The New Downtown

The times are changing, and so is Downtown Evansville.

Progress through the urban core of the River City has had an uptick in recent years. With the completion of the DoubleTree Hotel and Convention Center and the Stone Family Center for Health Sciences in 2017 and 2018 respectively, many residents may feel Downtown has sparked to life with development at a quick pace.

In fact, what can be seen now has been a long time in the making.

“This development truly has happened in a couple different stages,” says Economic Development Coalition of South-west Indiana President and CEO Greg Wathen. “Originally, when the casino was first established in the mid to late 1990s, residents saw the start of development then.”

Since the 1995 opening of Casino Aztar along the riverfront, Downtown has limped through decades of pocket developments. Following the casino, the core of the city got a small boost in the completion of the new Old National Bank headquarters in 2004 and Vectren headquarters in 2005, both along Riverside Drive. The next big development to draw attention to Downtown wouldn’t be until 2011 with the construction of the Ford Center.

“It sort of has come in phases. At this point, we’re seeing a lot more activity,” says Wathen. “Part of that is because of these developments that have occurred previously to get us to this point.”

Now, the boom seems to be here to stay.

The Tale of Regional Cities

▲ Looking out from the roof of the Fifth Third Center at the corner of Sycamore and Third streets, this shot gives a glimpse at the construction of the Post House, bottom; the new Tropicana Casino Resort, top left; and the National Biscuit Company, center. These projects only touch the surface of the many developments and renovations now happening in the urban core of the city, many benefiting from the Regional Cities Initiative awarded to the southwestern Indiana region in 2015.

In December 2015, the state of Indiana awarded $42 million in state-matching funds to the southwest Indiana region with the purpose of supporting projects to bring in more investment, job creation, and talent. The grant funded plans in three different sectors — core, gateway, and supportive.

In total, the initial grant amount is projected to leverage another $926 million of public and private investment funds for the southwest Indiana region.

“The idea is to incent, if you will, very strategic kinds of development in the core of the community, the core of the region,” says Wathen.

As of 2018, 11 projects in the awarded region have been approved, including the Stone Family medical campus, St. Vincent Evansville YMCA, the Signature School Science Center expansion, and the Post House multi-purpose buildings. Supportive projects in the Downtown district are more conference hotel development and the newly land-based Tropicana Casino and Resort.

“Somewhere has to be a catalyst for all this to occur; what we found is that if you have a strong core, you have a strong region that goes along with it,” says Wathen.

The Regional Cities grant has been a catalyst in its own right, but it hasn’t been the only one. An updated Downtown Master Plan released in 2016 put in place new goals for a strong, vibrant urban core — one of those recommendations included establishing an economic improvement district (EID). EIDs are organizations funded by additional property tax assessments tied to participating properties in a specific area; the funds are used for the maintenance, development, business recruitment, and promotion of the district.

According to Josh Armstrong, director of the Downtown Evansville-Economic Improvement District, Evansville’s EID began with 303 property owners representing 450 parcels — he says that number has grown through 2018. For the Downtown EID (the fifth in the state), the goal is more than the beautification of the streetscapes of the neighborhood.

“We want to see more people in Downtown,” says Armstrong. “Downtowns for me are where people commune with their fellows in an attractive setting. Those connections are an underlying theme or goal with our work.”

As the development in Evansville’s urban core grows, the EID also looks to help spread the word to residents — Downtown has value. Armstrong provides examples relating to the payroll generated in the district (30 times more per acre than other county districts) and the safety of the area (Downtown reports very limited crime activity relative to much of the city.)

“And when we meet visitors in our Downtown, they are blown away by our collection of retailers and eateries,” he says.

The first year for the EID was devoted more to organization, says Armstrong, but 2018 also allowed the group to begin several projects — from the fireworks along the riverfront on the Fourth of July to litter crews cleaning the Downtown district. The group worked with Gray Loon to create a logo for Downtown, with Y-Factor Studio to produce new holiday décor for Main Street, and partnered with Downtown businesses to create events such as summer wine walks, a Maker’s Market, Small Business Saturday, and more.

“We are a partner with the city and with other municipal, civic, and business people in creating a more vibrant and welcoming community,” he says.

