A drive to revitalize Drover Town

A drive to revitalize Drover Town: conducting a community assessment is the first step in the process to renew the historic Huntington neighborhood


Source: Rick Farrant, Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly, 3/29/13 

The road to renewal starts here — for an aging, historic riverbank neighborhood and in time, perhaps, for other venerable parts of Huntington.

It begins in Drover Town, a roughly 75-acre, oddly shaped neighborhood filled with a mix of generally well-kept 19th- and early 20th-century architecturally significant homes, a scattering of homes and buildings that have seen better days, a few businesses and sections of sometimes undulating sidewalks paved with vintage glazed bricks.

The area, south of the downtown immediately across a bridge spanning the Little River, has roughly 250 structures in all and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Many of Drover Town’s homes and buildings, representing nearly two dozen different types of architecture, are also recognized individually as historic structures.

The late businessman and political leader Henry Drover, a one-time Fort Wayne councilman, Huntington mayor, township trustee and state legislative representative, platted this place in 1857, extended its footprint through land purchases and named the streets after family members.

The German immigrant was also a supporter of religious institutions and, coincidentally, it is the young pastor of a historic Drover Town church who has accepted a leading role in galvanizing a community around a renewal effort that is bringing people together in a grassroots melting pot of public and private interests.

“The hope,” said Pastor Richard Strick of St. Peter’s First Community Church, “is that we’ll see folks walking through the neighborhood (more often), that we’ll see some new businesses, that we’ll see a mixing of the generations and that we’ll see people connecting with each other.”

Huntington Mayor Brooks Fetters characterized the effort as helping Drover Town become “the best version of itself it can be” and using the Drover Town model for improvement in other areas of the city.

A flush of money is supporting the Drover Town campaign. Pathfinder Services Inc., a Huntington-based nonprofit human- and community-development organization, is administering a recent $662,000, two-year Communities for a Lifetime grant from the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority. Huntington is one of only three communities in Indiana to receive such a grant this year. The other two: Valparaiso and Linton.

The IHCDA money is being used to conduct a community livability assessment that focuses on a number of things, including neighborhood safety, services and the ability of older people to age in place. Eventually, Pathfinder Services President John Niederman said, the money will go to making improvements to older owner-occupied homes and surrounding sidewalks.

Pathfinder is also involved with a $50,000 Pfizer Foundation grant through the Indiana Grantmakers Alliance that Niederman said will help pay for community engagement efforts in Drover Town and an architectural design for age-friendly streets and sidewalks.

Smaller grants have been received from NeighborWorks America and the Huntington County Community Foundation, and Fetters said the city will commit resources to street improvements, tree removal and a trail system that by early 2014 will have a section running along the Little River at Drover Town’s north edge.

Fetters and Niederman were among about 20 volunteers who gathered on a recent chilly, sun-splashed Saturday morning at Strick’s church — itself a historic structure — to be briefed on how to carry out the community assessment process.

The assessment will actually be broader than Drover Town to achieve what organizers hope leads to the statistically important collection of at least 250 completed surveys. So instead of just going door to door in Drover Town, the volunteer survey-takers will be going to slightly more than 600 households over the next month or two.

Fetters and Niederman were invited into the living rooms of three homeowners on Henry Street on their first survey trek and spent about 25 minutes at each residence collecting information.

The results were remarkably similar: Residents thought Drover Town was safe, the city services were good and the homeowners were willing to help out to improve the community.

The latter likely encouraged Niederman. His organization, which contracted with Strick to oversee community organizing efforts, is championing the formation of neighborhood block clubs.

But there were a few downsides to the assessments Fetters and Niederman collected. Residents generally felt Drover Town had declined in the last few years and they were particularly concerned that neighborhood services like banks and groceries and pharmacies had moved north closer to U.S. 24 or moved away altogether.

Sharry Miller, 72 and her husband, John, have lived in their home on Henry Street since 1961.

She said she was satisfied living in Drover Town, but she worried about the lack of some retail services, the transient nature of some homeowners or renters, and the inability of some people to pay for needed home repairs.

“People got to find better jobs,” she said. “Get more money, I guess. I’m hoping it will pick up, but I don’t know.”

Joyce Buzzard, 81, and her husband, Paul, have lived in their yellow, historic Queen Anne for 52 years. The home with the wide wrap-around porch was built, they said, in 1890 by Milo Feightner, a lawyer and one-time mayor of Huntington.

They, too, worry about the condition of some properties and the departure of some businesses.

“You can’t find good ladies shoes in town anymore,” she lamented.

But she and other residents were appreciative of the assessment efforts and expressed varying degrees of hope that Drover Town can rise again.

“I think (the assessment) is really worthwhile,” Joyce Buzzard said, “because there’s a lot of history here and as improvements are made, people will want to live and invest here again.”

That’s pretty much the view of Strick, Fetters and Niederman.

“We think there’s enough resource base here and enough opportunity to be successful,” Niederman said, “to enable this particular area to be a good pilot for what we’d love to see the rest of Huntington embrace in the future.”

Fetters, an avid bicycle rider, likened what he hopes will happen in Drover Town to something he called “trail magic.”

“You go out on a six-day ride from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.,“ he said. “And you have no idea who you’re going to meet. But all of a sudden you start meeting people from all over the place. And you might find that you’re 20 miles out on a ride on a Tuesday morning and you’ve got a flat tire. All of a sudden, here comes a doctor from Vermont headed through Pennsylvania and he happens to have an extra tube.

“I believe there will be neighborhood magic when you see people working together and contributing their resources and their talents to making Huntington — and in this case Drover Town — the best version of itself it can be.”