Cultural Trail-blazing 

Almost a year after the first portion of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail was officially opened, construction on the pedestrian and bike paths has begun on the Northeast Corridor. This segment, set to be finished in 2011, will run along Massachusetts Avenue and connect to the Monon Trail at 10th Street. Although original timelines set construction to begin last November, work crews didn't get started until two weeks ago.

On April 14, the Northeast Corridor Kick Off brought Indy leaders and near Eastside neighbors together to celebrate and share updates to the project. Speakers reminded the crowd of the trail's future economic and environmental benefits. Mayor Ballard made a special Earth Week appearance to discuss how the trail fits in with other green city initiatives, and Elizabeth Garber, owner of Best Chocolate in Town, spoke about how the trail will help Massachusetts Avenue businesses such as hers.

Mindy Taylor Ross, director of public art for the Arts Council, revealed three new Northeast Corridor projects by artists with connections to Indianapolis.

Jamie Pawlus will install a piece that looks like a crosswalk signal but will feature the words "Care" and "Don't Care" in place of "Walk / Don't Walk." The signal is programmed to change automatically, but any passerby can interact with the piece by pressing a button that will manually change the term displayed. Pawlus' work has already been seen on Massachusetts Avenue. She created the "Truth / Lies" suggestion boxes as part of the Rotating Sculpture program in 2006. Pawlus, a Herron graduate and a visiting assistant professor at IUPUI, has "a smart guerilla style that uses vernacular to have sneaky street art happening," Ross said.

Another Indy public art alum working on the trail is Sean Derry. He was a finalist in the first Great Ideas competition with "Charting Pogue's Run" in 2005. His unconventional project will create a new atmosphere in the alleyway where the trail runs behind Scholar's Inn. Derry plans to create a multisensory experience in the alley, including a "scent vault" that will release different scents and plays with the idea of the historic coal vaults present in the neighborhood. Payne said the area will have a "very European feel" when Derry's project is complete.

The M12 art collective is designing another piece that plays off of the area's history. "Prairie Modules 4 & 5" will combine tall prairie grass with the "modules" - large cubes with LED lights powered by their own green roofs and solar power. The modules will straddle the trail along North Street so that bikers and pedestrians can go through them and experience a different landscape. The project, led by a Broad Ripple High School graduate, is designed to juxtapose the past and present, and rural and urban elements of Indiana's history.

The trail's executive team hopes that these projects will show that, even in tough economic times, they are committed to keeping the Cultural Trail true to its mission: incorporating public art to make it different from other pedestrian paths. "We would rather take longer and still build a world-class iconic amenity," Payne said.

Currently, the project is $13 million short of its goal. Although many non-profit organizations have suffered from shortages in the current economy, the Cultural Trail could possibly benefit from federal stimulus money in the future. According to Lori Miser, executive director of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization, projects which have already received government funding, such as the Cultural Trail, are not eligible for further funds from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. However, a future stage of the project could be eligible. States have a limited time to make use of their ARRA dollars and if they don't, the money can be redistributed to other states. Miser said that Indiana would be ready to take any extra money, and could use it for projects like an additional phase of the Cultural Trail.

According to Payne, "The Indianapolis Cultural Trail should be the poster child for stimulus projects. It is shovel ready and we've got the plans ready to go. Also, it's about getting people to live in a sustainable, healthier way, which Obama's trying to do." Payne said that his research for the trail has shown that 40 percent of all car trips are two miles or less. He believes that the Cultural Trail will be an important environmental and health resource in that regard, enabling downtown residents and workers to walk or bike for short trips. Payne said that Cultural Trail organizers are doing their best to market these advantages to the government officials making stimulus decisions. "We're making our case - and it's a great case to make. Now we just need to wait for the process to catch up to us."

Payne and his team believe that the Cultural Trail itself will provide economic stimulus to the city and the neighborhoods it runs through. "My favorite thing about the trail is that it will challenge the way the rest of the world thinks about Indianapolis. With an iconic project like this, we will prove that we're a unique, innovative, progressive city and that we can do downtown transportation better than any other city in the world." Payne asserts that this identity is crucial for attracting and retaining top talent in Indianapolis. The trail should also serve as a tourist attraction for downtown.

All of those benefits will come years later with the finished product, but the economic impact on the neighborhood level is already becoming visible as companies are choosing to relocate along the trail. "We're talking to developers all the time about the trail. They're calling us," Payne said. Some businesses that have moved along the trail include Fogo de Chao Brazilian Steakhouse, the Indy 500 Festival and Mansur Real Estate, which described their relocation as "moving to the Cultural Trail." A residential development project near Massachusetts Avenue has even been named Trail Side, drawing attention to its proximity to the Cultural Trail.

Although the economy has slowed philanthropic giving, the trail is experiencing some unforeseen benefits from the country's financial situation. For example, Payne explained, "The price of materials and construction came down, so we hope to get more bids now while the prices are down." The possibility of stimulus money would also be an unexpected, but very helpful, support.

Despite challenges with the economy and a delayed construction schedule, Payne is optimistic about the Cultural Trail's position at this moment in history.

"The way things are shaping up in the world, the Cultural Trail is going to over-deliver. With the return of $4-per-gallon gas, an intense focus on sustainability, an intense focus on living a healthy lifestyle and an idea of how Indy can be uniquely better than other cities, we're going to deliver more than we thought. I'm certain of that. It's luck, but the world is going in the same direction as the Cultural Trail."

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