Meet the people who have transformed downtown Wabash

Photo by Kaleigh Middelkoop

When it comes to investing in a community, many often think of the impact that large organizations and corporations can have in transforming a community. While true in many instances, this is not the case for Wabash.

About an hour southwest of Fort Wayne, the people of Wabash County have forged their own way of doing things based on a legacy and a vision of what their community should be. Here it’s not large, faceless investors implementing their vision for the town, instead it’s the residents and neighbors who call Wabash home who are investing and making the changes they want to see.

If you ask them, they’ll explain it’s just what they do– investing in the community they reside in is part of their history. Visionaries like Mark. C Honeywell and Richard E. Ford, both made investments that are still impacting the community today, says Christine Flohr, executive director of Visit Wabash County.

Mark C. Honeywell created the Honeywell Center, which would later develop the Honeywell Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing arts, education, and entertainment to all. Similarly, Richard E. Ford helped with the construction and renovation of a historic building, which would later become the Wabash County Museum. Ford also took on what is now known as the Charley Creek Inn, a boutique hotel in the heart of Downtown Wabash.

“Those visionaries instilled the culture of reinvestment back into your community and then what that has led to is that just being the way of life here in Wabash County and then you see other people who have chosen to do that as well,” Flohr says.

The vision for Wabash’s future starts at the top–with leadership who envisions a bright future for the community and as Flohr explains it, that’s exactly what Mayor Scott Long does.

“He’s not just looking at tomorrow,” Flohr explains. “He’s looking at 10 years from now. It is about how he can set this city up to be the best that it can be long after he’s completed his term of service.”

Accompanying Mayor Long and his vision for the future of Wabash is a community is similar visionaries, who recognize that the legacy of investing in their community is an important one.

Wabash residents like Kyle and Aubry Williams, Lisa Gilman, and Michael and Angie Beauchamp, who have all bought and renovated buildings in downtown Wabash, are carrying on that legacy and contributing to a vibrant future. Flohr says they’re a key part of the reason Wabash has found a way to be both “historic Wabash” and a modern community with the amenities that people love.

For Kyle and Aubry Williams, returning to Wabash was not part of their plan, but after Kyle left active duty in the Air Force, they say they’re happy to be back. In addition to managing multiple properties, Kyle runs a handyman business and Aubry runs a doula service.

“It’s nice being able to see people that you know all over town and you still get that small-town feel, people help each other out and especially since we’ve been downtown with our building, we’ve really experienced that with downtown Wabash,” Kyle says.

Modoc’s Market

They renovated the building that used to be Stinson’s Trading Post in Wabash, which is just down the street from Modoc’s Market on Miami Street. The bottom features retail space and there’s an apartment on the second floor. Their renovations fit in perfectly with Flohr’s depiction of the town’s ability to maintain its historic charm, while also finding a more modern look.

“Our goal was basically just to kind of strip back as much as we could,” Kyle explains. “We peeled plaster off and exposed brick. We refinished all the hardwood floors and the biggest thing that people like is we exposed the tin ceilings, so you just get that nostalgia when you walk in. Then, in other places in the building, like our foyer and stuff, we went with a more modern look, so we’re kind of trying to meet that modern slash nostalgic look.”

Kyle and Aubry also own rental properties in Wabash. They bought their first one in 2016, just after moving back.

“We started buying some rental properties here and shortly thereafter, we turned one of them into an Airbnb,” Kyle says. “I think there was only one other Airbnb in town at the time and so we decided to try that. That has developed into a total of three Airbnbs so far and now a midterm rental as well.”

He says that when he moved back, he noticed many of the rentals available were not in great shape, so as they do renovations themselves, Kyle and Aubry aim for quality, guided by the idea that if they wouldn’t live there themselves, they shouldn’t expect others to live there.

“Our goal was to go in and fix them up and give people a quality place to live,” he says.

Most of their rentals are short-term and visitors keep them booked.

“Our Airbnb’s stay 70 to 80 percent booked a lot of times and in the summer months it’s closer to 100 percent, so there’s definitely a still a need for Airbnb,” he says.

But they’ve also received a lot of requests for medium-term rentals and they’re working to accommodate that. Kyle says he’s seen a lot of demand for rentals and affordable housing in the area.

Once an empty lot, 78 W. Canal is now intricate pavers and a single-family structure at the rear which consists of a two-story building with a large upper walk-out balcony, downstairs sunroom, private courtyard, and a garage.

“There’s a Facebook group for long-term rentals here and I just see people all the time posting needs, you know, ‘I need a two bedroom or three bedroom,’” he says. “There’s a huge need for affordable housing and there’s a lot of pet owners that are just kind of out of luck because there’s a lot of landlords around here that say no pets and so that’s something that we’ve always allowed as pets. There’s really a type there’s a need for all the types of housing.”

The Williams say they are inspired by others in their community who are investing time and money to create the community they want to see.

“We have a lot of people in this community, especially that are involved with downtown, but they want to see it flourish and they go to great lengths to renovate these buildings and, you know, offering commercial spaces and housing and things for people,” Kyle says. “It’s definitely been an inspiration.”

One of those inspirations is Lisa Gilman, who moved to Wabash in 2012 and enjoys the small-town atmosphere and variety of businesses. Before moving to Wabash she worked for cities like South Bend and Indianapolis, in economic and neighborhood development. Then, she started a consulting company that helps nonprofits achieve their development goals. That work helped her realize she had development goals of her own, so in 2013 she purchased two historic Wabash buildings to renovate.

80 and 78 W. Canal Street, before and after

Later she purchased three buildings on Canal Street, one of which was more of an empty lot as the previous building had caught fire and been torn down. Each building Lisa has invested in has required extensive historic renovations, including work like new footers under the buildings, new facades, and roofs among many other changes. While the work was extensive, she was adamant that any work you do, you have to do it right.

