Fort Harrison becomes the “new downtown” – Inside Indiana Business

A former Army base in northeast Marion County continues to be transformed into a place to live, work and play. Fort Benjamin Harrison closed as a military facility in 1996, but in the last five years alone more than $200 million has been invested in housing, retail and a burgeoning cultural campus. “We are beginning to see that this will be the new downtown area for the City of Lawrence,” said Mayor Steve Collier.

Collier spoke about the development of Fort Harrison in an interview with Gerry Dick on Inside Indiana Business.

“A lot of the things that are coming, a lot of the investments in the city, certainly offer an opportunity for people to come here and settle down,” Collier said. “During the pandemic, we’ve made efforts … to ensure we participate in our growing locally owned restaurants. All of these things happened, and it started to attract even bigger and bigger investments.”

Fort Benjamin Harrison dates back to 1903 when funds were approved to purchase the land for a US Army base. Three years later, it was officially named after Indiana’s own 23rd President of the United States.

It was a busy place in both WWI and WWII. In 1943, Fort Harrison was the largest recruiting center in the United States. But the 1991 Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended that Fort Benjamin Harrison be closed, and despite efforts by state and local officials to keep it open, the base was officially closed and 1,100 civilians lost their jobs.

But investment over the past five years has helped revitalize the former army base. Almost 300 single and multi-family houses were built with 250 luxury apartments along the way.

Projects also included a new Hilton True Hotel, a $2 million town square, and a new YMCA. A new Marion County Public Library is slated to open in June.

One of the newest additions to Fort Harrison is Heartland Film’s new headquarters, which Collier says was off the city’s radar but was very welcome. The organization is based at the Sterrett Center, formerly known as the Fort Harrison Service Club.

“It was kind of a surprise when it came out here,” he said. “We had previously spent some money renovating the Sterrett Center and when they came out and made the decision to move here, it was a big deal for us. It harmonises very well with the theater and the culture campus. It certainly creates an environment for culture and art.”

Last fall, Indianapolis-based developer Keystone Group announced plans for a $70 million, 248-unit apartment complex in Fort Harrison, which Collier says represents the largest investment in the city’s history.

He said Fort Harrison’s redevelopment is serving as a model for the rest of the country.

“We’re being stopped, ‘This is how a government facility should be repurposed,'” he said. “We were slow going like so many of them, but once we got this synergy going we saw a lot of people with economic development on their minds coming to Lawrence and wanting to talk. For me, it was a great situation, a great experience, attracting people with big money who wanted to put it into the city of Lawrence.”

Looking ahead, Collier said there’s another lot the city wants to fill, which could be accommodated by some sort of medical facility.

“I think as the city continues to grow and mature… we’re going to start to see really some transformational work, in terms of setting up this cultural center here, in terms of Civic Square, all the events that we’re going to be hosting. Hopefully we will bring people here from all over Marion County and all over central Indiana.”

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