Every weekday, when Jeffrey Justice wakes up in his home along Petersburg Road, he readies for work. Sometimes, he wears a tie; other days, he chooses to go open collar. Then, the president of Hafer Associates, an architecture firm in Downtown Evansville, hops in his car and heads south along winding Petersburg, a road ending at Highway 57.
Dead ahead is the entrance to the airport. In the center of the entrance is a concrete slab with the words “Evansville Regional Airport” imprinted on each side. Eight lights shine on the simple sign at night, and no one would argue that it is not effective. Beyond it, 16 airplanes depart from the runways every day; 16 more land there. On board those planes are friends of Evansvillians, clients of Evansville businesses, and just plain Evansvillians.
Justice turns right, though, because he works Downtown on the eighth floor of the Integra Bank building, a nine-story staple of the Evansville skyline that his architecture firm designed. When Justice reaches U.S. Highway 41, he sees billboards galore. He turns left and passes rows of businesses: hotels, restaurants, moving companies, and more.
If the whole drive sounds blasé, it is. In fact, the adjective Justice uses is “ehhhhhhh.” But this story is about more than Justice’s commute. The stretch of roads he uses daily is the same path people take from the airport to Downtown (Highway 57 to U.S. Highway 41 to the Lloyd Expressway). It is not ugly. It is not beautiful. But it sure isn’t an attractive gateway to our city.
To Justice, that’s a concern. He isn’t the only one worried. The entire board of Keep Evansville Beautiful — a diverse group of business and community leaders dedicated to dolling up the city — wants to change what we see on the way from the airport to Downtown Evansville. Their work is about to take off.
BEFORE FLIGHT was possible for mankind, no one in the River City said, “Well, it’s good enough for Evansville.” When it came to civic projects, the people, then, dreamt big.
At least, that’s what Ann Ennis, KEB’s executive director, thinks. Her proof:
In the late 1800s, architect William Appleton Potter envisioned a Gothic architectural style for the city’s customs house and post office. The three-story building, later transformed into an office complex, showcased intricate arches over window and door openings, soaring windows, and an ornate stained-glass ceiling.
Around the same time, architect Henry Wolters modeled the county’s jailhouse after the Castle of Lichtenstein in Germany. The design, suited for royalty, was fit for Evansville’s criminals, Wolters thought. He crafted a Gothic-inspired structure still located on Vine and Fourth streets. Now used as a law office, the exterior exudes step-gables, projecting turrets, crenelated rooflines, and a tower (its most striking characteristic).
By 1916, architects from Clifford Shopbell & Co. created the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Coliseum, a tribute to local men who fought in the Civil and Spanish-American wars. The neo-classical building on Fourth and Court streets boasts an auditorium with a Grecian portico façade and bronze sculptures.
These structures stand today, and some show more wear-and-tear after two centuries of use than others. Yet, the buildings are prominent, the architecture demands passersby pay attention, and the lasting character proves Ennis’ larger point: The architects for these projects never sat with a pencil in hand ready to draw a building “good enough for Evansville.” [pagebreak]
So, here Ennis sits in her Downtown office spearheading a new project and strategic plan for KEB, and sure, the ideas from board members and volunteers are meant to beautify the city. But a lot more is at stake here in this windowless room at the KEB headquarters: It’s about time, Ennis believes, for some community pride.
ADOPT-A-SPOTS ARE NICE — colorful flowers, lush bushes, a few young trees planted and maintained by passionate volunteers — but three years ago, KEB board members wanted more than organized trash pickups and adopt-a-spots.
The KEB board members represent a variety of businesses, Vectren; Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Indiana; and Hafer Associates, to name a few. They want to impress out-of-town clients — or recruits — and excite them to work with this community. Simply saying Evansvillians care about the community isn’t enough; they want to show citizens care.
They asked themselves, “What was the first impression visitors to the River City saw?” The answer they find was ho-hum, so they developed a new strategic plan for KEB. Their vision encompassed more big projects that needed financial backing from private entities, not taxpayer dollars.
Ennis credits much of KEB’s new strategic plan to the enthusiasm from young men such as Chris Boeke of Vectren and Tim Hollander of TMMI. Boeke is a Troy, Ohio, native, who knew little about Evansville before relocating here in 2005 for a position at Vectren. He learned quickly the company culture encouraged community service, and Boeke soon was a member of the KEB board.
But, Boeke didn’t “just want to go through the motions” of being a board member, says Vectren’s IT director of enterprise applications. He wanted to make an impact. He thought, “Let’s roll up our sleeves and really think about what we can do. For projects, we were thinking, ‘The bigger, the better.’ That kind of model.”
During the summer of 2008, the board members met two to three times a month tapping out a new plan, but momentum didn’t start to roll until 2009.
TWO YEARS AGO, Justice sat in the passenger seat of Ennis’ car. Their mission was to drive from the airport to Downtown and examine the path with a critical eye, not like two natives with a nonplussed familiarity with the drive. They took detailed notes.
They noticed businesses with wonderful backyards butting up along Highway 41 such as the 130 trees that line the edge of Atlas World Group, the Evansville-headquartered, multimillion-dollar moving company. Six varieties of maple, three varieties of ash, and two varieties of spruce trees along with honey locust and crab apple trees stretch down the 2,750-foot Atlas border on Highway 41 beginning just south of Saint George Road. The green boundary doesn’t give Atlas much visibility, but the idea is to produce a “campus-feel,” says Kerri Hart, Atlas’ senior marketing specialist.
Ennis and Justice saw other standout properties, but they mapped out key improvements along the way: The old terminal parking lot is an “eyesore” that should be “redeveloped as a greenspace;” along Highway 41, a need exists for a “business park image,” or an opportunity is available to “restore the historic airport hanger architecture for an aviation museum or pilot’s club.”
These notes didn’t become set-in-stone plans; the idea was to prompt community discussion and earn the ears of business leaders. What followed were conversations Ennis created with public and private officials to learn what they wanted from the project. She came armed with concepts designed by Justice. The efforts from Hafer Associates equates to $58,000 of in-kind in time, mapping, design, presentations, and materials. His concepts showed what was possible — with the right financial backing — for areas along the Highways 57 and 41. [pagebreak]
Ennis pushed the project forward, and on March 30, 2011, reporters scurried past one redbud tree at the airport’s entrance. Inside, Ennis announced at a press conference that the revitalized entrance to the airport isn’t happening “because trees are pretty or because a few people at KEB wanted it to happen.” It is happening because KEB received the feedback and financial support from business leaders such as Vectren’s three-year partnership of $60,000, TMMI for a two-year partnership of $30,000, and a one-year, $5,000 grant.
Less than a week later, more than 30 trees — redbuds, oaks, serviceberries, and yellowwoods — joined the lone redwood, all planted by volunteers from Combs Landscaping. This fall, shrubbery joins the landscape, and on June 16, Ennis invites the public to the airport to view concepts for a new sculpture planned to stand across the airport entrance at Petersburg Road and Highway 57. She’ll welcome feedback, and then the project will move one step closer to completion.
Boeke sees the work at the airport’s entrance as a starting point, and over the next few years, KEB officials will move along Highway 57 to create parks and artwork along the so-so path to Downtown.