DUNKIRK — Now what?

That’s the question Dunkirk leaders are asking themselves after a bid to earn the Stellar Communities  designation came up short.

“I was crushed,” Dunkirk Mayor Dan Watson said in an interview last week. “I don’t like the whole process.”

Indiana Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann announced the winners of the Stellar Communities competition Aug. 17 at the Indiana State Fair. Crawfordsville and North Liberty won the honors, while Dunkirk was second in the under 6,000 population category and both Marion and Decatur left the fair disappointed in the larger category.

“I would never put my group through that again,” said Watson.

Watson and Jay County Community Developer Ami Huffman went into that day feeling that the city had a strong proposal.

It was a proposal that included:

•Transforming the historic Stewart Brothers building into a new home for both the Dunkirk Public Library and the Glass Museum.

•The development of Crown Crossing, a senior housing project that would allow Dunkirk residents to remain in their hometown, would revitalize the downtown and would preserve the historic façade of several building fronts along North Main Street.

•New pathways connecting Westlawn Elementary School and the West Jay Community Center to downtown.

•New decorative street lighting downtown.

•A new pathway connecting the Quincy Place housing development to West Jay Middle School.

•Completion of the restoration of the historic Dunkirk rail depot. The building has been restored on the exterior, but the interior needs work.

•Creating a Wi-Fi zone with access to the Internet throughout the downtown.

•A mural on the side of the Weaver Building where a mini-park has already been established.

•A tourism-oriented “Message in a Bottle” project that would play on Dunkirk’s long connection with the glass industry.

As Huffman and Watson look at that list, their question is, “What’s not to like?”

That question still has not been answered.

“We still haven’t had our exit interview with the Stellar committee,” said Watson.

Even that might not shed enough light.

“We’ve had exit interviews before, and I don’t know that we’ve gotten a ton of information from that,” said Huffman.

“We wanted to get a record of the (committee) scoring sheets,” said Watson. But those are not available or do not exist.

Still, said Huffman, initial feedback indicates that one shortcoming of the proposal was that a TIF (tax increment financing) district had not been established for the downtown area where the senior housing construction was being planned.

Both Watson and Huffman find that puzzling.

“I don’t buy that as a reason,” said Watson.

Establishing a TIF district would allow the additional property taxes from new construction to be used as part of the city’s match for downtown improvements.
But the legal costs involved in establishing a TIF district are significant — $20,000 to $30,000 — and it made little sense to create the district before the senior housing project had been given the green light.

“It makes no sense to do that without a project lined up,” said Watson.

One of the strengths of Dunkirk’s Stellar proposal, said Huffman, is that so much infrastructure is already in place. The city’s sewers have been separated, its water and wastewater plants have been upgraded and when Indiana Department of Transportation did a major project on Indiana 167 (Main Street) a few years ago the city put in place the wiring for new street lights.

“To me, that’s what made us stellar,” said Huffman. “We’ve already taken care of the underneath.”

It’s just the improvements on top that are needed.

So now, while still looking for answers, Dunkirk leaders are moving forward as best they can.

The Dunkirk Investment Group (DIG) is still actively involved.

“They’re not gonna slow down,” said Watson.

The first step, said Huffman, is to move forward with the senior housing proposal, which would receive significant support from tax credits if approved.

“We’re going to turn in the application,” said Huffman.

Dunkirk lost out by just three points last year; ironically it was to a city that had received the Stellar designation.

Then the other projects await. Both Huffman and Watson believe each piece has merit.

“We just have to bite them off a piece at a time,” said Huffman.