The New Phase

Putting together a list of current projects occurring in the Downtown district provides an interesting look at how development is occurring in the urban core.

St. Vincent Evansville YMCA

The decision to create a brand new YMCA facility came down to offering the best in programming and services for the patrons of the organization.

“We really wanted to focus on accessibility and to be able to serve more people,” says YMCA Marketing and Annual Campaign Director Lisa Verkamp. “So while the square footage will be the same, it is going to be much more efficient.”

Sitting at the corner of Sixth and Court streets, the 80,000-squart-foot St. Vincent Evansville YMCA still will feature all the amenities patrons are accustomed to now. The new space also leases 10,000 square feet to a primary physician clinic and physical therapy rehab center.

“Our expanded partnership with St. Vincent will create a more accessible pathway to programs and services designed to improve the health and well-being for Y members, St. Vincent patients, and the entire Downtown community,” says YMCA Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Brown.

New dedicated space for after-school programs such as STEM learning lab, Youth in Government, Homework Help, and others will give the Y a chance to expand services. Verkamp says plans also include a teaching kitchen to help incorporate a nutritional aspect into programs such as LiveStrong, diabetes prevention, youth cooking classes, and more.

“There is more to wellness than just working out and exercising,” says Verkamp. “We’re really excited about what’s to come and what we’re going to be able to do.”

The Post House

Touted as a mixed-use residential and commercial development project, the Post House will bring more than new apartments and retail space between Vine and Sycamore streets.

The lot will feature two buildings — a larger facility along Vine and a smaller one along Sycamore — that will house around 150 apartment units between them. Both buildings will feature solar panels along the roofline and a linear park between them, which is technically a green rooftop of the underground garage.

In the smaller building, Vectren, a CenterPoint Energy Company, is set to occupy an office space dedicated to studying the relationship between energy and customers called the Urban Living Research Center. Another project approved through the Regional Cities Initiative, Vectren called upon developer Scannell Properties of Indianapolis to construct the property.

The hope, says Vectren Vice President of Energy Solutions and Planning Robbie Sears, is to see how the use of new technology in residential spaces can help customers better manage their energy use.

“A lot of times we don’t give a lot of thought to the energy we use except when the bill comes,” says Sears. “This gives us an opportunity to work with technology that can help what we see as what future customers are looking for from a living space.”

“We talk a lot about trying to anticipate what our customers are going to demand,” says Vectren Director of Corporate Communications Natalie Hedde. “This is very exciting for us to learn about technologies because you’ll find the more information you give customers about their energy use, the more informed they are and the more empowered they feel to make decisions about it.”

The project officially broke ground in 2018 and has been swiftly moving through the construction process. The anticipated completion date is expected in the first quarter of 2020 and it’s turning heads on a national level —
according to Vectren Energy Technologies Manager Roland Rosario, national laboratories (including the Department of Energy) are working with Vectren as well to conduct research and projects in the Urban Living Research Center.

“You just don’t see projects like this and partnerships like this very often in the country,” says Rosario. “The fact it is happening here is super unique and a great benefit to our community.”

Fifth Third Center

In May 2018, Riverview Investments LLC took ownership of the Fifth Third Center at 20 N.W. Third St. While Fifth Third bank will remain a long-term tenant, Riverview currently is leasing the vacant floors to other new tenants. Jarrod Luigs, managing partner with Riverview Investments, says it was a great opportunity to acquire a reputable asset in Downtown Evansville amid all of the current progress.

“Ultimately our decision came down to the fundamentals of the market,” he says. “We believe the current city administration has done a great job of promoting and strengthening our Downtown core, and we wanted to be a part of the progress.”

At the beginning of 2019, the center was home to Fifth Third Bank, the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra offices, Townsquare Media, South Central Communications, Trinity College of Bible and Theological Seminary, and Aerotek with a number of other new leases pending.

While Fifth Third works on renovations of its floors, Luigs says Riverview Investments has completed work on common areas, including corridors, the tenant lounge, a training facility for tenants, one of the common-use conference rooms, and some of the restrooms — they have plans for more, including lobby and first floor improvements.

