Lawrenceburg, Ind., is investing in local businesses and events to bring new life to its downtown
By David Lyman
“Two-and-a-half years ago, downtown was a ghost town,” says Lawrenceburg mayor Kelly Mollaun.
Now, you’ve got to take his words with a grain of salt. Two-and-a-half years ago—November 2015—just happens to be when Mollaun was elected mayor. And while “ghost town” is probably a bit of an overstatement, downtown Lawrenceburg was hardly an example of bustling small-town America.
Revenues from the Hollywood Casino, which had plumped up the city’s tax base since its opening in 1996, were dwindling. The city’s other economic mainstays were holding steady, particularly Anchor Glass Container and MGP of Indiana, the distillery that gave the city its “Whiskey City” nickname. And Perfect North Slopes has experienced steady growth, fueled by the easy access afforded by I-275, which runs through the middle of Lawrenceburg.
But none of that seemed to have an impact on Lawrenceburg’s historic downtown area. Less than half a mile separated the constant activity at the casino and the center of downtown Lawrenceburg. But they were worlds apart.
“For small-town America to survive, it’s all about sustainability for the mom-and-pop businesses,” says Mollaun. “When the big box stores came in, they hurt small American towns.”
That includes Lawrenceburg. There’s a Walmart Supercenter 10 miles down U.S. Route 50 on the way to Aurora. Even closer is the juncture of I-275 and U.S. 50 just 2 miles north of downtown. Predictably, all those sorts of main street stores that used to populate downtown Lawrenceburg—everything from Walgreens and Waffle House to the Subway Restaurant—are now located within a stone’s throw of I-275.
Lawrenceburg didn’t roll over and die, mind you. In 2014, the Lawrenceburg Event Center opened, with an array of facilities, from a 7,500-square-foot ballroom and 2,000 square feet of meeting rooms to an 18,000-square-foot exhibition hall that hosts the likes of LeAnn Rimes and, on June 9, “Moonwalker, the Reflection of Michael,” an A-list Michael Jackson tribute show.
Probably more important, though, has been the two-pronged approach pursued by Mollaun and his administration.
On the development front, they have initiated a series of grant programs, each focusing on a different aspect of refreshing the downtown. One, for example, is the Lawrenceburg Redevelopment Commission Investment Program, which awards funding for things like signage and façade improvement for both residential and commercial improvements. They’re not huge amounts of money. But offering a small business up to $5,000 to paint and repair the exterior of a storefront can have a profound impact.
It’s precisely the sort of thing that enticed Scott and Susan McLain to relocate their small businesses to downtown Lawrenceburg from Columbus, Ohio.
“A week before I saw the building we ended up purchasing, I told my wife we were definitely not going to move to Indiana,” recalls Scott McLain. “We had a wonderful home in Grandview Heights and we were going to find a place in Columbus.”
That was in March 2017. When he visited Lawrenceburg, he was charmed by what he saw.
“It was such a special place,” says McLain. “I experienced something very different from what I expected. We needed to think hard about our decision.”
He loved the look of the early 20th century architecture. And he was impressed by the progressive conversations he heard in City Council and committee meetings. But just as important was the activity he saw on the streets.
He was convinced. The couple bought a building that had housed a clothing store at 134 Walnut St. and opened Hamerlynck, a store that sells everything from vintage car toys and home theaters to handcrafted jewelry.
“Our friends in Grandview Heights thought we were crazy,” says McLain. “But we couldn’t be happier.”
According to the mayor’s office, a dozen new small businesses have opened since the beginning of 2016. And they project several more by the end of the year.
There have also been a variety of outdoor entertainment programs launched. Many are music related. Others center on the riverfront. But they all have the same purpose—to get people meandering through the streets of downtown Lawrenceburg. It’s not a new concept. But it is an effective one. Once people are there, not only will they see the new commercial activity firsthand, but they will add to the overall sense of vibrancy.
Some of the events are huge, like the June 15-16 Whiskey City Regatta. It’s a weekend of hydroplane racing, accompanied by concerts and the Glamper Show. “Glamping,” incidentally, is a combination of glamor and camping. Shows like this tend to involve vintage campers glitzed up in the most adorable fashions.
There’s the June 21 Whiskey City Twilight Challenge, too, which is expected to bring scores of professional bike racers to the city—downtown, of course.
And then there is the music. There’s the Party in the Street series, which closes down streets to accommodate the partying. You must be 21 for these events. Three are scheduled:
– June 1 – Whiskey City Ramblers
– July 6 – Cherry on Top
– Aug. 3 – DV8
The locations will be announced at a later date.
Even bigger is Music on the River, which takes place on the streets adjacent to the Lawrenceburg Event Center. There are cruise-in car shows every week. And lots of music:
– June 7 – The Belairs
– June 14 – New Country Legends
– June 21 – Brutally Handsome
– June 28 – The Renegades
– July 5 – Beginnings
– July 12 – Cook and Belle
– July 19 – Jackwagon
– July 26 – Keith Swinney
– Aug. 2 – Just Push Play
– Aug. 9 – Parrots of the Caribbean
– Aug. 16 – Danny Frazier
– Aug. 23 – Dreamboat Annie
– Aug. 30 – The Devonshires
And if you can’t find enough to keep you busy in downtown, you need only drive 5-10 minutes to discover dozens of other events and activities in Greater Lawrenceburg, including:
– Perfect North – muddy, messy competitive events called Mud-Stash. perfectnorth.com
– Tri-State Antique Market, 351 E. Eads Parkway. June 3, July 1, Aug. 5, Sept. 2, Oct. 7. lawrenceburgantiqueshow.com
– Oxbow wetlands; nature walks through one of the region’s most important wetland areas. oxbowinc.org
– Lawrenceburg Speedway; sprint cars, stock cars, motorcycles on a 3/8-mile clay track. lawrenceburgspeedway.com.