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Local group looks to redevelop Oliphant building and Gimbel Corner

A trio of local families is looking to redevelop the corner of Second and Main streets.

Business owner and downtown developer Leah Richter — along with her parents, Kevin and Nancy Emmons, as well as melon farmers Dennis and Cathy Mouzin and their sons, Brady and Blake — went before members of the city’s Redevelopment Commission Thursday morning for help in what they’ve dubbed the Oliphant Project.

Operating under the name REM Development Group, they’re looking to purchase the 6-story Oliphant building at 214 Main St. and renovate it into condominiums.

The bottom floor would remain a commercial space, but each floor above would be its own unit, Richter explained to the RDC, and to accommodate their target demographic, they want to offer adjacent garage parking.

To do that, they need what is commonly called the Gimbel Corner, or the green space adjacent to the Oliphant building jointly owned by the city, Vincennes University and Good Samaritan Hospital.

After the old Gimbel Bond building there burned in December of 2011 — and the owner left town — city officials were left to deal with the charred remains; both the hospital and the university chipped in to help cover the cost of cleanup.

Recently, Mayor Joe Yochum transferred the Gimbel Corner to the RDC, knowing this deal was in the works. It’s far easier, he said, for the RDC to sell the property to an individual looking to develop it; the city, per state law, would have to open a bidding process.

“I support this project,” the mayor told the RDC Thursday. “I’ve been talking with Kevin (Emmons) and Dennis (Mouzin) about this for weeks. It’s the exact reason the property was given to the RDC.

“Leah and her husband (Clint) have proven their desire to improve Main Street,” he said of the couple that has transformed multiple downtown buildings, most recently the Great Bankquet Hall, a historic bank-turned- event space at 302 Main St. “This is just another project that is going to get more people downtown. So let’s keep the progress going.”

Richter, also the owner of Pearl and Chrome Home Interiors, 309 Main St., told the RDC they haven’t yet purchased the Oliphant building as their offer is contingent upon the RDC selling them the Gimbel Corner. Without it, she said, the project won’t go forward.

The group’s plan includes the construction of five garage spaces fronting Main Street; each structure would be two stories with the front side built to resemble store fronts. Condo owners would enter their respective garage spaces from the back side.

“Main Street is full of beautiful architecture,” Richter said. “So we want to add to that, take this all the way down Main Street.

“So many Main Streets aren’t as full. You have a building, a couple of empty spaces, another building. Our Main Street is pretty full, but we still think we can add to it.”

Above the storefront-facade garage spaces, each owner would have their own rooftop terrace, she added.

And on the end closest to Main Street, Richter said the plan includes the construction of a three-story structure in an effort to anchor the overall project and provide variety. They would build an additional loft space there, one that would have views of the Old Cathedral and the George Rogers Clark Memorial.

And behind all of it would be an additional 14 public parking spaces.

Richter said the entire project centers around offering a “sense of place.” She said there is currently a waiting list for her other, rentable downtown lofts. The demand is high, she said, for downtown living space, and many want to buy.

Young professionals, she said, especially in the time of COVID-19, are working from home. Her own loft tenants, she said, speak highly of being able to walk and get some breakfast, walk again to get dinner and take an evening stroll to watch the sunset at the memorial.

The REM Group wants to continue building on that lifestyle.

“We want to keep energizing downtown,” she said. “And we think that will just keep creating new businesses. There is opportunity for growth. Maybe with more people living downtown, someone will open a little grocery store.

“We’re hoping this project trickles down to affect everything else.”

Using their own experience in the construction industry, Richter said she expects the total project to cost upwards of $1.8 million.

In addition to seeking the Gimbel Corner, the REM Group is also asking for financial assistance in the amount of $130,000 to help with the cost of constructing the public parking lot, doing some additional exterior tuck-pointing, running necessary utilities and to address some storm water drainage issues there.

RDC members were thrilled with the project REM has in mind and expressed at least an initial willingness to get involved.

The first step is in directing city attorney Dave Roellgen to begin drafting some kind of an agreement, suggested RDC member and at-large city councilman Marc McNeece.

