KOKOMO – From 2001 to the start of 2017, local officials, when making their biggest decisions, often referred to a document meant to guide their vision for Kokomo: the comprehensive plan.
That plan’s vision is readily apparent in decisions made by those same officials. Issues generated in 2001 included the need for recycling expansion, maintenance of vacant buildings and lots, regulation of signs and billboards and a focus on small business development.
Over the next 15 years, many of those concerns shaped public policy, including the lowering of signage – specifically on Indiana 931 – the curbside recycling program, the blight elimination program and the growth of downtown Kokomo.
Now, city and county representatives have a new comprehensive plan to utilize – a document, nearly 200 pages long, consisting of regional data, visions, goals and recommendations – created by community leaders, with input from the general public, and approved by the Kokomo Common Council earlier this year.
“It gives a template, a guide, and I hope the plan commission and the administration and the county, every time you should be grabbing that book and looking through it and saying, does this coincide, jive with what we are trying to do? Does it take us in the direction of this plan?” said Kokomo Common Council President Bob Hayes after the plan was approved by the council in March.
The plan’s components, while sometimes broad and general, lay the groundwork for the next decade-and-a-half of local decision-making by spotlighting specific areas and topics to be improved or created.
And within each area, including downtown and community services, is a variety of more specific objectives.
Here is some of what is included in the plan:
The goal listed in the plan’s downtown entry is to “create a genuine, urbanized, and unique identity for Downtown Kokomo that attracts visitors and residents with walkability, density, and diversity.”
To do that, officials are hoping to improve the city's philosophical “center of activity” through numerous objectives: to attract and expand retail, dining and entertainment options, to allow for the incorporation of an arts and culture district and to attract primary employers downtown, specifically companies whose employees desire an urban setting, like the technology sector.
Downtown Kokomo has seen significant growth since the 2001 comprehensive plan, through attractions like Kokomo Municipal Stadium and ongoing developments like a $32 million mixed-use development of the former Apperson Brothers factory into a luxury apartment community with planned retail space.
Additionally, an announcement is expected soon on a downtown convention center project, possibly next month.
Some in the community have even suggested utilizing the downtown portion of Wildcat Creek in terms of economic development, an idea that’s been promoted by best-selling author and city planner Jeff Speck in his visits to Kokomo.
Other objectives in the plan include removing barriers that disproportionately impact locally-owned-and-operated businesses, some of which are found downtown.
The ongoing focus on downtown isn’t likely to shift anytime soon, said Kokomo Deputy Mayor David Tharp, referring in part to the influx of housing to the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods.
“The best way that you build a market and an environment and maintain an environment for more retail, dining and entertainment options is to increase residential density, so that’s why it’s always been a bit of a chicken and an egg,” he said.
“You need people to live here for the restaurants. You need restaurants for people to live here. So we are hitting a point now in which you’re going to start to see a lot more residential developments come on line that will help push the scales back to where it will continue to expand retail, dining and entertainment options.”
Tharp also referenced the city’s focus on incorporating public art into “everyday life,” specifically more murals, sculptures, art galleries, artist events, creative activities and more.
“We will continue to make those things a priority, so you’ll see those along our trails, you’ll see those in public spaces,” he said.
And about bringing primary employers to Kokomo, specifically the downtown area, Tharp referenced the need to first build an attractive community and utilize the opportunities the city has as a “regional hub.”
“Having the amenities that attract populations, particularly populations that have the talents that new firms are looking for, is what brings new jobs here,” he said. “I think that the comprehensive plan hits that pretty well.
“You’ve got to make sure that you have the amenities and the assets and the walkable neighborhoods that attract the talent that businesses are trying to attract. In order to have a talented workforce, you’ve got to have a place a talented workforce wants to live.”
Public transit and transportation has been a focus of local officials since the 2001 comprehensive plan, and continues to be a point of emphasis.
In fact, listed in United Way surveys a decade-and-a-half ago as the No. 1 need for low-income residents, the goal of establishing a reliable, accessible public transit program served as a focal point for community stakeholders.
While the city then offered services though the Spirit of Kokomo and First City Rider programs, the two options weren’t enough for Kokomo’s full public transit needs, as previously noted by Tammy Corn, executive director of the Kokomo-Howard County Governmental Coordinating Council.
