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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Revamping Princeton

In the middle of the workday, the drive through Princeton consists of many starts and stops. Flaggers, orange barrels, and safety barriers are just about everywhere. The familiar white cargo vans and pickup trucks with heavy-duty toolboxes are evident on almost every block.

Princeton’s reputation and appearance had declined in the last half of the century. Then Toyota built an automotive plant just south of town, and the changes started. Good paying jobs for 4,500 people can obviously make the sun shine brighter for any community.

Mayor Robert Hurst knows that a lot of people think Princeton and Gibson County in general won the lottery when the plant was built. However, he knows the real prize was Princeton becoming a 2012 Stellar Community.

Hurst has been in office since 2005, when former mayor Shirley Robb passed away. For Hurst, over $20 million in Stellar Grant money makes the future exciting for Princeton and its roughly 8,500 residents.

Hurst tilts his head and smiles. “We came in third place the first time we applied for Stellar. That’s good in horse racing, not in Stellar, but the next year I got the call from then Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman and we got it.”

The Stellar Communities program is the collaboration between INDOT, the Office of Community and Rural Affairs, the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, and the State Revolving Fund to help fund communities’ strategic plans. Princeton had to come up with 20 percent local matching funds, which was more than $4 million.

The mayor says one of the keys to success was that everyone came together to pull this off, “There’s always the go-getters in every town who get things moving. My predecessor started an umbrella group; I revived it.”

Todd Mosby, President and CEO of Gibson County Economic Development Corp., knows the mayor is on track with development.

“The teams the mayor put together have been making these plans for years,” says Mosby. “You have to be forward thinking. You make plans of what you want your city to look like down the road and those plans need to be updated. Stellar just played into our hands. This funding comes along once in a community’s life.”

Toyota spokeswoman Kelly Dillon says her company was involved in the group from the beginning.

“I was part of the mayor’s Downtown Revitalization Committee, and we knew we needed to take small incremental steps,” says Dillon. “When the Stellar opportunity came around, we worked hard to shore up the projects we were working on all those years.”

Toyota provided $1 million in matching funds. Mosby knows how important that was in Princeton’s selection.

“Stellar, of course, looks at your partners during the review, and of course Toyota is a good one to have,” says Mosby. “They are the best partners imaginable. Their role in the matching component is extraordinary. They are a big player.” He pauses and notes, “They do their share in so many ways, whether financial or sweat equity. But, they like to see others take that role as well.”

What does $20 million do for a town like Princeton? Mosby thinks it is an opportunity to reinforce a certain civic pride.

“Stellar was a beautiful vehicle, to take us out of the blighted city we were and it started before we even got this far,” says Mosby, who says change can start with kids and neighborhoods. “We have a beautiful new school building (Princeton Community High School, opened in August 2012). It looks as brand new as the day it was built. The old school was never going to look like that, and the kids are keeping their school clean. Maybe that pride starts there. They start to love their community in that building. Then they see all the improvements going on around town.” 

If the shiny school is a start, then the Stellar Projects are a huge push. The mayor opens a huge file of maps and graphs. His eyes light up when he describes the projects. One of the big projects is a $6 million senior-housing complex called Prince Street Cottages, developed by Milestone Ventures, set to open in the fall.

“Good affordable housing is always a challenge and with the number of seniors continuing to grow, this is a good start,” says Hurst.

Then there is the revamping of two adjacent downtown landmarks. The old Princeton Theater will be restored and house a local theater troupe. Across Broadway Street there will be the Bicentennial Plaza, a multipurpose parkland that will replace an underused parking lot. It is set for completion in August.

“There’s still plenty of parking immediately next to the new plaza,” says Hurst. “This will be an important public space and is much needed.” He adds knowingly, “It’s the project I’ve had the most complaints about, you know you’re doing a fair job when people aren’t satisfied.”

Mosby agrees.

“Mayor Hurst has had the leadership to take the hit on making improvements,” he says. “He’s taken this on his shoulders. This is his legacy.”

Revitalization projects, including downtown façade restoration along with gateway and streetscape enhancements, will freshen up the once worn down street scenes. Plus a significant trail program that reaches almost the length of the city will draw residents and visitors to cross the community in new and healthy ways.

“We’re trying to get things done too because our bicentennial is this year,” says Hurst. “We’re going to have a celebration in the park during the week of Sept. 18. The traveling Vietnam Wall will be here. The mayor of our sister city Tahara City, Japan, will be here. We expect a big turnout.”

Hurst is realistic when he states, “We’re moving ahead. It will be a lot different in a few years. I tell people it won’t be a Norman Rockwell downtown, because of how transportation has changed. You have to have good businesses to draw people here, and we have that now and more will come. You hope it is ‘you build it and they will come.’”

Toyota’s Dillon agrees, saying, “We changed the way of thinking to be more progressive. Now Princeton is an effective community. Mayor Hurst thinks out of the box. We think it is a Toyota way of thinking. It is certainly paying off.”

Hurst sums it up, “We’re doing a lot here. In the past, we were just stable.”

For more information about Princeton’s Stellar Grant, go to princetonstellar.com.

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