“We could sell it to them for $1,” he ventured, to which others nodded in agreement. “But we could write in the deal that it would revert back to us if nothing is done in a certain amount of time. And it would be contingent upon them buying the Oliphant building.

“If it all goes to smoke, no harm, no foul,” he said. “But at least that gets us moving in the right direction.”

Roellgen did say that state law would prohibit the RDC from giving the property to the REM Group and that even selling it would “take multiple steps,” although he didn’t elaborate.

RDC members didn’t discuss at length the $130,000 requested by the REM Group, but most seemed agreeable to it — eventually.

Richter, herself, said they were looking at a two-year construction timeline.

“If we do the cash, I think it would have to be as reimbursement,” suggested RDC chairman Tim Smith. “But I think we all support getting you the lot and at least some reimbursement pending some kind of agreement.”

RDC member Bob Slayton, too, called it a “great concept” with the Oliphant building itself being the “jewel in the crown.”

Bicknell looking for donations for new splash pad

BICKNELL — Even though the path ahead is a bit unclear, city officials continue to forge ahead on the construction of a splash pad at South Side Park.

Mayor Thomas Estabrook this week met with members of the city’s parks board regarding the splash pad project; they hope to raise upwards of $165,000 to pay for it.

“We’ve got a design. We’ve got a spot,” he said. “I’ve sent out letters to some business owners requesting donations, and we’ve gotten back $3,800 so far.

“So I’m feeling encouraged by that.”

Estabrook has said he also plans to go to the county’s Redevelopment Commission to request funds as members there recently broadened the area in which they can spend the property tax revenue generated by the Tax Increment Finance Zone, specifically the area around the Duke Energy power plant in Edwardsport.

The idea behind that move is to provide some relief and even project assistance to the cities that have been directly affected — sometimes negatively — by the Duke plant.

Most of the improvements so far have been in infrastructure repairs, but RDC members have said they are open to other possibilities.

City officials looked to Vincennes architect Larry Donovan for help in designing the splash pad.

It will be constructed, Estabrook said, on a 50-foot square of concrete and feature a variety of spraying apparatus.

“All kinds of cool stuff,” the mayor said. “There will be buckets that fill with water and dump, things that turn and spray water, water arches you can run under, a frog that sprays water, things that shoot up out of the ground.

“It’s going to be good.”

The splash pad will be constructed where the basketball courts are at South Side Park. The basketball courts will then be moved to another location, specifically where the tennis courts are now, Estabrook said.

“There’s a lot of excitement about this,” he said. “It will be a low-maintenance water attraction, something good for a city of this size.”

Jack Lynn, president of the city parks board, said they, too, were thrilled that the city is helping to take this on.

The city last summer took over the old privately-owned Swimland, which had been closed for a couple of years, and quickly announced that it would likely never reopen.

Lynn called it a “shame” and said he knew residents were disappointed; he was one of them, he said.

“I can remember when it opened,” he said of Swimland. “I was a freshman in high school. It was a great thing for the city of Bicknell at the time. It was the only privately-owned pool in state. It was built with a lot of donations, but unfortunately time took its toll, and it came to a point where it had to close.

“But it will be really nice for the kids in this town to have something new to enjoy, some kind of water facility.”

The splash pad, too, is attractive to the parks board, Lynn said, in that it costs less to maintain. Pools, he said, can often be “a money pit.”

“But this still gives kids the opportunity to enjoy some water on a hot summer day,” he said. “And hopefully this will come to fruition through donations, grants, things like that.”

Lynn said the parks board also this week discussed doing a major electrical upgrade to the ball field at South Side Park.

The current system, he said, has been “cobbled together” over the years and is less than efficient or ideal. It’s also, he added, not very safe.

They sought an estimate to redo it all, and the cost is expected to be around $24,000.

The parks board doesn’t have $24,000 to spend, so they will once again look to possible donations.

Lynn, too, said Estabrook thought using a portion of the city’s Economic Development Income Tax dollars another possibility.

“So we have to find a way to get that started, too,” he said.

RDC looks to partner with housing developers, spur construction

The Redevelopment Commission continues to explore ways to strengthen the city’s housing stock.