Then, in September 2010, the city introduced the CityLine trolley system, a free public transit program. The program has since been considered a major success for local officials, with hundreds of thousands of passenger boardings each year.
And its time to continue that growth, says Corn.
Objectives highlighted in the plan include transportation network expansion for pedestrians and cyclists and expanding the service area and hours of operation of the city’s trolley system.
Corn, however, said public transit expansion is unlikely to happen in the near future.
“There are always discussions, but it’s a funding issue,” said Corn, who, like Tharp, served on the comprehensive plan’s steering committee. “So right now, we don’t have the funding to expand into evenings or Saturdays, but that is definitely our wish. But it is definitely a wish list.”
“I mean, we would love to hit more area. We would love to expand the service. But funding ties our hands, for sure. And funding is going down some; it’s not going up,” she added later, noting that rider numbers, however, go up every year.
Related to public transportation, which differs in definition from public transit, Corn spoke about upcoming possibilities and the focus that is placed on “connectivity.”
Corn, who said she hears consistently from riders looking for safer ways to get to bus stops, specifically spoke about upcoming sidewalk projects, which will be built to connect existing sidewalks to the transit system.
“Even some of the road diet programs that the city is doing, with the bike paths down them, they connect the bus stop — so they could actually ride their bikes down the bike lanes, stop, connect onto the transit,” she said.
“We have bike racks, and instead of riding their bike all the way through, we’ve got connectability that way as well.”
That relationship, between transportation (bikes, pedestrians, etc.) and transit (trolley system), is something considered often, noted Corn.
“People kind of balk at the road diets a lot, but it’s slowing people down, it’s making it safer for people to move outside of vehicles,” she said.
Trails, as long noted by local officials, are also a major component of transportation in Kokomo and Howard County, and they continue to grow.
Currently, officials are working to extend the trail on Buckeye Street from Monroe Street to Elm Street, complete with tree planting and other beautification efforts. The section is expected to be completed this summer, bringing the trail through a space that includes Moore’s Pie Shop and Tom Thumb Tavern.
At the north end of the new stretch, Elm Street, officials hope to eventually extend the trail north to the Northside Little League ball fields.
Eventually, the entire stretch from Monroe Street to the ball fields will include restricting vehicular access to some segments of Buckeye Street, installing islands and landscaping, new crosswalks and lighting.
Another notable trail-related project taking place in Kokomo is the Nickel Plate pedestrian bridge over Indiana 931.
The project, a nearly 200-foot-long bridge, includes approaches and bridge structure over Indiana 931 to carry the Nickel Plate Trail. It will include a decorative, prefabricated bridge structure, lighting and landscaping.
It should be completed by the end of the year, local officials have said.
Once the city completes such bridge and trail projects, residents will have the ability to ride from the Hampton Inn & Suites, 2920 S. Reed Road, all the way to Rochester on a protected trail, a distance of more than 40 miles.
Comprehensive plan data
A vital component of the comprehensive plan is its in-depth data snapshots, which provide figures on economy, education, demography and more.
The plan notes that in 2014, with the latest available data, manufacturing was the largest industry sector in Kokomo, providing 5,124 jobs. However, manufacturing was also the industry that lost the most jobs, 25 percent, between 2000 and 2014.
Other sectors in the top five industries gained jobs, displaying a snapshot of the economic diversification often cited by local officials.
However, the loss of those manufacturing jobs – a mix of moderate-earning production occupations and high-paying computer, engineering and science positions – can be seen in the city’s income and poverty rates.
As noted in the plan, the "total population in poverty” jumped from 13 percent to more than 21 percent between 2000 and 2014. Minors saw an even bigger increase, from 18.5 percent in 2000 to 32.5 percent in 2014.
Those numbers, however, were higher in 2010, meaning there have been slight to moderate improvements in recent years.
“The 2010 (U.S. Census Burea data) show the effect of Great Recession as poverty rates increased, however it seems the effect is gradually waning as poverty rates for both minors and total population have decreased since then,” reads the comprehensive plan.
