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Is Bloomington losing its soul?

On the surface, it would seem that Bloomington is in the perfect position to continue the commercial, industrial, residential and population growth into the I 990s that it experienced during the I 980s. But bubbling to the surface are some residents' concerns that another decade like the 80s will be more than the city can handle.

Bloomington's growth has been impressive. With Indiana University's 35,000 students and 7,000 faculty and staff providing the catalyst for a nearly recession-proof economy, the city experienced a 15 percent jump in its population between 1980 and 1990. Preliminary 1990 census figures show that Bloomington has 59,998 people, making it the eighth-largest city in the state. Census estimates place Monroe County's population at 108,438. Of the state's 10 largest cities, only Bloomington and Indianapolis grew in the 1980s. Bloomington surpassed both Anderson and Terre Haute in size during the 1980s. And, despite the growth, unemployment in Bloomington remains low, at about 3 percent.

A housing boom of sorts also occurred in the '80s. By the middle of the decade, developers began to build bigger, more-expensive homes in the large subdivisions on the southeast fringe of the city. A hopscotch pattern of housing subdivisions now stretches from the College Mall area on the city's east side nearly all the way to Lake Monroe, 10 miles to the south.

In the '80s, Bloomington's reputation as an ideal retirement community also spread. The national tendency of empty nesters to leave large cities for smaller communities with ample cultural and recreational opportunities became apparent in Bloomington. Existing homeowners by the hundreds cashed in their equity for move-up opportunities as well. At present, the median price for a home in Bloomington is $69,950, one of the highest in the state, trailing only the bedroom communities around Indianapolis.

Thanks to the development efforts of CFC Inc.-the real-estate arm of industrialist Bill Cook's enterprisesthe downtown has been renovated. Kirkwood Avenue remains the link between the university campus and the Bloomington downtown. It is still the home of Nick's English Hut, perhaps the state's most popular bar, but Kirkwood also is home to a McDonald's, a Noble Roman's and a Little Caesar's-a testimonial to the proliferation of fast-food outlets in the 90S.

Plans are in the works for a downtown convention center and hotel at the corner of Third Street and College Avenue. A community arts center also is under construction in the old police station at Fourth and Walnut streets. Evelyn Powers, who helped raise funds for the downtown arts center, believes the project is a key element for maintaining Bloomington's personality. The center will house a theater for the performing arts, an art gallery, a gift shop, classroom space and office space. "By next year, we hope it will be a thriving arts center,"Powers says."This is something people in the community have been waiting for for a long time."

Lately, manufacturing in the Bloomington area has taken on an international flair. The RCA television assembly plant-the largest in the world-is owned by Thomson S.A., a European conglomerate that is partially owned by the French government. The Westinghouse Electric Corp. transmission and distribution plant now is owned by ABB, a Swiss-Swedish firm that has most of its operations in Europe. Two new plants also have international ties.

Bloomington is still home of general Electric Co.'s side-by-side refrigerator plant, the world's largest, and Otis Elevator Co.'s largest North American manufacturing facility.

Other manufacturers include: * Cook Inc., an international manufacturer of cardiovascular catheters and other medical products; * Carlisle, which recently bought B.F. Goodrich Co.' soff-highway brake manufacturing plant; and * Whitestone Products, a diaper-making operation.

Of course, the Bloomington area is also home to some of the biggest limestone quarrying operations in the nation. In the 80s, a resurgence of the use of limestone to renovate many large buildings in Washington, D. C., New York and elsewhere has revitalized the stone industry in the region.

But-there might be some dark clouds behind all those silver linings. Despite the broad-based economy and positive growth statistics, not everyone is happy.

Complaints about too much traffic and overbuilding are common these days. Some believe that Bloomington's quaint charm of the '60s and '70s has been swallowed up by the opulence of the '80s. They feel that, unless unbridled growth is curtailed in the '90s, the personality of the community will be threatened.

By the end of the year, a new master plan for the community will be in place. There have been ongoing community-wide discussions throughout the summer. Many residents of older neighborhoods have teamed up with an environmental faction to oppose developers. Marathon meetings have covered such topics as commercial development, the future of the downtown, environmental protection, toxic waste, watershed protection and green space.

Corky Neale is the principal consultant for Camiros, the firm hired by Bloomington and Monroe County to help develop the master plan. "There is a lot of diversity in Bloomington," Neale notes. "The willingness to participate has been somewhat overwhelming. I don't think we anticipated that. Bloomington is a place that has natural beauty with urban amenities without urban constraints. We want to help maintain that which makes Bloomington special and unique."

The master-plan process got under way last spring, shortly after several controversial commercial development proposals adjacent to the College Mall area came before the city's plan commission and city council. Three large farms ring College Mall, a development of Indianapolis-based Melvin Simon & Associates Inc. Several developers want either to build new strip centers or additions to the mall. Retailers that might be part of the developments include Wal-Mart Stores Inc., T.J. Maxx and Cub Foods.

