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Noblesville: the Hamilton County seat has location, money, and a lot more people than a decade ago.


The Hamilton County seat has location, money, and a lot more people than a decade ago.

If you knew the Noblesville of 10 years ago, you would not recognize the Hamilton County seat today.

Major change has been sparked by the presence of Morse Lake, a 1,500-acre reservoir built by Indianapolis Water Co. Lakeside housing subdivisions have created a population boom. In 1980, Noblesville had 12,000 residents; today, more than 18,000 people call it home.

"When you look at the agricultural beginnings, the industrial base, the established downtown and tourism opportunities, you realize we have quite a bit," says Janet H. Neighbours, director of the Noblesville Department of Community and Economic Development.

Location and money are two of the things that Noblesville has. Downtown Indianapolis is about 25 miles from Noblesville. And according to U.S. Census figures, Noblesville's population--mainly in the 35 to 50 age group--amasses large amounts of disposable income compared with other cities.

Housing prices reflect the economic diversity of Noblesville's population: Homes range from $45,000 to more than $500,000. More than 150 houses were built in 1990, and according to city planners, nearly 575 more are promised for this year in five new subdivisions.

Noblesville's top employer, Firestone Industrial Products, once practically controlled the city economy. When Firestone's sales slowed, Noblesville's marketplace generally was depressed. Firestone's ranks have fallen from a high of 1,600 employees in 1962 to about 300 today. Now the economy is much more diversified. A long list of new businesses that manufacture items such as aquariums, cheesecakes and eyeglass lenses now cope with growing pains, despite a recession on the national horizon.

Hamilton County-based businesses employ about two-thirds of the area's population. The rest commute daily to Indianapolis, according to statistics provided by local real-estate agents. Within Noblesville today, the largest employers include a Kraft General Foods distribution center; International Multifoods, which makes frozen specialty foods; and Industrial Dielectrics Inc., a maker of plastic electrical insulation. Each employs about 250 people.

In addition to being a place to live and work, the Noblesville area is a place to visit. Deer Creek Music Center, a 17,000-seat enclosed amphitheater along Indiana 238 near Interstate 69, drew 400,000 people to 45 shows between May and September last year. Performers at Deer Creek have included Elton John, the Grateful Dead, Frank Sinatra, New Kids on the Block and Sandi Patti.

Conner Prairie near Noblesville is a tourist attraction that has received national acclaim. It is a 250-acre living history museum that was organized in 1934 by pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and donated to Earlham College in 1964. Recently, Conner Prairie won the highest award given by U.S. News & World Report for entertainment and authenticity, and a Phoenix Award from the Society of American Travel Writers.

Historians credit Noblesville's founding to William Conner, who moved to Hamilton County from Connersville in 1819. Conner and William R. Polk, a lawyer, platted Noblesville in January 1823, and officials designated it the county seat about a year later. Some historians say Polk named the city after his fiancee, Lavina Noble of Indianapolis. The story goes that Miss Noble became so upset by the use of her name that she broke off the engagement.

The present courthouse on the square, which was built in 1879, is undergoing a restoration. In addition, a three-level judicial center is under construction downtown between the courthouse and the White River. The $30 million judicial center will house county offices and courts when it is completed in about a year.

The courthouse square remains the focus of revitalization. The emphasis was initiated three years ago by the city government, downtown merchants and the Noblesville Area Chamber of Commerce. "We ought to be able to make Noblesville an attraction downtown," says the economic development department's Neighbours.

The historical character that lures people downtown also draws them into the city's neighborhoods. Within the city limits there are a number of restored Victorian homes. The Noblesville Preservation Alliance sponsors a home show each fall, which reflects the city's heritage through its architecture.

Downtown merchants Mary Sue and Ted Rowland operate a travel agency, a public relations service and a printing firm. Mary Sue became mayor in 1988 and dusted off long-shelved ideas for managing the population and construction booms.

Mayor Rowland has called Noblesville "one of Indiana's best-kept secrets. We are changing that," she says. "We have several committees of volunteers doing their best to develop and to promote the exciting resources Noblesville has to offer.

"Our diversity may be our greatest asset," she continues. "Noblesville appeals to everyone. Maybe that's why we're growing so fast."

When the mayor took office, her main concerns--easing traffic and maintaining the downtown business district--were shared by many people. Among the solutions are two street extensions, which eliminated traffic jams that added up to 20 minutes to the trip across Noblesville. One of the new roads enlarged the downtown area.

Officials hope to emphasize the White River's downtown presence. A mall, River Centre Plaza, will sit west of the downtown and give the river a predominant role. A downtown riverside plaza and pedestrian trails west of the judicial center to nearby Forest Park also have been proposed. And city leaders hope to develop a small amphitheater as an additional connection between downtown and the river. "The role of the White River can only increase," says architect Kent Schuette of Lafayette. "Connections to parks and recreation will naturally occur." Schuette assisted a community and economic development effort focusing on downtown.

A young Noblesville Main Street Board helps meet the needs of downtown merchants, some of whom reported record sales last year. The board also plans to find tenants for the few empty storefronts that remain in the city's downtown.

Since 1985, 18 facades have been upgraded by downtown building owners. Low-interest loans offered by three of the city's eight banks assisted merchants with the revitalization effort. "Streetscape," a city government-sponsored beautification program, gave the sidewalks a Victorian look. The Indiana Main Street Program and the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns judged the downtown project the most successful in the state.

The news hasn't been all good. After the awards, the city lost its downtown J.C. Penney store. According to Hilary Greenberg, a North Carolina marketing consultant who assisted with the development effort, Penney has closed most of its small retail outlets, such as the one in Noblesville. Noblesville, she says, has a lot of potential for expansion, but it is a difficult market. "You open up a business and 10 other people do, too. You turn around and you don't know who your neighbors are." Greenberg attributes the problem to the fact that Noblesville is a growth market.

The unique market influences industry, too. Neighbours says operators of 20 of the city's 72 industrial companies meet regularly to discuss business retention and expansion. "We brainstorm as to what's going on here," she says. "If they are going to expand, we will try to find out what they need." The committee sponsors seminars on financing, training and communications. Its members also share information on trade opportunities and conferences.

As is the case with other Hoosier businesses, Noblesville's employers have been affected by the slow U.S. economy. But that's not necessarily all bad, says Neighbours, who sees it as a great opportunity for the city economy to catch its breath after a decade of record growth. Indications are that growth will remain constant in Noblesville.

Sums up Neighbours: "We are actually better off than most communities, because we have time to plan and strategize."

PHOTO : Downtown revitalization was judged best in the state.
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Title Annotation:Noblesville, Indiana
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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