In a community where it's often the same, familiar faces who speak up when a call for feedback is made, local officials were energized on July 27 when they saw a new face in the crowd.
And she spoke up.
Deb Switzer moved to Vincennes a year ago from her rural home near Crawfordsville. Just after she left, Crawfordsville received one the state's Stellar Communities grants, the same grant that Vincennes is applying for this summer.
And having been thoroughly impressed with what her native Crawfordsville has been able to do with the grant money, Switzer, now president of the League of Women Voters here, came to the meeting wanting to know more about what changes those same opportunities could mean here.
But when asked what she thought of Vincennes, her answer stung just a little.
“I thought it would be more diverse,” she told the group meeting at City hall, 201 Vigo St., tempering her comments with a smile. “With the university here, yeah, I thought I'd see more diversity. I thought there would be more to do.”
Switzer, too, said she had trouble getting access to information, specifically about local businesses, and she found the local housing market to be seriously lacking in mid-range homes.
“It took me six months to find a house, and even then I paid more than I wanted,” she told the group during the first of two “community conversations” to garner feedback on the city's Stellar application.
Switzer said, instead, she relied heavily on her Realtor for information about her new community.
She mentioned specifically finding little information on the Knox County Chamber of Commerce's website, a comment with which Chamber president Marc McNeece nodded in agreement while sitting, unbeknownst to Switzer, just a few feet away.
“That is something we really struggle with,” McNeece said. “We have a newer website, but we just don't have that influx of tax dollars other organizations have. That lack of dollars keeps us from having the dynamic website we'd really like to have.
“That's why we've really focused our attention on social media,” he said. “We know that's a way we can reach people, reach our members. And we encourage people to call us, come by, that way we can help you the best way we know how."
Switzer's comments about Vincennes' small inventory of reasonably-priced homes didn't fall on deaf ears either. It certainly didn't come as a shock to those listening so intently.
In fact, it's an argument many elected officials hear all the time. It was even a point made this spring in the findings of a regional housing market study done by Purdue University.
It's why, included in the grant application, is the construction of an apartment complex, Riverview Lofts, to be located on First Street downtown at the site of the old grain silos, as well as single-family houses on South 11th Street in the block between Bayou and Prairie streets near Good Samaritan Hospital.
And while Switzer's comments about Vincennes might have been a bit uncomfortable to hear, city officials seemed thankful for them nonetheless. In fact, they infused exactly the kind of energy the Stellar application needs.
“This was a wake-up call” said Mark Hill, executive director of United Way of Knox County and facilitator for the community conversation. “A lot of times at public hearings and things, you see some pretty familiar faces, you hear the same kinds of things.
“So when I saw a new face in the crowd, I wanted to be sure and pull that person out, talk to her. I thought it afforded a wonderful opportunity.”
Mayor Joe Yochum, too, said he was thrilled to have Switzer's voice heard.
“I was glad, excited that she was there,” the mayor said. “We want to hear those things, even though they may not always be good. We still need to hear it.”
Yochum said he also planned to immediately figure out how it was Switzer seemed to fall through the cracks, possibly working to reinvigorate a local “welcome basket” program once organized among several not-for-profits.
“And it concerned me that she felt like she couldn't get information,” the mayor said. “Maybe we need to work more closely with our local Realtors when somebody new moves to town."
McNeece, too, said Switzer's comments fueled his own fire to be better. Perhaps, he said, local organizations could work together to create an all-inclusive, one-stop-shop website for newcomers, complete with everything from a list of local businesses to local festivals and events.
“I really wanted to pick her brain more than I did,” the mayor said. “I want to know what people really think. Her opinion is important. She came from another community. She knows what was there, what's here and how it compares.
“I want to encourage everybody to come speak like she did (during these community conversations),” Yochum said. “We want to hear what you have to say.”
The second community conversation will be held from 5-6:30 p.m. on Thursday, again at City Hall.
Vincennes' application for the grant is due Aug. 25, and a winner will be announced in October.
Ten state agencies — led by OCRA, the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority and the Indiana Department of Transportation — came together to create the Stellar program years ago, all of them pooling some of their financial resources to bolster Indiana cities, mostly with an emphasis on downtown areas.