All plans, however, remain on hold while the master-plan process continues.

Bloomington Mayor Tomilea Allison recently said she opposes any new commercial zoning in the College Mall area. She supports maintaining the integrity of the city's older residential areas. But Allison did not issue a no-growth policy statement, insists Tim Mueller, the city's planning director. "What the mayor was doing," he says, was describing where the planning process stands. We are in favor of encouraging growth in more-acceptable areas.

"There is a broad-based sentiment that we've overdone it in the mall area," Mueller admits. "We have overburdened the infrastructure in the southeast area." He agrees that there is too much traffic congestion. Mueller would like to see areas near the indiana 37 bypass at Indiana routes 45 and 48 take more of the commercial load. State-funded cloverleafs and overpasses are under construction in these areas, which are about three miles west of downtown Bloomington. Eventually, Mueller forecasts, commercial growth will happen there. There is available traffic capacity there. It's an intelligent move to encourage growth there." The Bloomington retail market goes well beyond the city limits, Mueller points out, with shoppers coming from the north, south and west. "We are trying to develop a plan that does the utmost to tap how the community feels about things and our future," Mueller says. "We are trying to develop a plan that works within the constraints we have, which include a shortage of public funding and the inability to alter our bottom line under the state tax levy limits." Tom Hirons, president of the greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce and of Hirons Williams Inc., a Bloomington-based advertising firm, hopes that the community can reach a consensus on its future-growth plans. "If we're going to shape our future we've got to embrace the future." By endorsing a no-growth plan, the community will sacrifice the ability to control its destiny, Hirons says. It needs to be creative in defining its problems and seeking solutions. Bloomington needs to have a clear vision of what it can be, not just what it has been. "Times change and Bloomington has, too," says Hirons. "But there still is broad-based concern for the environment and people still swim in the quarries."

Dick Martin, a member of a community group called Quality Growth, is not optimistic about the outcome of the master plan. "Very little will happen, really," he predicts. "That's based on the politics. There will be minor modifications, but major changes will not happen. I'm afraid that, in the end, adjustments will be made to diminish the amount of public debate on issues, giving the planning level more jurisdiction."

Martin believes that a fundamental change has taken place in society as a whole over the past decade, and in Bloomington in particular. He says a move away from a manufacturing economy and neighborhood building to an economy based on tourism and retail has been detrimental to the community. He concedes that the community is mirroring national trends but thinks that is the cause of many of its problems. The master plan will assist us in lowering our standards. Bloomington isn't the town it was 20 years ago, though I guess it's unreasonable to assume it could have kept the same ambience. We're faced with trying to reasonably distribute the resources that we have at the same time as we grow."

Many residents, Neale says, believe Bloomington's growth has been out of control, but he adds that he hasn't encountered a true no-growth sentiment in Bloomington. The pace of residential and commercial growth has been nowhere near that in the Carmel area north of Indianapolis, he points out. "You've got to keep this in perspective," Neale says, noting that Bloomington has grown compared with the rest of Indiana, but barely has kept pace with national growth trends. A disproportionate amount of the city's growth has been in the southeast corridor. In defense of the master plan, he says: "It's not impossible to think we can indeed redirect growth. Planning is a process and it doesn't end with the document."

One of Bloomington's major developers is Eric Stolberg. His 1989 plan for a commercial area near College Mall was one of the proposals that sparked the quest for a new master plan. He is concerned that a no-growth or controlled-growth mentality will hurt the Bloomington area. "You really can't force the market to another part of the community," Stolberg says of proposals to steer future commercial growth away from College Mall and toward the city's west side. "Let's not put a square peg in a round hole," he says. "The west does not have the residential areas to support the kind of commercial and retail developments we're talking about."

As he sees it, the part of the community where the major growth has been is where it will continue to be. The southeast is where the homes and schools are. it's close to the university. Land and utilities are available. Road i m p r o v e m e n t projects in the area are already under way. "You can't force the market away from this area," Stolberg contends. "If you do, the market goes away."

Stolberg has watched the Bloomington market grow. He was a member of the IU football team that went to the Rose Bowl in 1 968. After playing some professional football, he returned to Bloomington in the early 1970s and began a career in real estate. He and his partners in the Wininger/Stolberg Group developed a variety of commercial and residential areas in and around Bloomington during the '80s.

Stolberg believes there is more opportunity for university students to stay in the Bloomington area after their graduation than there was 20 years ago, but there still is not enough. "People still have to sacrifice their earnings to stay in Bloomington," he says. But they do it, because of the quality of life, the cultural opportunities and recreational activities. "You can't imagine the feeling, the electricity in the air on a fall day during the football season. It's exciting to see all the people come here from all over the state. And, increasingly, a lot of alumni are returning here to stay."
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Title Annotation:Regional Report; Bloomington, Indiana
Author:Werth, Brian
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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