By: Erika Norton | Echo
When nationally known artist Diane Tesler went on a short painting trip to Indiana in the summer of 1986, she discovered not only a new business endeavor, but also her future home-Kewanna, population 602.
Tesler fell in love with both the Indiana landscape and with the town's abandoned buildings, many of which were on a path to destruction. She began to rescue and reclaim these buildings, putting them to artistic use.
Tesler, along with local elected officials, business leaders and community members from all over Indiana, gathered yesterday in Alspaugh West in the DC to share and listen to stories like Tesler's about how even in the smallest of towns, investment is happening. The Grant County Economic Growth Council (GCEGC) hosted "Small Town Success Stories" in hopes that these stories and discussions inspire and spark further revitalization efforts in Grant County's communities.
"Anything that I can do through the Growth Council to just give them some hope and excitement that they do offer something is really important to me," said Charity Bailey, director of administration at the GCEGC. "I'm proud that the Growth Council goes out of its way to listen to our leaders and the people who participate in what we do, then go and give back."
The council focuses on promoting economic development in the county's communities, according to event organizer Thayr Richey.
"This is to give Grant County's local leaders in these smaller communities an idea of some things that are being done out there," Richey said.
For the first part of the evening, guests enjoyed dinner, which led into into the panel discussion. Panelists like Tesler shared their stories and answered audience questions.
When choosing speakers, the Growth Council looked for stories of small towns that were being successful in whatever that meant to them, whether it was bringing in the arts or redeveloping their downtown, according to Bailey. Even small steps like creating bike trails qualify as a success and can encourage similar ventures in other communities.
Panelists also represented towns with varying populations, from about 600 people all the way to over 2,000, in hopes of showing guests that success can happen anywhere, regardless of the population.
"All you need are the right people onboard to get that idea off the ground," Bailey said.
Panelist Steve Reiff discussed his experience overseeing the economic development of Converse as the town's economic development director. Despite Converse's population of 1,200, the town's tax increment financing (TIF) funds accumulated $600,000.
The Growth Council also wanted to bring in fresh perspectives from not only Grant Country, but throughout Indiana. For example, Lindsay Dingman Baker, owner of Jefferson Street BBQ, started by renting a small retail space in downtown Converse in Miami County to sell her handmade soaps. Sensing opportunity, she bought the building and completely renovated it to create her successful restaurant.
"We tried to almost not use any Grant County representatives because we wanted to bring other voices in and show that this is statewide," Bailey said.
Other panelists included Dunkirk Mayor Dan Watson and a business owner in the town of Kirklin, Chip Mann.
Pamela Schlechty, founder and CEO of Creative CommUnity in Marion, Ind., came to the event to try and gain some insights to help her growing company.
"We're doing it without much money at all, so to hear some of the things that they did-buying buildings for $500-it's inspiring," Schlechty said.
When Tesler came to Kewanna, she didn't have a grand plan or scheme, but after buying a house to use as a summer studio, she purchased an additional 7,500 square foot historic building. She now uses that building, after years of renovations, to host workshops and an annual art fair, which attracted other artists to move to the community, along with some art students.
According to Tesler, she just follows her heart and wants to help Kewanna.
"I love my town," Tesler said. "It's an adopted town. I just feel really at home there and anything I can do to help get the word out, then that's what I'd like to do."