Downtown at the fork in the road
Downtown at the fork in the road

Where’s it at?

In New Albany, Ind., believe it or not

The bridges are coming to Southern Indiana. So is Comfy Cow.

The Louisville-based ice cream emporium will open in downtown New Albany soon, even though it already operates successfully in Westport Village and Clifton.

NA-clockRegalo recently opened over there, too, even though it had just started on South Fourth Street and continues to bustle at its original Barret Avenue location.

Wick’s Pizza thrives there. Its State Street location is the highest-grossing unit in the chain. Toast seems just as successful on New Albany’s Market Street as on Louisville’s Market Street, even though it’s immediately next door to Quills Coffee, which also operates in the Highlands and on the U of L campus.

New Albany’s downtown farmers market on Saturday is the second-largest in the area, behind only the St. Matthews/Beargrass Christian Church market, and is about to be doubled in size.

New Albany has just hired city planner Jeff Speck, author of “Walkable City,” to analyze its downtown traffic grid. The city has $2.5 million in federal funds for a “traffic calming” program.

In other words, New Albany is serious about creating the kind of vibrant city center that began to disappear when cars, suburbs and shopping malls overtook the cultural landscape.

And do you know many other cities that have a six-figure budget set-aside for Quality of Life?

It’s hard to know just how or why this small town of less than 40,000 people has turned itself into a trendy, happening place from what it had been a decade ago: a town, like so many American towns, that had seen some of its important manufacturing industries (like shipbuilding, plate glass and the production of plywood and veneer) close up, move or diminish.

And, as with a lot of American towns, the opening of Green Tree Mall in Clarksville in the late 1960s shifted consumer activity away from the small mom and pop shops that lined State, Market, Main and Pearl streets.

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Then Wick’s moved to New Albany and, says Dave Duggins, the city’s director of economic development and restoration, showed Louisville businesses that they could succeed there.

But the “big something” was the closing of the Sherman Minton Bridge for six months, from September 2011 to the following February. “Our people, who used to go to dinner in Louisville, suddenly began to stay at home,” said Duggins, “and to notice that we have restaurants, too.”

As with Louisville, New Albany has some interesting independent, locally owned restaurants, like the New Albany Exchange, Feast BBQ, Habana Blues and La Bocca.

New restaurants. Bars. Shops. The New Albanian Brewery. A fully functional, award-winning, River City Winery. Savơn, a brand-new soap and bath products store designed like a French confiserie. The very high-end Copper Moon gallery. (The proprietress, Kim Johnson, is also executive director of Art in Speed Park, the late-summer art show in Sellersburg.)

But there are also several longtime businesses, like Schmitt Furniture, Rookie’s Cookies (circa 1930s), the art deco all-neon-all-the-time Firestone auto service store, and Kaiser’s Smoke Shop, which the sign outside says was opened in 1832. (That’s not a typo! However, a woman behind the desk clarified that while the business was started in 1832, the store was actually torn down and rebuilt in 1862.)

Comfy Cow’s store, on the corner of State and Pearl, has an amazing resemblance to its Frankfort Avenue store: same Italianate architecture, same arched windows, same eaves and corbels and cornices. (No word on whether it will be painted pink.)

In fact, architecture is one of the huge draws to this national historically protected district. There are old period buildings – some empty now – just waiting for transformation into stores or, Duggins believes, into the apartment renaissance he believes is coming next.

The historic New Albany Inn on Market Street, now the Cuban restaurant Habana Blues, has space on the second floor for 12 remodeled apartments. However, Duggins said, “a feasibility study says we need another 100-150 units downtown.”

There’s certainly the activity for it. Free summer concerts in Bicentennial Park, a 1,000-square-foot pocket park downtown, get 600 people on a nice Friday evening. Duggins says these are national touring bands, too, courtesy of the city’s contract with Louisville’s Production Simple, the music promoter and concert producer with great connections in the industry.

Houndmouth (as seen on Letterman, Conan), which has its roots in New Albany, will perform during day-long festivities the Sunday of Labor Day weekend.

The city’s Quality of Life line item budgets for concerts, festivals, movies on the riverfront.

The attraction for Louisvillians, Duggins insists, is a six-minute drive over the Sherman Minton Bridge, no traffic, no parking problems. But for the moment, there’s a solid-enough demographic of 200,000 in Floyd County and parts of neighboring Clark and Harrison counties, plus 6,000 students at the Indiana University Southeast campus.

He believes the results of the Speck study of the downtown grid will slow down the urban flow with two-way streets, plus wider sidewalks, bike lanes, sitting areas, maybe a dog park.

“It used to be the aim of all downtowns was to get people through and out of the city,” he said. “Now, you want to slow people down, get them to look out their car windows and notice what’s around them, maybe get out and walk a little.”

And there’s another practical reason for all this, too.

“We want to know what New Albany will need to do to be prepared for the changes that will come when the bridges are completed.”

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Steve Kaufman
Steve Kaufman has been writing professionally since the Johnson administration (Lyndon, not Andrew) on all manner of subjects, from sports to city hall to sales and marketing to running a medical practice to designing stores. His journey has taken him from Chicago to Buffalo to New York to Atlanta to Cincinnati, before landing, finally, in Louisville.

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