pike, Lawrence’s main access point. Over the decades, the road has become a repository of used car dealerships and strip clubs, a legacy, Jessup said, of Lawrence’s past as a military town that was dominated by Fort Benjamin Harrison. The base closed in 1996. Further northeast toward Post Road is an array of shopping centers, fast-food restaurants, big-box stores and vacant lots that add up to one of the most visually cluttered stretches in the state.
Pendleton Pike’s chief quality from a cultural and urban design perspective is that it has neither.
But it is the other side of Lawrence -- the part that once was Fort Ben, with its red-brick buildings trimmed in white and anchored in history -- that is providing the template for the city’s transformative future.
East 56th Street, one of the city’s other main thoroughfares, is everything Pendleton Pike is not -- clean and orderly, lined with ornate street lamps and City of Lawrence banners, bustling with a mixture of shops, restaurants and banks.
At Lawton Loop, just off 56th Street, a semicircle of buildings that once served as officer housing, military barracks and base offices -- all in red brick -- have been restored and upgraded into a string of residential pearls surrounding what once was a formal parade ground. It has become some of the most expensive housing in the county outside of North Meridian.
Immediately north of 56th Street and Post Road is The Village, the heart of the reformation that the city hopes to transform into a town square.
Unlike the aesthetic common over on Pendleton Pike, the Fort Ben area is as crisp and clean as an Army service uniform. And it’s a brand -- yes, that elusive identity -- the city can build upon.
“The Fort is the heart of Lawrence. This design aesthetic -- the red brick, white trim -- we don’t need to create it,” said Keith Johnson, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff. “You can’t create that. It’s here. This is history.”
Jessup said the long-term goal is for the area to be bustling with local shops, boutiques and restaurants that are unique to Lawrence -- much like Heidelburg Haus, a 40-year-old building next to I-465 on Pendleton Pike. It’s a café beautified by bright colors and flowers out front, along with a 3-foot-tall statue of a grinning dwarf posing next to an electric pole.
Owner and pastry chef Juergen Jungbauer brought his German roots and recipes to Lawrence in 1968 when he opened the cafe. Over time, Heidelburg Haus has become popular with the locals and has morphed into a destination restaurant and gift shop, with people from nearby suburbs and out of state driving to Lawrence to try the chef’s pastries.
Jungbauer, who worked as a baker and a cook at Fort Harrison for two years before opening his cafe, has the same vision for Lawrence as Jessup and other community leaders. He wants to add a slice of his culture to Pendleton Pike, one that shows a local vibe not experienced anywhere else.
“Our town is just so drawn out left and right by commercial things,” he said. “We need a little more identity.”
Jessup and other community leaders have some ideas to transform Pendleton Pike -- from buying vacant lots and tearing down a motel that was a crime magnet to, hopefully, getting the tangle of overhead power lines buried someday. All of their ideas won’t happen overnight. But a special taxing district for Pendleton Pike is now generating $500,000 a year to help chip away at it.
“Between 465 and Pendleton Pike, up Franklin Road, is not exactly that pretty right now. I want to redevelop that area, make it more connected to the Fort. I don’t think Pendleton Pike necessarily has to look like the Fort,” Jessup said. “I think you need to find a design for Pendleton Pike that is unique ... so they don’t feel like they are” secondary.
Already, people are being drawn to Lawrence’s vision.
Despite being landlocked with no place to grow outward, Lawrence is growing inward. In the past decade, the city’s population grew 15 percent to 46,000, which adds to the mayor’s confidence that the latest budgetary hiccup was more about living within one’s means than drying up.
Dr. John Bailey, a dentist whose practice was in Greenwood, decided to relocate his business to The Village earlier this year because he saw it as an area primed for growth. It’s a place where new apartments and businesses under construction seem to bear out his hunch.
David Waldman and two other partners leased one of the red brick buildings at The Village last year and opened Triton Brewery. The company has since become the city’s official vendor for the Fourth of July Fest.
Waldman, from Elkhart, said the location was ideal for their business plan: A family-friendly brewery where parents can drink on weekends while their kids enjoy some root beer and pretzels in a separated dining area.
“You know, if it’s Sunday afternoon and you’re looking for something to do with the kids and you want to grab some beer, where are you going?” Waldman said. “Until we opened our doors, there wasn’t really anywhere that you can take your family and get a beer.”
About a block south of the brewery is a former blacksmith’s shop that is now Café Audrey, owned by Tammy Cunningham, who opened the restaurant about a year ago.
“I wanted a local feel. I wanted to be a part of the community,” the longtime Lawrence resident said. “I didn’t want to be in an outlet mall.”
Waldman and Cunningham said they owe their thriving businesses to the community.
“We’ve had a lot of great word-of-mouth customers,” Cunningham said. “If it wasn’t for the word of mouth, we wouldn’t be here.”
Triton Brewery, Waldman said, has been a few local church groups’ beer supplier for picnics and block parties. It also has been a host for major community events, some with turnouts as high as about 500 people. One of the recent ones is a local fundraiser called the Lawrence Toast for the Arts.
“I think the city has given a lot of care and thinking about what they want Lawrence to become,” Waldman said. “They want people to have options.”
The end goal is for Lawrence to have everything locals would want and need -- without needing to venture to the neighboring giant to the west.
“Not necessarily anything against Indianapolis. What were they going to do for us that we weren’t already doing?” said Robert Sterrett, mayor from 1984 to 1988. “It’s a wanting to control our own destiny type of thing.”