by John Stevens, Intern, SJU ‘18
Note to our readers: This column is part of a new series from a blog recently started by a loosely knit independent group of area business people and residents who love and want to promote the energy and enthusiasm of downtown St. Joseph. They’ve named themselves Joe Town Vibe, and their purpose is to promote the positive creativity, vitality and vibe of events, businesses and people here. We’ll be running their weekly Friday blog post here. The author today is SJU intern, John Stevens, who will be providing a weekly column through April. His work is paid for by donations of many in the group and a grant from the Eugene McCarthy Center. Joe Town Vibe welcomes other positive community members. (www.joetownvibe.com)
There are times in most communities when local government leadership begins planning a project they learn is not popular with the community. St. Joseph is no different. In the early 2000s the St. Joseph City Council initiated a plan for a different route for traffic and future traffic growth, and that plan included installing a road through the woods on St. Benedict Monastery’s property. A group of concerned individuals came together with several Benedictine Sisters and formed the St. Joseph Action Group. The group’s main purpose and motivation was to prevent the road on land the Sisters considered not only important to wildlife, but sacred.
More than 15 years later, the group is a self-described watchdog which looks for opportunities to improve St. Joseph and its downtown area. Between the early 2000s and now, the St. Joseph Action Group has been taking on projects to improve the community. All their projects have held a common goal in mind, to make downtown St. Joseph an attractive and thriving community destination, and their projects have strengthened the community. Before downtown St. Joseph was elevated to its current glory, there were many eyesores across the area, especially during the recession that started in 2008.
There were several retail storefronts in the downtown area which were vacant. The empty stores were depressing and visually dragged down the rest of the downtown area. The St. Joseph Action Group had a quick and easy solution to give the buildings a face lift. They had kids at local Boys and Girls Clubs and other programs draw and create pictures to hang in the windows of the vacant units. The project was a huge success, and even thriving businesses requested the locally produced children’s artwork for their windows. It became competitive as the various clubs and programs competed to create the best images, and some of the groups even brought in help from local artisans.
The kids’ project was not only for fun, but it also led to the sale of the vacant building. When a prospective buyer expressed concern about one of the units in the building seemingly lacking sidewalk frontage and commercial use, the St. Joseph Action Group didn’t hesitate to step in and help. In a short time, the group and its growing number of volunteers opened Closet 2 Closet, a thrift store with retail windows to the sidewalk. The store was a product of an extremely successful two-week garage sale the group ran in the previously awkwardly arranged storefront. Closet 2 Closet quickly became a destination for locals and visitors to come search for clothes, kitchenwares, games and more all while enjoying conversation with the volunteers. Closet 2 Closet was more than a store, it was a gathering place.
All the workers were volunteers and all the profits were used to fund other projects the St. Joseph Action Group was planning. The store stayed open for four years and was sorely missed when it closed. Closet 2 Closet only closed because the St. Joseph Action Group had committed they would move out when the owner of the building found a new tenant – as the main goal of the group’s venture was to prevent the space from being vacant. Like the window art pictures projects, Closet 2 Closet led to the space being occupied all while strengthening the St. Joseph community.
The profits of Closet 2 Closet allowed the action group to fund and host public forums with candidates for local elections. In addition, the profits allowed for new projects – like the annual Christmas-tree lighting. which has become a cherished event in St. Joseph for the past eight years. The event has grown, adding new elements every year. The lighting now includes a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus, a community dinner, crafts and an honorary illuminator. The lighting has become quite the spectacle and brings the community together every winter.
The St. Joseph Action Group initiated bringing hanging flower baskets to the downtown area of St. Joseph every summer. The group has partnered with Thomsen Garden Center, which creates the flower baskets, and the city, which maintains and waters the flowers. The action group has since phased themselves out of the project, which is now run by outstanding citizens. The project, which started with 25 flower baskets, had around 75 baskets last summer and will likely grow again this summer. The baskets are cherished by locals and are noted by visitors from across the country every summer.
All the projects the St. Joseph Action Group has undertaken throughout the years have benefitted the community immensely. Improving the aesthetics of the community was a major benefit of all the projects, yet the enhanced community was perhaps just as important. While making downtown St. Joseph an attractive, thriving destination for the community and visitors, these projects have also improved the relationships of those living in St. Joseph, bringing the community together.
What’s next for the St. Joseph Action Group? The group plans on continuing to spread the word about what is happening in St. Joseph. The group is here to stay and is constantly adding new volunteers eager to improve the community in which they live. The St. Joseph Action Group meets quarterly to discuss the community and the status of past, present and future projects. The group that started as a few individuals concerned about a potential new road, now seems to have a hand in nearly every community improvement project. The individuals who are a part of the group show a tremendous drive and dedication to improving their community. It’s individuals like these that improve communities and fill the voids which governments cannot fill.
Special thanks to Margy Hughes who provided the history of the St. Joseph Action Group in a Jan. 18 interview.