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A Steak 'n Shake, A Movie Theater, And Thou: Conversations About Frankfort's Future

Emilie Syberg

On January 11, the last dry cleaner in Clinton County -- Frankfort Cleaners -- closed its doors.  

“Everyone’s sad to see it go, but we do have a lot of customers that are going to stay with us and return and go over to Lafayette or either Crawfordsville,” says employee Alisa McDonald. “Actually, I think we had more than we expected.”

McDonald is talking about owner Tom Malicoat’s other dry cleaning businesses. McDonald figures people in Frankfort are already leaving town once a week for other needs, so they’ll just add dry cleaning to the list. 

We wanted to know what else people left town for, so we polled Clinton County residents and held a forum at the Frankfort Community Public Library discussing the results.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to get a cleaners back,” Larry Price tells the crowd. “Those things are going away.”

Price was one of a few dozen people who attended and offered opinions. So did Frankfort residents Richard Campbell and Jill Snyder.

“People would hang around the square on Friday and Saturday night,” Campbell says, recalling a Frankfort from the past.

”How do we reach people when there’s no one way to do that anymore?” says Snyder, who owns several businesses downtown.

The survey takers overwhelmingly want a movie theater, and some would like to see the bowling alley reopen. People like the downtown clothing boutiques but want more men’s clothing stores. There’s call for “interesting cafes” and additional organic food options, but there’s also strong support for a Buffalo Wild Wings, a Steak 'n Shake, and more chain restaurants. All told, nearly two-thirds of people say they head to Lafayette, Indianapolis, or Kokomo once a week for something they say they can’t find in Frankfort.

“From my perspective, there were no surprises,” says Annie Bacon, Frankfort’s new director of community development.

Bacon and Frankfort Mayor Chris McBarnes both attended the forum—and took notes.

“Although a city can’t build a Steak 'n Shake, or build a movie theater, we can play a pivotal role in making strategic investments to create a fertile atmosphere to make a private investor feel they have the confidence to take a risk,” says Frankfort Mayor Chris McBarnes.

McBarnes and Bacon are sitting at a long table in his office the morning after the forum. The giant stack of paper in front of McBarnes is the city’s 160-page downtown revitalization plan.

“Think about the human body,” McBarnes says. “You’ve got to have your heart to be strong before the rest of the body’s strong. We want our downtown core to be strong–that’s the center of the community, and that spills over into neighborhoods. If that image isn’t foundationally stable, then what else isn’t going to be foundationally stable?”

McBarnes says many of the initiatives outlined in the plan are completed, or on their way—which includes projects that enhance the appearance and walkability of the downtown square, a step that can attract people to spend more time there.

“We’ve invested, gosh, over $700,000 in widening the sidewalks,” McBarnes says. “We’ve buried all of the electrical lines—that was a huge project. We got that done.  Our façade program—we offer a 50/50 match to any downtown building owner that wants to invest up to $30,000, so we’ll match that.”

A word cloud of the businesses survey respondents said they wanted. Larger words correspond to more responses of that type.

But McBarnes and others at the community forum bemoaned what they see as Frankfort residents’ overall lack of commitment to spending their money in town, which could anchor existing businesses and attract new ones. McBarnes mentions both a boutique ice cream parlor and a business selling work boots located in Frankfort–both out of business.

“But it’s also our citizens we’ve got, you know, all of us making a conscious effort to support local,” McBarnes says.

Urban planning experts differ on whether downtowns are as vital as they once were. Some say cities should find a niche market they can own and build around. Michael Burayidi is a Ball State University professor of urban planning. He says investment in a city’s downtown can spread outward and have a positive impact, but investment must be strategic and sustainable over the long term. And that, he says, takes time.

“It will typically take—to actually begin to see full-scale impact—I would put it 20 years,” Burayidi says.

McBarnes thinks his city can do it in 12-13 years. He has faced resistance from some of his constituents over planned projects like Prairie Creek Park, a downtown green space slated to open later this year that’ll feature performance spaces and splash pads. And while the majority of survey respondents indicate they want to see Frankfort grow, responses show very different views on what true transformation, and enhanced quality of life, looks like—and how to get there.

City council member Jim Moyer says he doesn’t understand the reluctance some have toward spending money on improvements.

“If you don’t want to grow, you’re going to die,” Moyer says. “That’s simply the answer. You have to grow, or you’re just going to die. Is that what they want?”

More than half of the people who took WBAA’s survey said they’ve lived in Frankfort for 10 years or longer. For their town to grow, they may need to stay and have more dinners out at local restaurants, instead of hitting the road.

Below, listen to more responses from WBAA's Frankfort forum. 

Listen to Chet Mahan's comment at WBAA's Frankfort forum.
Listen to Jason Wilhite's comment at WBAA's Frankfort forum.
Listen to Kevin Evans's comment at WBAA's Frankfort forum.