Members of the Stellar Ciommunities Committee walk through the pocket park on the north side of the square in downtown Princeton during their visit on April 11. Princeton was one of seven finalists for the two grants that are awarded. The city will receive upwards of $18 million in grant money. Daily Clarion/Michael Caterina
Members of the Stellar Ciommunities Committee walk through the pocket park on the north side of the square in downtown Princeton during their visit on April 11. Princeton was one of seven finalists for the two grants that are awarded. The city will receive upwards of $18 million in grant money. Daily Clarion/Michael Caterina

PRINCETON — The state has selected Princeton as a Stellar Community, which could mean $18.6 million or more in grants to help fund downtown improvement projects over the next three years.

Princeton Mayor Bob Hurst said he received a call Wednesday afternoon from Indiana Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman, who relayed the good news.

“This is great for the city, it’s great for the entire county,” the mayor said. “We were so close last year, but we hung in there and came back. The pressure of waiting is off now, and we can get to work on getting the projects started.”

Forty Hoosier communities sought the designation this year, with Delphi also emerging as a Stellar Communities winner among seven finalists that included Auburn, Crawfordsville, Petersburg, Richmond and Whitestown.

“I was told that it was so close between Princeton and Delphi that the Stellar Committee would not give a first and second place,” said Hurst.

Princeton sought $18.6 million to fund various improvements, but the specific grant amount awaits further discussion of the proposed projects.

“We will find out within a couple of weeks exactly how much grant funding we will be awarded,” Hurst said. “We will be sitting down with the consultants and prioritizing the projects listed in the Stellar Community proposal after the award ceremony.”

Skillman is scheduled to visit Princeton next week for the ceremony.

Princeton presented its project plans to the Stellar Committee on April 11, including:

• A “gateway enhancement” that would create attractive points of entry in each corner of the downtown area.

• A “streetscape project” featuring new lighting, landscaping and sidewalk repairs. The plan also would accommodate outdoor dining areas for restaurants.

• Restoration of facades on 29 of the 37 buildings downtown, and added parking for easier access to downtown merchants.

• Transformation of the defunct downtown theater into a performing-arts center.

Princeton businessman Kyle Johnson, who owns several downtown buildings, called the announcement a “game-changer for this community. We are excited, but also know that there is a lot of work ahead of us.”

Johnson said the estimated $2 million theater-renovation project “has the ability to impact the downtown area more than any other project in the proposal.”

Gibson County Theatre Co. President Fred Hadley called Wednesday’s announcement “a wonderful opportunity, not only for the theatre company, but also for the community. We are so grateful for the community support during the Stellar presentation. We asked for the community to come fill the theatre and show their support for the project, and I was overwhelmed with the turnout.”

Hadley said he’s already thinking about what debut show the theater company will produce in the renovated structure.

Plans also call for developing loft housing in the upstairs portions of several structures, and demolition of the former First General Baptist Church on the corner of Prince and Water streets, deemed unsafe following the 2008 earthquake, with senior-housing cottages built there.

Also, a “Bicentennial Plaza” would be built on a portion of the free parking area in front of the Princeton Municipal Building.

“There is a lot of un-utilized space in that parking area,” Jim Rice, lead project engineer with Hannum, Wagle and Cline, said during the grant process. “We would create a front yard for city hall with a fountain and landscape while also keeping parking for the downtown area.”

The city trails are included in the plan. Work on the bike and walking trails is set to begin this summer, which will take the trails from Brumfield Elementary to Lafayette Park.

Stellar funding could help provide more trails downtown and to the new high school campus.

There are several lower-priority “bubble projects” on the list. Depending on the final grant amount, those projects could include converting the old Siemen’s site into a recreation park, a new swimming pool, and restoring the Gil Hodges baseball facility.

The city must have a 20-percent commitment for the project funding. Princeton has committed $2 million; Toyota Motor Manufacturing of Indiana, $1 million; Johnson, $500,000; Gibson County Visitors and Tourism and Gibson County Chamber of Commerce, $50,000 each; Duke Energy, $25,000; and Vectren, $20,000.

Last year Princeton finished third in the inaugural Stellar Communities Program, competing against 41 Indiana cities. The program works as a partnership between three state agencies: the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, and the Indiana Department of Transportation.

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