What moves are best to position your community for the next generation(s)?

Money is finite. Time is finite. Effort is finite. So where do community leaders put their focus now in hopes of maximizing returns later?

During a conversation recently I came to a realization that there’s an interesting case study in contrasting the paths Kendallville and Ligonier are taking in terms of community and economic development.

These two small cities in Noble County differ in terms of size and demographics (not growing up here I’m not really aware of whether there’s a heated east side/west side rivalry like I’ve seen in other small-town settings), but in the grand scope of things, they’re more similar than dissimilar.

What I found interesting as I thought about it more was that these two cities are in two different places, charting two different paths forward.

Ligonier is focusing on building out, while Kendallville is focused on rebuilding within.

We’ll start with Kendallville, which is where I spend most of my time and energy since it’s my beat here at the newspaper.

As I’ve written before in my column, Kendallville’s got it going on when it comes to its downtown.

The city clinched a $600,000 state grant in 2019 and parlayed that into a $1.57 million streetscape project. It repaved Main Street this year. It introduced a concept for a $138,000 pocket park near City Hall and raised those funds (mostly) privately and started on construction in less than four months. Then the city landed a $2 million pilot program grant from the state in the PreservINg Main Street program for numerous building facade renovations scheduled to occur in 2022.

Kendallville is looking to keep building momentum with a full-time Main Street manager starting in January, a new historic preservation commission tasked with keeping downtown looking sharp and the possibility of getting regional READI funds for a second-floor housing push it wants to launch.

Kendallville is dominating on downtown.

Meanwhile, in Ligonier, the latest conversation they’ve had about downtown was whether to reintroduce trash cans to Cavin Street. Talks about two years ago about re-jump-starting a defunct downtown organization fizzled as quickly as they began, and outside of some facade grants going out, there’s not much happening there.

But on the west side of the county, Ligonier has been gearing toward new development.

Within the last three years, Ligonier has annexed hundreds of acres of land on the southern end of the city and sliced that up with long-range plans to use parts of it for new commercial development along the highways and divvy up the rest for both residential use and industrial expansion.

Ligonier has a solid manufacturing base and we hear from city leaders that they’ve got jobs and they’ve got employment, and if they had a housing inventory ready and available they could easily inherit hundreds of new residents who are now commuting from communities further away.

The city has already seen that in action as its 60-lot Park Meadow subdivision off Union Street has boomed; it is easily Noble County’s most prolific center of new residential development. As of this summer, there had been 25 houses built there less than a year after the Park Meadow show home opened for viewing.

Ligonier has space to grow.

Meanwhile, Kendallville is mostly landlocked, with little prospect currently for future outward growth. The east side industrial park is almost completely filled. Outside of a new shell building on Ohio Street, there’s about zero space for new industrial development. As for housing, the announcement of the 72-lot Noble Creek subdivision in January 2020 was a huge win for Kendallville — the first sizable residential development in the city in literally 20 years — but two years have elapsed since and the land off Sherman Street is still in the mud pit stage.

None of this is to say that one approach is better than the other, however it presents a chicken-and-egg scenario.

If a more attractive and bustling downtown brings more interest to Kendallville but there’s nowhere to build a house or bring a new factory, does that investment secure growth or does it just hold what’s already here? If there’s space to build homes and businesses in Ligonier but the downtown and commercial areas aren’t vibrant and attractive, are people and businesses going to want to move there and fill that available space?

Pursuing both routes simultaneously — engaging in revitalization while also positioning for expansion — would probably be ideal, but, as stated before, resources are finite so priorities have to be set.

Heading into 2022 and beyond, I’d encourage both cities to take a look at their neighbors and take a page out of each others’ books.

(Maybe there’s an opportunity here to pitch a reality TV show called “Mayor Swap” to some cable network ... hmmm.)

I can’t argue that one approach is better than the other, although I suppose 20 years from now, we’ll be able to look back and determine if one got to where they wanted to go quicker or better than the other.

From my newspaper perch here right now, I see two communities making smart, albeit different, moves to position themselves for their future.

I’m looking forward to seeing how they work out.

Steve Garbacz is executive editor of KPC Media Group and editor of The News Sun. He’s hoping both communities have success in 2022 and beyond. Email him at sgarbacz@kpcmedia.com.

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