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Dan Canon on New Albany: From barren wasteland to bustling urban vibe almost overnight

by Dan Canon

New Albany, photo by Dan Canon

Five years ago, downtown New Albany was practically a barren wasteland.

Oh sure, there was commerce. A couple of law offices, Terry Middleton’s kickboxing school, an alarming number of furniture stores, etc.

But there was nothing that was a going concern past five o’clock or so.

I spent most of my teenage years in New Albany, and that’s the way it always was.

Like so many cities in the Midwest, there was this inert cloud of pure boredom hanging over downtown. It didn’t feel alive. It felt stale. Going downtown felt like going thrift-store shopping with your grandmother. You wanted to get in, do your business as quickly as possible, and get out.

As Develop New Albany’s website frankly confesses, “TIMES WERE TOUGH FOR DOWNTOWN NEW ALBANY.” But the tough times may be a-changin’.

Supposedly, 90 new businesses have moved into downtown in the last five years. Although I’d be hard-pressed to name 90 businesses total, things definitely feel different.

Throughout the last decade or so, New Albany has been trying to decide if it really wants to be cool or not.

Photo by Dan Canon

The Bank Street Brewhouse is a perfect example. Is it a sports bar? Is it an upscale French restaurant? Is it a gas station with amazing beer?

But while Bank Street might suffer from a minor identity crisis, other small businesses have undoubtedly suffered from their investments in New Albany. Ten years ago, all but the purest optimists wouldn’t have bet on downtown for a fledgling enterprise.

It seems now a decision has finally been made.

Last year, New Albany became the seventh Indiana city to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. It’s clear that New Albany is poised to move into the future not just socially, but commercially as well.

“The past year and a half, things have stuck in. All the things that people wanted to see happen are happening now. People are living down here, not just coming down here to eat.” says Jeremy Bledsoe, a server at River City Winery.

As an aside, the last thing I want to do in this piece is give away the secrets of the Great State of Indiana. But I feel compelled to say that River City Winery might be the greatest Sunday afternoon hangout in the region. Wine tastings for five dollars, a very laid back atmosphere, a super-friendly wait staff, and a place that asks us whether we prefer Hank Williams Sr. or the Carter Family? Sign me up.

Photo by Dan Canon

And get this: you can buy a bottle of alcohol on Sunday. That’s probably not all that exciting to you Kentucky folks but trust me, it’s a big deal here.

Of course, New Albany is more than just cheap wine on Sundays. Now there’s a coffee shop. There’s a Cuban restaurant. There’s a French place that hosts Bastille Day celebrations. There’s a cigar lounge. New Albany has its own trolley hop. There’s a hookah bar– a hookah bar, for Christ’s sake. And all this seems to have happened overnight. What gives?

One has to wonder if the city is being given a hand up by some of its big brothers to the south. Savvy Louisville favorites, recognizing an investment opportunity when they see one, appear to be in for the long haul.

While Heine Bros. slowly infiltrates every building in Louisville, Quills Coffee’s expansion plan brought it to New Albany. Now the only coffee shop in the downtown area, Quills fills the void left by several failed Indiana originals. That’s no small feat for an area that doesn’t even have a freestanding Starbucks.

And business is good, says Quills Media Coordinator and barista Erin Ferguson. While Ferguson, an Indiana native, says it’s “hard to compare and contrast” the Indiana and Louisville operations, “we’re usually pretty busy.”

Likewise, Louisville powerhouse Wick’s Pizza moved into a prime location on State Street, which had formerly housed several doomed New Albany originals. Three years later, Wick’s is still going, and shows no signs of slowing down. Regalo and Dragon King’s Daughter are moving in.

We have met the invader, and he is Louisville. 

That’s not to say that New Albany is lacking its own identity. We Hoosiers have long known about NABC (a.k.a. Sportstime for you old-schoolers [a.k.a. Rich-O’s for you Soviet sympathizers]), which has both the best beer and the best pizza around.

And if you can get past the questionable decor, the questionable bathrooms, and the highly questionable service, La Rosita’s Mexican fare is the best in the region.

Ferguson believes Quills has the support of the community, including other New Albany-based businesses, because they share a common goal. ”Everyone is really supportive. We do want to make sure that we’re doing something that’s good for New Albany as a whole.”

Photo by Dan Canon

That’s a sentiment that is shared by everyone I talked to, including shop owners like Shanda Sillings, who runs The Opal Gypsy. Sillings, who opened her business to sell goods made by local artists, never even looked at space in Louisville.

“When we were growing up, it was empty down here. It was a shame to see all the architecture and the history go to waste.” Now, Sillings says, “there’s been enough people that care, and have gotten the ball rolling. We have an amazing group of merchants. We all work together.”

Still, all the buzz about a New Albany renaissance may be exaggerated, or at the very least premature. After all, everything seems to be happening in the space of a couple of blocks.

Most of the new businesses seem to be antique, consignment, or other genre-defying stores selling a kitschy hodgepodge of unique crafts, vinyl albums, musty clothes, and creepy owl decorations. It’s not hard to cover everything downtown has to offer in an afternoon, unless it’s Sunday afternoon, when virtually everything is closed. And much of the area remains undeveloped.

It’s not uncommon to see a new, hip-looking business alongside a building that’s obviously being used for junk storage, or a building that hasn’t been occupied for years. Think Fourth Street from Broadway to Muhammad Ali, only without the wig shops.

“Our hope is that people will begin to consider living downtown,” says Joe LaRocca, incoming president of Develop New Albany. “There are many historical buildings built at the turn of the last century that need a little TLC. They add to the atmosphere and ambience of downtown New Albany.

“Just look at what they did with the New Albany Exchange and Feast —- two new restaurants on a blighted block of Main Street in an old historical stable building.”

In the next five years, LaRocca says, “we [Develop NA] would like to see more of the historic buildings refurbished … Many of these buildings fronts have been altered over the years and windows covered up. We would also like some options for downtown living for single adults and empty nesters.”

This tried-and-true strategy –  putting warm bodies in refurbished living spaces, not just commercial space –  may be what allows downtown New Albany to maintain its momentum.

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