Wabash shares the story behind its growth into one of Northeast Indiana’s best-kept secrets

If you visit downtown Wabash on the first Friday of the month, you’ll experience a palpable sense of community pride.

“We host a First Fridays event each month where we shut down Miami Street downtown, and we have local vendors and food trucks come out,” says Mayor Scott Long.

Shoppers browse small businesses in Downtown Wabash during First Fridays.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many small businesses to close across the U.S., the small, but mighty, town of Wabash, about an hour Southwest of Fort Wayne, has been able to maintain its robust local business scene.

At First Fridays each month, this scene comes to life as residents across the county converge downtown for an evening of fun, food, and local spirit.

“The goal during the pandemic was to not lose any of our small businesses downtown,” Long says. “So far, we have been able to accomplish that—knock on wood.”

Shoppers browse small businesses in Downtown Wabash during First Fridays.

Stop into any of the shops, or ask people on the street, and they’re likely to tell you the same story: Wabash is a great place to live and do business.

The people of Wabash are some of the community’s greatest ambassadors. When you talk with them or walk down Wabash’s historic streets, you feel a sense that “things are happening here.”

Shoppers browse small businesses in Downtown Wabash during First Fridays.

The challenge? If you don’t live in Wabash, or know somebody who does, then you might not realize what makes this place special or how it got to where it is today.

While many factors contribute to a community’s growth, Wabash has spent decades investing in itself and its people-centered developments downtown, creating a quality of life you wouldn’t expect in rural Indiana.

Now, slowly but surely, these investments are paying off. Mayor Scott Long

***

If you ask Mayor Long, the revival happening in downtown Wabash today dates back to the early 1990s, when the Honeywell Foundation constructed the Ford Theater addition to the Honeywell Center at 275 W. Market St. 

When Mark C. Honeywell, the organization’s namesake and developer of the thermostat, invested his family fortune into the original Honeywell Center in 1940, his vision was to create a community hub for recreational and cultural activities for people of all ages. As Wabash’s demand for the arts grew in the 90s, the foundation’s board of directors initiated plans for what they called “The Miracle on Market Street”—expanding the Honeywell Center to include the 1,500-seat Ford Theater, as well as a restaurant and art gallery.

The main lobby of the Honeywell Center in Downtown Wabash.

When the space opened to the public in 1994, it became a cultural hub downtown.

In Long’s mind, this is what spurred other private investors to support downtown’s growth, too. Richard Ford, whose grandfather founded the Ford Meter Box Company, soon purchased a fledgling, 1920s-era motel at 111 W. Market St. and restored it into the tourist-friendly, historic Charley Creek Inn, complete with a wine and cheese shop and an old-fashioned ice cream parlor and candy store on the ground level.

“The Inn, coming on the heels of the Ford Theater, really started the regeneration of downtown,” Long says.

The exterior of the Charley Creek Inn at 111 W. Market St. in Wabash.

The main lobby of the Charley Creek Inn at 111 W. Market St. in Wabash.

Even so, these strides have been tempered by setbacks over the years, like the Great Recession of 2008 when small, rural communities, like Wabash, lost a large portion of their manufacturing jobs and workforce-aged residents to retirement. The Wall Street Journal reports that employment fell by nearly 15 percent in Wabash during the recession. General Tire, a large manufacturing plant closed in the area, leaving roughly 480 employees without jobs.

“And we didn’t have the industry to absorb those jobs at the time,” Long says. “So when General Tire closed in 2008, we saw a lot of migration out of Wabash.”

A view of the historic Charley Creek Inn from the window of John Forrester's building.

Around this same time, Wabash leaders, like Long, began taking note of emerging trends in talent migration patterns across the U.S. Whereas people once determined where they lived by where they found a job, emerging talent was doing things the other way around. Rather than finding a job first, they were finding a community first, or a place they wanted to invest, and then seeking employment there.

The year was 2012, and Long was on City Council in Wabash, when he and other leaders began discussing the “value of place” and the opportunity Wabash had to establish itself as a desirable place to live in the post-Industrial era.

“On City Council, we started talking about: How do we reinvent Wabash?” Long says. “How do we fill these downtown storefronts?”

A view of Market Street in Downtown Wabash.