“I think the biggest encouragement I’ve noticed in Downtown is you are seeing various buildings that may have been vacant for a number of years being renovated and utilized,” says Luigs.

Cambridge Arms and National Biscuit Company

When it comes to building renovations, Mike Martin is no stranger to the structures of Downtown.

Over the years, the contracting company has been the lead or a part of several renovations and construction work in the district — the Owen Block, Reitz Home Museum, the former Greyhound Station (now Bru Burger), and MayBelle-
Montrose apartments, just to name a few. At the end of 2018, Martin added the Cambridge Apartments, 202 S.E. First St., to his list of renovated properties.

“It really is rewarding to drive around Downtown and know some of it still exists because of the work we have done,” says Martin.

Architectural Renovators’ current project is the 1889 factory and warehouse once occupied by Marsch-Scantlin Bakery and National Biscuit Company at the corner of Northwest Second and Ingle streets. Currently, Martin and his crews are renovating the space into a mixed-use building, with residential apartments and commercial space.

“The interior is intact and just amazing,” says Martin. “It will be stunning once all the windows are opened back up, especially the storefront area.”

A local restaurant could occupy parts or all of the commercial space, he adds, while some of the modern-industrial style apartments will feature mezzanine levels.

“We get a lot of young professionals interested in renting. They’re sort of starting their lives in these buildings, and it really is interesting to think of their stories being added to all the life stories that have been lived out before them,” says Martin.

Riverhouse Hotel
Set to have 72 rooms, this boutique-style hotel on Walnut Street currently is conducting renovations, with Elements Design Studio leading the project. Work is expected to begin this year with an opening of the hotel in 2020.

Signature School expansion

In November 2018, a plan to complete a $2-million renovation and expansion of Signature School was approved to start in 2019. The funds for the project come from the Regional Cities Initiative, and Hafer Architects is working with the school on the construction — an addition designed to connect with the school’s Robert L. Koch II Science center.

A parking lot will be used to build the addition and renovations to the front entrance of the school will open to a two-story atrium with skylights. Elements of the project include a new commons area, two science labs, four general purpose classrooms, a faculty lounge and workroom, and administrative offices.

The school looks to open the new space in 2020 — the addition will allow around 60 more students to attend classes at Signature.

Fourth and Main streets Park

Acquired by the city in October 2018 from private owner Edwina Kempf, the park at 404 Main St. is a big cog in the city’s Downtown Master Plan Update from 2016.

After the purchase, the park was fenced off to prepare it for site work. Now, the Parks Department and the Downtown EID look to develop more specific plans for the green space, which is hoped to become an open area available for Downtown activities.

Deaconess Downtown Clinic

Deaconess announced plans for a new clinic building in Downtown in August 2018. Construction on the project will take place on a lot near the Stone Family Center for Health Sciences between Locust and Walnut streets.

The planned three-story medical building will be the new home for many services and practices offered in the current Deaconess Clinic Downtown space. Construction will be completed for a spring 2020 opening.

Hyatt Place Hotel

Located at the former Scottish Rite building site at the corner of Second and Chestnut streets, this 139-room hotel currently is under construction, with a completion date expected sometime in the summer of 2019.

Tropicana Casino, The District, and the LST 325

Since its move to land in 2017, Tropicana Evansville has welcomed a spike in revenues — in its first year, the casino resort brought in an increase of $17 million.

In April 2018, Tropicana Entertainment (parent company of the Evansville facility) was acquired by Eldorado Resorts. Though the transaction was newsworthy, little has changed to Tropicana Evansville. There are hopes Eldorado will have plans to revive The District located next to the casino, which is the home to the former Boogie Nights Club and Ri Ra Irish Pub.

One change that could be coming soon is a move of the LST 325 to the former location of the casino boat. The City of Evansville currently is seeking bids on moving the World War II ship from its spot at Marina Point in a project that also would include the building of a visitor’s center for the ship.

Arts Council of Southwestern Indiana

Yet another Regional Cities project, the Arts Council relocated its gallery and programming space to 212 Main St., formerly the Christian Science Reading Room, in late 2018. The space features a 78-seat gathering space for performances and an Art Deck overlooking Main Street.

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