RDC president Tim Smith during the organization’s regular monthly meeting Thursday announced that he’d begun working on a Request for Proposals with city attorney Dave Roellgen, a document that could be sent out to area developers to garner information on what kinds of housing projects they want to do and how best the RDC could help.

“This is just a starting point,” Smith told his fellow RDC members. “But I do know there is interest in the community. I just had another call on the way here today from a developer.

“People are ready to move on some construction.”

Exactly how this process will work remains to be seen; Smith suggested the RDC hold a special meeting in the near future to continue hashing out the details.

But he envisions a kind of application process — one designated over a period of weeks — where, at the end, the RDC could consider each one and award funds appropriately.

Developers could be looking to build homes on empty lots throughout town or even renovate old ones in the city’s Historic District.

The only real stipulation would be that the project fall within the boundaries of the Tax Increment Finance Zone, the vehicle by which the RDC collects property tax revenue to reinvest in economic development projects.

The RDC, Smith suggested, could hear from developers on their projects; it would then be up to the RDC to decide how best to incentivize them to keep going.

That could be giving them one of the 14 empty lots the RDC has collected over the years as the city has looked to reduce blight. It could also be funding for sanitary sewer connections or even storm water drainage.

It could also include street repair, Smith said.

“State law allows us a lot of latitude on how we view redevelopment,” he said. “But I think we have to start by asking, ‘What’s it going to take to stimulate residential growth in the city?’ ”

RDC member Marc McNeece suggested the development of a kind of “score card,” which is how several state and local organizations weed through stacks of applications for grant funding.

They could compare things like the cost of the project, the impact on local utilities and even the tax revenue that would be generated as a result.

The higher the score, the more more suited the project is for the RDC’s help.

RDC member Bob Slayton said he was “enthusiastic” about the possibility of working with developers. The need for housing — especially mid-range housing — has been a topic of conversation amongst RDC members for years.

And projects like these, he said, whether they be new construction or renovation of the city’s historic home stock, can be a “catalyst” in improving entire neighborhoods.

“When people see these properties being developed, I know that has a positive impact,” he said. “People are encouraged. They see the area on an uptick, and they’re more likely to improve their own properties.”

Greg Parsley, also an RDC member and superintendent of the Vincennes Community School Corp., echoed the need for housing. It’s a common compliant, both from the VCSC as well as Good Samaritan Hospital.

He said it’s frustrating to watch new teachers and their families, because they can’t find houses here, choose to live in Princeton, Fort Branch or even Evansville.

“I’m tired of watching them drive in and drive out of this community,” he said.

Smith, too, spoke of working with the city’s Urban Enterprise Association, specifically its Upgrade Vincennes mini-grant program.

That group last year began awarding $5,000 grants to homeowners living within the Urban Enterprise Zone for exterior improvements and repairs.

Smith wanted to entertain the possibility of giving the UEA money each year for that program.

“Either way, I want to get this moving,” Smith said.

He also told RDC members that he continues to speak with financial consultants from Reedy Financial Group in Seymour about the possible establishment of a residential TIF zone, another possible avenue to increase the city’s housing stock.

Last fall, the RDC heard from Gary Smith, a certified public accountant with Reedy, regarding information on a new state law that went into effect this summer allowing for the establishment of a TIF zone made up solely of residential housing.

Previously, TIF zones could only be drawn around commercial districts; any houses that happened to fall within them didn’t generate any revenue for the RDC.

The change allows for the establishment of a residential housing TIF over a period of 20 years.

The RDC would need to set up both an allocation area (the area in which it would collect a portion of property tax revenue) and a separate economic development area (the area in which the RDC would look to spend that revenue making improvements) and, ideally, provide an incentive for the construction of more mid-range housing as a result.

Once the TIF zone is established, the existing assessed valuation within its boundaries would be the baseline. The RDC would then be able to capture the property tax revenue from any improvements — in this case, new houses — made within it.

But with few communities to have taken it on, the path forward is anything but clear.

It would likely require a bond sale, Smith said, which would require approval from the city council.

“And we’d have to generate enough revenue to pay the bonds back,” he said. “We’d have to make sure we can support it.

“Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of examples right now,” he said. “We just need to keep talking about it.”