To create a destination downtown, Wabash applied for a Stellar Communities designation from the State of Indiana in 2013, which would help fund $29 million of improvements downtown. While they didn’t get it that year, they successfully reapplied in 2014. This funding gave the community the boost they needed to preserve and revive some of their dilapidated buildings, prepare storefronts for occupation, re-strategize streetscapes, and continue improvements to local parks, trails, and riverwalks.

By the time Long took office for his first term as Mayor in 2016, “hammers were swinging and dirt was being moved,” he says.

Live music at First Fridays in Downtown Wabash.

One of the biggest projects on the docket was renovating the five-story Eagles Theatre at 106 W. Market St., a 1906-relic in disrepair across the street from the Charley Creek Inn.

As one of the region’s largest nonprofits, the Honeywell Foundation was brought into the conversation. The elaborate mixed-use project would require a combined $1.7 million in funding from Stellar Communities and the Honeywell Foundation, in addition to $250,000 from the City of Wabash and additional public funds totaling $5 million.

The fully renovated Eagles Theatre at 106 W. Market St. in Downtown Wabash.

John Forrester, former President of Wabash Electric, was on the Honeywell Foundation’s board at the time, and he remembers a tense conversation about investing in the theatre.

“It was a very challenging decision for the foundation to make,” he says “But I think what they learned was how many people in the community and the surrounding area had attachments to Eagles Theatre—whether they were in grade school and going to movies there, or whether they were older couples who had had their first dates there.”

The fully renovated Eagles Theatre at 106 W. Market St. in Downtown Wabash.

What’s more, plans for the renovated theatre included more than a movie house and performance center. In addition to its 600-seat space with a smaller film screening room on the lower level, the theatre contained a fully renovated fourth-floor ballroom for events, music lesson rooms and recording studios, and other flexible gathering spaces throughout the building. A key feature was its second-story education space, where Heartland Career Center could run a state-of-the-art Media Arts Program, providing hands-on instruction in film, video, and audio production for area high school students.

The fully renovated Eagles Theatre at 106 W. Market St. in Downtown Wabash.

Long felt this education space, in particular, made the project more important than merely investing in Wabash’s brick-and-mortar structures. It was an opportunity to invest in career paths available to local students and to help prepare them for jobs of the future.

“I thought, ‘I can see a first-generation college student being born out of what we’re doing here with hands-on video, music, and editing opportunities,’” Long says. “There are going to be high school kids who come here and say, “Hey, I can do this,’ and then go to college to enhance their skills.”

The fully renovated Eagles Theatre at 106 W. Market St. in Downtown Wabash.

Wabash’s hope is that its students will thrive in the new economy—and remember their roots when they’re ready to give back. Now that Eagles Theatre is open and operating, Forrester says there’s a growing feeling of momentum on the streets in and around it downtown.

“That’s one of the things the Eagles Theatre has done for downtown Wabash and local businesses,” Forrester says. “It tells people, ‘Hey, there’s stuff happening here’—quite literally. The marquee out front is constantly pouring out information about shows and events. I frequently see people on the street corner, watching all of the information feed through.”

Colorful elephant sculptures in Downtown Wabash.

As CEO of the Honeywell Foundation, Tod Minnich is pleased with the way the theatre is extending Honeywell’s legacy in Wabash’s next chapter with its programs and reach. Even so, he warns against the notion that this development is a case of the “Field of Dreams” philosophy: “Build it, and they will come.”

“So many small towns are trying to create an arts scene by renovating a historic theatre,” Minnich says. “For Wabash, we’re not trying to create an arts scene from scratch; we’re simply enhancing what’s already here because we already had a strong audience base.”

Tod Minnich is CEO of the Honeywell Foundation.

Case in point, the Honeywell Foundation has seen that among its ticket sales at the Ford Theater, more than 80 percent are purchased by audience members outside of Wabash County.

Along with attracting regional audiences to the Wabash area, the Eagles Theatre is attracting artists and innovators around the world to Wabash, too. This year, the Honeywell Center’s elite Wabass Institute for bassists, which has a 95 percent placement rate in professional music careers, expanded to become the full-fledged Honeywell Arts Academy. It now offers training in multiple instruments and music genres at the Eagles Theatre, attracting musicians from around the globe to Wabash for summer residencies.

Musicians from around the world participate in the 2021 Resonance program of the Honeywell Arts Academy at the Eagles Theatre in Wabash.

This growth feeds the local culture and economy, too.

“Economic development is not technically in our mission statement at the Honeywell Foundation,” Minnich says. “But it’s a really great byproduct of the work we do.”

