More than an Amtrak station: Downtown Waterloo is planning to boost local business growth

Leaders in DeKalb County’s Town of Waterloo have big plans in the works to make the downtown more amenable to small business incubation and growth. 

Waterloo Town Manager Tena WoenkerTown Manager Tena Woenker says the Waterloo business community, which is tight-knit, is stymied by the current dearth of viable property. This situation presents an opportunity, in her opinion.

"We have quite a few businesses that are doing very well,” she says. "For example, we have a groomer and an insurance agent. They do well, but there's not a lot of other businesses around. I believe that some people want to open a coffee shop or hair salon, but there’s no place to go. So we're ready for some new development, that's for sure.”

Waterloo isn't alone in this challenge. As the American Planning Association explains in an executive summary, the mid-20th century brought a paradigm shift. It resulted in a move away from the traditional main street commerce model to one facilitating the rise of suburban shopping malls.

"Successful revitalization strategies built on the positive assets of downtowns and addressed the challenges of doing business downtown," the document states. "These strategies sought to encourage local businesses, restaurants, and retail to locate in and populate downtown vacant spaces and to make these the economic base for the downtown." 
With this in mind, Woenker—who has worked in economic development for some time—says the town isn’t wasting any time in taking action. There are several vacant storefronts, but they need some “modernizing” before they can be utilized. That’s why the Redevelopment Commission made the move to purchase an entire block of six buildings that were vacant or underutilized.

Woenker says next steps are putting out a request for proposals from developers to get their ideas on how the spaces might be developed. Possibilities include some new retail space, a dining establishment, and possibly apartment units.

The potential goes beyond serving the needs of residents, Woenker says.

“We have the only Amtrak station in northeast Indiana, and it’s located on the same block as this development," she explains. "So we'd love to see something cater to the Amtrak passengers.”

The Town of Waterloo promotes itself as the Crossroads of Northeast Indiana because of its proximity to assets like the Amtrak train stop.
The train station was completed in 2016 and has been considered a win for the region. According to Woenker, more than 21,000 passengers come through the depot on an annual basis, so a more robust urban core would cater to their needs. 

There is research to back up this claim, too.

Last year, a group of graduate-level students from Ball State's Urban Planning program visited Waterloo’s downtown area to begin the process of generating realistic ideas for development. They walked around the town and made observations. Then they gathered input, through research, public meetings, surveys, and comparisons with other communities.

In their work, they found that more than $12 million is spent outside the community because of the lack of businesses in town.

“This money spent on restaurants, healthcare, automotive businesses, and retail could be spent in Waterloo if the right companies were attracted to the area,” according to an update on the town’s website.

Ball State students outlined initiatives to help spur the revitalization of the town’s urban core.

Speaking of attraction, Woenker acknowledges that housing is another piece of the puzzle. Homes for sale don't stay on the market very long, and apartments are always full. Additional housing stock could mean a virtuous cycle. More people downtown could mean more business for current and future establishments. 

In the meantime, they’re looking to break ground next spring. Woenker says the general consensus among residents is that the time is right. 

“I think people were waiting for us to do something because the downtown has been deteriorating, and nobody wants to see their community dying, so to speak,” she says. "Now that we've got a hold of the core of the community, I think people are starting to get excited about the possibilities of what could happen, and I don't think it can happen fast enough now.”

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
Signup for Email Alerts