The small town of Albion is bustling.
First Friday events have turned the Courthouse Square into a giant board game with games like Albionopoly and a Live Clue game.
At a recent Christmas in the Village event, streets were lined with crowds of people who had gathered to watch the Christmas Light Parade.
Those people stuck around after the parade to check out the Christmas decorations and visit local businesses.
Albion has a lot going on, but it has its share of challenges, too.
The town of 2,350, about 30 miles northwest of Fort Wayne, faces the same problems as many other small communities: a shortage of quality housing, difficulty finding volunteers for community projects and challenges engaging the younger generation in local politics and in general.
But a group of Albion residents refuse to be complacent. Committees and focus groups have been the driving force behind the town being named a Hometown Collaboration Initiative award winner by the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs.
The award goes to communities with populations of 25,000 or less that want to develop a new generation of local leaders, build a supportive environment for small businesses and entrepreneurs, or improve quality of life.
The towns of Albion and Cumberland, cities of Angola and Washington, and Brown County were selected for the award in May. Albion is the smallest of the northeast Indiana communities selected. The town joins 14 other Hometown Initiative communities – including Auburn and Decatur – that are in various phases of completing the project.
Hometown Initiative towns and cities work with officials from the state, Ball State University and Purdue University to develop strategies for their communities.
“Through the HCI, we are building capacity for the town,” said Albion Town Manager Stefen Wynn. “The hope is to improve and grow our town.”
Choosing a plan
The town completed the first phase of the project by forming a 14-member coordinating committee and playing host to a November public forum to seek community input.
The committee is analyzing information from the forums and data from a public survey in October.
The committee works closely with other groups, including the Albion Plan Commission, Albion Town Council, Main Street program and the Super Town of Albion Revitalization, or STAR team.
Wynn is the town's plan administrator, a member of the plan commission and on the steering committee for the Noble County Comprehensive Plan.
The committee will probably hold two more meetings to decide which of three building blocks it now wishes to pursue – leadership, economy or placemaking.
“If it's economy, we may talk about what can we do to create a vibrant downtown,” Wynn said. “If it's placemaking, we will focus on quality of life improvement,” he said.
If the town chooses the leadership option, the Hometown Initiative team will suggest strategies to develop a new generation of community leaders.
“We have talked about how to get young people involved,” Wynn said. “In order for that to happen, some of the older ones need to be willing to give up the reins. A few may think they are the only ones who are experienced enough to do the job and we have to change that mindset.”
“It's still too early to say which building block we will choose,” Wynn said, “but there is value to each of them, and whatever the data supports we will choose.”
Joy LeCount, a Hometown Initiative coordinating team member, said many of the local companies are able to fund community projects but can't find leaders willing to get involved. She believes the lack of leadership is directly linked to a shortage of adequate housing in the Albion area.
“There's a real lack of housing in Albion, so the (corporate officials) live elsewhere and have no personal interest in the town,” she said.
LeCount, who retired three years ago as editor of the Albion New Era, lives a few miles away in Wawaka but has always been involved in Albion. A long-time Rotarian and STAR member, she has served 32 years in elected county offices.
LeCount is optimistic about the future.
“I hope to help engage the citizens of our community in a project that will draw them together working toward a common goal that will improve the quality of life in the Albion-Central Noble area, making the place a better place to live, work and play for those here today and for generations to come,” she said.
Another Hometown Initiative and STAR committee member, Maryanne Troutner of Albion, calls herself a “concerned citizen” who felt the need to help shape the future of the town, which is the county seat of Noble County.
“I love this little town,” Troutner said. “I hope to help get our young people to stay here and live their lives here,” she said.
One of her children is at Indiana University, studying to become an optometrist.
“I would like for him to choose to live here once he completes his internship, but will he?” Troutner said. “There's not a lot to do. There's not enough housing. We hope to change that so that our young people will choose to come back to their hometown.”
Matt Young, also a coordinating committee and STAR team member, just moved to Columbia City, although his company is in Albion.
“There was no place to buy or build,” Young said. “I looked. There were four houses in a four-county area that I could buy,” he said.
Steven Hook, another committee member, has worked 21 years for the county and is the current GIS manager.
Although he lives in Fort Wayne, Hook became involved in the Albion community in 2010, after attending a public hearing, and is now a familiar face at town meetings and events.
“I really like this community and want to help,” Hook said.
He has “toyed” with the idea of relocating to Albion, but many of his family's ties are near his home in Fort Wayne, he said. And again, there is a shortage of available homes in the Albion area.
The town has commissioned a housing study and it continues to be discussed, Wynn said.
“The housing study is being talked about during our meetings and sessions, so it can't be ignored,” he said. “Personally, I would like to focus resources on residential and commercial developments, and the town has begun to tackle those tasks.”
“Already, we've seen some of our largest employers involved in dialogues to assist with growing our town – they have available jobs, and would like to retain employees better, but have no place for their employees to live around Albion,” Wynn said.
Lori Gagen, the executive director of Black Pine Animal Sanctuary in Albion, supports the efforts of the STAR and Hometown Initiative teams whenever she can, she said.
Gagen listed several sites that make Albion unique: Black Pine, of course, but also Courthouse Square, historic downtown buildings, Old Jail Museum, Noble Art Gallery, Chain O'Lakes State Park, Hidden Diamonds Park and local businesses such as A Thyme to Remember, Heath's Antiques and Albion Ale House.
The entire Hometown Initiative process – three phases – usually takes about 16 months.
“A conservative estimate would have us completing the second phase in late May or early June,” Wynn said.
The town will receive two awards – $2,500 to be used on the project and a $5,000 matching grant, also from the state, that the town received through the STAR team. The STAR grant money will be used this spring for bicycle racks on Courthouse Square, a life-size chess set and wayfinding signs for the downtown area.
“That's not a huge sum,” Wynn said, “but it will put us in a much better position to someday apply for status as a Stellar Community.”
The financial rewards for Stellar communities are significant.
In 2012, Delphi – a city of approximately 2,900 people, just slightly larger than Albion – was chosen as a Stellar Community, and it recently celebrated the completion of $23 million in improvements. Since receiving the award, the city has rehabilitated 10 downtown homes, added loft-style apartments, renovated an opera house and made facade upgrades to downtown buildings, as well as improvements to water mains, streetscapes and its trail system.
Albion's plans fit into a much bigger picture for northeast Indiana, Wynn said.
“The Northeast Regional Partnership for Indiana has talked about the road to one million (people), and that our region needs to grow in order to stay competitive in the global marketplace; Albion is doing their part to meet this goal,” Wynn said.