***

While Wabash has long established itself as an arts destination in Indiana, it hasn’t always felt attractive to talent. Growing up in the area himself, Long remembers a common sentiment among his peers.

“Nobody ever wanted to stay in Wabash,” he says. “It was typical small-town America where every kid was like, ‘I can’t wait to get out of here.”

Jacob Marlow stocks coffee at Modoc's Market in Downtown Wabash.

In 1982, Long himself left to join the army where he spent about seven years working in military intelligence. This work took him to Fort Hood, Texas, and later to Naples, Italy, for three years.

“I did a lot of traveling,” Long says.

But when his father had a stroke in 1988, he returned home to Wabash. In 1994, he joined the Wabash City Police Department at age 30 and served there for 22 years before running for Mayor.

Now he is in his second term.

“What we’re seeing in Wabash now is that downtown is coming back to life, and it’s really thriving, even during the pandemic,” Long says.

Guests enjoy the Wine & Cheese Bar at the Charley Creek Inn.

Soon after the Eagles Theatre celebrated its grand reopening in February 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic put a pause on shows and in-person gatherings. This sudden loss of events and travelers threatened many of Wabash’s small businesses who had come to rely on activity downtown.

To mitigate the losses, the City of Wabash worked quickly to table $100,000 worth of economic development funding to create an emergency loan fund. They were also able to get an additional $250,000 in funding from the state, which businesses could apply for through the Office of Community Local Affairs.

Long says they capped each loan at $7,500 to spread the wealth as far as possible, and so far, no small businesses downtown have been forced to close.

Maria Smyth owns the Eclectic Shoppe at 42 W. Canal St. in Downtown Wabash.

As vaccinations have become available and capacity limits have been lifted on gatherings, the Eagles Theatre has been able to reopen, and downtown has been reinvigorated with its events and others, like First Fridays.

These successes contribute to Long’s sense that his administration is making smart moves by continuing to invest in the city center.

“A lot of people ask: Why are you concentrating on downtown?” Long says. “But my mantra is, ‘Downtown is the heart of your city, and if the heart isn’t beating, your limbs will go limp and die off.’”

Bellazo and the Good Vibes Gift Shop 35 W. Market St. in Downtown Wabash.

Looking at numbers from the Ford Theater and the Eagles Theatre alone, he sees evidence that Wabash is not only creating a valuable, engaging place for its own residents, but also for its visitors and future residents.

“I think I’m finally convincing people that when our heart is beating, we’re drawing people in,” Long says.

Visitors enjoy food trucks at First Fridays in Downtown Wabash.

***

Wabash’s momentum is feeding additional private investment downtown, too.

On a Tuesday morning in September, John Forrester drives from his home on a farm in Wabash County to work on his “retirement project” downtown.

“I’ve taken a 100-year-old building across the street from Eagles Theatre, and I’ve brought it back to life,” Forrester says.

John Forrester

When he sold Wabash Electric in November 2018, Forrester knew he needed a project to keep giving back to his community. For years, he had seen the dilapidated three-story brick building at 189 South Miami Street creating an eyesore amidst all the new development. While its price tag was higher than he preferred, he and his wife decided it was worth the investment to keep stoking the flame of Wabash’s fire.

“It was not as much of a business decision as it was a decision to clean up this building and to add to the momentum and enthusiasm in the community,” Forrester says. “The population growth of Wabash County is a concern, but the Honeywell Foundation is making our community a real destination for shows and for traveling artists.”

John Forrester's building at 189 South Miami St.

Since Forrester bought the building in 2019, he’s nearly completed two years of renovations on it, both inside and out, including a new roof, new floors, pergolas, and repairing its historic brick.

“It’s been a long process, but worth it,” he says.

A future retail space at John Forrester's building at 189 South Miami St.

When Forrester was a kid, he remembers the building having a barbershop in the lower level, which is now home to the Wabash Marketplace Main Street organization. On the street level, there are two rentable retail spaces nearing completion. The top level of the building is a second, city residence for himself and his wife, so they can be part of downtown’s growth when they’re not on the farm.

John Forrester's building at 189 South Miami St.

As someone who has lived in the community all his life, Forrester says the path to get where Wabash is today has been a long one with many devoted champions hard at work—but the future looks bright.

“For decades, many people have made a commitment to redevelop downtown Wabash,” Forrester says. “Now, we’re really starting to see a return on those investments.”

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.