“I chose the buildings that had the most chance of a bleak future, probably going toward the demolition ball,” she says. “We can’t have a downtown with missing teeth because once you start having missing teeth, they just start dropping left and right. We can’t have that and still have a viable downtown.”

For the first two buildings, Lisa was able to secure historic tax credits, but she didn’t attempt to secure them for the next three as she says, they wanted to get in and start renovations so the building could be utilized both as retail spaces and residential spaces.

41 and 47 W. Market, before and after

“All the downtown buildings are, like in most towns, they’re typically two and three-story buildings,” she explains. “In most towns, the upper floors of those buildings are generally unused or minimally used. I don’t believe in that. I believe that these buildings can be a wonderful opportunity for people to fully utilize them and not only people can use them, but then they can also contribute back to the community.”

On the upper floors of her buildings, Lisa opted to put in luxury apartments, which range from one to two-bedroom units, and feature fireplaces, granite countertops, hardwood floors, and an on-site laundry facility. She says she was nervous to do so, as locals were skeptical of the price and the label of “luxury apartments” in the downtown area. Even Flohr admits she was skeptical of Lisa’s idea in the beginning.

“I thought she was crazy, too,” Flohr explains. “I was like, ‘No one’s gonna rent these,’ and they’re always rented. She’s just a visionary on what can happen. If you build it, they’ll come, but you have to do it well and do it right with the right partnerships.”

Lisa says her units are still 100 percent occupied, showing the desire people have to live in downtown Wabash and the need for diverse housing types.

“I’m just thrilled to be able to put these very high-quality units in our community,” she says. “You’ve got all these people living downtown that, if these units weren’t here, they wouldn’t be living downtown. These individuals, a lot of them are working downtown or they’re working in the community. They’re patronizing all these different places downtown frequently that they may not have done had they not been living downtown.”

In addition to those five buildings, Lisa also purchased a historical manufacturing building a block South of downtown, which is now Wabash Woollen Works and Fiber Arts Center.

“It’s a historic industrial building with a rough limestone exterior,” she says. “It’s just beautiful. It’s just one of the few remaining industrial limestone structures left and I was very happy to be able to reuse the building.”

The Center has also become a community asset. Not only does Lisa create and sell luxury yarn there, but the space is rented out for events like family reunions, baby showers, or seminars. She’s also hosted educational events for Boy Scouts earning their textiles badge.

“This is what a community is,” she says. “This is what a healthy community looks like, so that’s why I do these things.”

Modoc’s Market at 205 S. Miami St. in Downtown Wabash. Photo by Ray Steup

Another important community asset in Wabash is Modoc’s Market, which Flohr describes as the “front porch of life for Wabash.” Modoc’s is owned by Michael and Angie Beauchamp, who both grew up in Wabash and knew they wanted to raise their children there too.

“I don’t think we realized what it was really going to be like,” Angie says. “We were in our 20s starting our careers and even though we grew up here, went away to school, and then moved back, I don’t think we really had any idea how fulfilling it would be to be part of a small town and raise a family here. Later, to be part of a vision was amazing. I don’t think at the time we had grown up enough and lived enough life to realize what these dreams might really have to offer.”

Now, Michael and Angie are heavily involved, reinvesting in their community by serving on boards for local organizations like the Honeywell Foundation, The Access Youth Center, and more. Michael also founded the Wabash River Defenders and helped organize Indiana’s largest river cleanup, where tons of debris and tires are pulled from the Wabash River each year.

But Michael says they had no big plans for investing in the community, but they became silent partners in the purchase of a piece of downtown real estate. That partner ended up not sticking around, so Michael and Angie found themselves the owners of a building and no plans for its future.

Modoc’s Market, before and after

“Speaking of opportunity and vision for downtown…we didn’t want this building to decline and fall apart,” Angie explains. “We just thought, ‘What can we do?’ We didn’t have an ideal plan in place. We just decided to figure it out and give it a try.”

The building became Modoc’s Market, a coffee house and store selling a variety of goods. In addition to a market, the Beauchamps also rent out residential units on the upper floors of the building.

Angie had the idea to name the market after a famous Wabash event that is so farcical it’s almost unbelievable. That is the story of Modoc, an elephant who escaped the circus in 1942, then crashed into the drug store and ate all the roasted peanuts before rampaging the downtown area and making her way to the Wabash River. Modoc made national headlines for her Wabash adventure.

Modoc the elephant, who once broke free from the circus and explored Wabash.

While Flohr describes the coffee house as the front porch of Wabash, Michael and Angie say they might describe it as the living room, but whether it’s the front porch or the living room, the impact is all the same. Modoc’s is a community-centered gathering place for residents and visitors alike, hosting events and welcoming people to the small town of Wabash.

Much like other residents investing in their vision for the future of Wabash, the Beauchamps draw inspiration from the people who were here before them and from those who are here now. Angie says they feel a sense of responsibility to make their community a better place for everyone.

“What we had behind us was legacy, decades of it, and I think that’s something that really shows in the many philanthropic measures of so many through the years,” Angie says. “It would be easy to say, ‘I don’t know where this project is going or what to do,’ but I would always encourage people to take the next step with a project and not get lost in the what ifs but to continue to look toward a bigger vision, look down the road and don’t hold that dream so tightly to yourself. Let other people contribute and dream with you. I feel like that’s how we get a lot of things done in Wabash– keeping an open attitude about change and making things better by dreaming together.”

Wabash is the focus of our Partner City series underwritten by Visit Wabash County. This series will capture the story of talent, creativity, investment, innovation, and emerging assets shaping the future of Wabash County, about an hour Southwest of Fort Wayne.