• Griffith, Indiana, is a small town 35 miles from the Loop which overcame economic problems to revitalize its downtown.
  • Town officials used money from a railroad settlement to add quality-of-life enhancements.
  • Downtown business interior and exterior renovation funding was a big driver of the improved business climate.

A small northwest Indiana town, just 35 miles from the Loop, has successfully reinvented itself into a hip spot that’s top of the list for nearby first-time homebuyers.

Griffith, with a population of 16,500, boasts a newly repopulated main street. The town had recovered from a dual economic blow – the decline of the importance of the railroad and of neighboring steel mills.

The town’s six-block downtown is now thriving with the small-town version of hipster cool that draws in young families who seek that vibe without the high price of entry into the real estate market. A high-end, indie coffeehouse, a thriving music store, vegan cafe and craft breweries lend credence to the cachet.

Local real estate prices have been flat over the past few years, but local agents expect that to change. Already the vast majority of homebuyers in Griffith, first-timers love the friendly downtown, low-key community events and comfy starter homes that start in the low $130,000 range.

What changed the game, according to an article in Crain’s Chicago Business, was an infusion of millions from a railroad settlement, spawning a $600,000 facade program that gave the downtown a much-needed facelift. The vacancy rate in downtown was once 60 percent, and now stands at about 7 percent.

Griffith redevelopment program includes upgrades inside and out

The downtown now boasts additional amenities that were added on top of the traffic-calming measures that came as a result of the railroad settlement. Bike paths and benches were added to appeal to millennials. Old buildings that needed to came down, and parking lots were repaved.

An empty downtown school, another remnant of a failing downtown, was spruced up into a YMCA.

The Redevelopment Commission stepped up to take several hundred thousand dollars to seed a facade program to appeal to existing and future business owners. Griffith started reimbursing half the spruce up costs per storefront, up to $10,000 in 2010.

Businesses lined up and signed up. Council then added an interior improvement program, using money coming into the city coffers from tax-increment financing money. That type of program benefits communities who need to remove blight, which also helps keep properties on the affordable side as formerly blighted areas regain value.

And, local business owners say that the business climate and responsiveness of local officials is a welcome change from what it took to get things done in larger locales. In fact one business owner told Crain’s that he moved his small business from an Illinois address “over concerns about the political and economic climate.”

With a cool yet walkable downtown, young entrepreneurs have been making inroads into the local community. While those enterprises have not replaced jobs on a large scale, that’s just about the momentum that a town this size needs to maintain the new energy in downtown.

Email Kimberley Sirk

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