But it will take work for Kokomo to recapture the income levels seen when manufacturing, now going through an automation revolution, was at its peak.
While major job gains have been experienced in food preparation and serving-related occupations, along with bumps in other employment groups, those jobs provide lower income levels than the manufacturing positions leaving the city.
“The loss of high paying jobs contributes in part to the significant decline in median household income” in Kokomo, according to the plan. One of the plan’s recommendations is for the city to introduce skill development programs to bring people back into the workforce.
Tharp, however, said people shouldn’t consume the comprehensive plan information, compiled in part by consultant American Structurepoint Inc., “in a vacuum as though this is some kind of Howard County phenomenon.”
“The data-sets that they looked at were taken during the largest economic crisis since the Great Depression, across a city and a region of the country that is manufacturing heavy,” he noted, highlighting the impact he believes the data collection timeline had on the figures.
“When you look at what happened through the Great Recession and coming out of that, that data, those years, take up a disproportionate amount of the data you look at,” added Tharp. “If you shift the data-set that you’re looking at, you get a completely different thing.”
Looking to the future, Tharp pointed to the growing industries of health services and education, which he said tend to include good wages and benefits. With two hospitals, Indiana University Kokomo, Ivy Tech Community College and more, officials hope Kokomo will see that growth.
“Diversification of the economy into those fields will bring with it the benefits and pay scales of those fields,” said Tharp.
But mostly, he said, the goal is to grow Kokomo by attracting potential residents to the local community, specifically people who work high-wage jobs in Kokomo but live elsewhere.
“Every community is facing (automation) and diversification of labor and the economy. Everyone is facing those issues, so how we as a community are handling that is by creating the best place that we can for people to want to live and work," Tharp said.
“By growing our population and having a place where people want to live, you create more jobs, particularly in those fields that have better wage structure and benefit packages, like health services and education.”
Tharp noted that many companies look at educational attainment levels before considering a city, something that could benefit Kokomo in coming years as it sees an upward trend in the area.
Almost across the board, Kokomo’s education levels rose from 2000 to 2014. In 2000, 21 percent of the population had no high school education. In 2014, that number was at 13 percent. And now over one-quarter of the population has at least some college education, up from roughly one-fifth.
“Having this trend move substantially in the right direction is very important for diversification, for new opportunities and really new amenities for people,” said Tharp, noting that the focus is on both educating people already in the city and moving highly-educated people to Kokomo.
Another broad topic addressed in the comprehensive plan is “community services,” dealing with everything from land uses that provide public programs for at-risk youth and the elderly to early childhood education and daycare opportunities.
Objectives in the category also include encouraging participation in community volunteerism, and assessing and improving city-managed support programs and policies that address social issues, like poverty.
Notably, one thing that’s already become a major point of focus for local officials is early childhood education in Howard County.
In February, the United Way of Howard County revealed at its fundraising campaign wrap-up event that it will tackle one main goal: to get 75 percent of Howard County students ready for kindergarten in the next five years.
Currently, the United Way estimates that only 45 percent of children entering kindergarten are “ready to learn,” meaning they’re prepared for learning in a classroom setting. In partnership with local schools and area colleges, officials are working to reach that goal.
Tammy Tickfer, principal at Lafayette Park Elementary School, said in a previous interview that she and her teachers see a noticeable difference when children have been to some form of early childhood education, and especially one focused on preparing students for school.
“I just see that it’s so developmentally appropriate what they’re doing in preschool with the little ones,” Tickfer said. “That play is the way they learn, and there’s some structure to their day, but it’s an appropriate amount of structure and that’s how they learn best. That just gets them ready for kindergarten. They learn how we do school.”
Last month, news broke that Howard County will be one of 20 counties eligible to participate in On My Way Pre-K, a pilot program that provides pre-kindergarten to eligible 4-year-olds from low-income families.
On My Way Pre-K began in 2015, when the Indiana General Assembly opened the program to five Indiana counties. Governor Eric J. Holcomb announced in June that 15 additional counties, including Howard County, will now be eligible for the program.
It’s the goal, then, to make sure those same youngsters will be around to help contribute to the city’s next comprehensive plan.
Caele Pemberton contributed to the reporting of this story.