Organization advocates for downtown’s oldest buildings
By Greg Seiter
Jennifer Hollingshead never considered herself a history buff. But in 2010, when she learned of a downtown Greenwood demolition plan, she became a champion of the city’s oldest buildings.
“I was attending a church diaconate meeting, and our pastor told us that the church and our property was going to be appraised,” Hollingshead says. “The mayor at that time was putting a plan together to purchase the whole block from Madison Avenue to Old Meridian Street. It was the first I’d heard of it.”
Hollingshead, who has lived in Greenwood for most of her life, was frustrated by city planners’ reported intent to demolish nearly one-third of the remaining buildings in downtown Greenwood. The building that most piqued her concern was one at the corner of Madison and Main streets, where Revery now sits. “We don’t have a lot of those old, historic buildings left,” she says. “That building was built pre-Civil War.”
Spurred on by that concern, in April 2010 Hollingshead launched a Facebook page called “Restore Old Town Greenwood.”
Soon after the Facebook page launch, and as a growing number of area residents and business owners also began to express their concern for the mayor’s plans, Hollingshead met with representatives from Indiana Main Street, a program managed since 2005 by the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs. The program, in existence since 1985, has helped communities revitalize the economy, appearance and image of their downtown commercial districts. Working with the program, Hollingshead and other local representatives brainstormed ideas for protecting historic downtown Greenwood sites.
Indiana Landmarks — America’s largest private statewide historic preservation organization — also gave the group a hand, and by 2011 the advocates had formed a board of concerned area residents. The group’s goal was to combat the intended demolition efforts; dubbed Restore Old Town Greenwood Inc., its focus is to advocate for historic preservation and the promotion of small business and community involvement within the city.
Although a change in local governmental leadership that same year eased the collective minds of those wanting to save Greenwood’s existing downtown area structures, the advocacy group stayed its course. “With the election of a new mayor, we knew the building we were mostly concerned about was going to be safe, so we decided to become recognized as (an Indiana) Main Street organization,” Hollingshead says.
ROTG became a state nonprofit in January 2012, an official Indiana Main Street community in October 2012 and a federal 501c3 nonprofit in the fall of 2015.
Hollingshead served as president during the volunteer-based organization’s first three years. Under the ROTG name, members created various committees to address areas including promotions, designs, economic vitality and fundraising.
“I wanted the group to keep going, but I knew I couldn’t always be president,” she says. As new projects began to emerge, Hollingshead briefly rotated off the ROTG board as her presidential term ended. That’s when current President Jill Griffith stepped in.
Before becoming the ROTG president, Griffith served as the promotions committee chairwoman. At that time, members formed a steering committee, seeking a grant from the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs to restore and renovate the facades of buildings in Old Town. Working in conjunction with the city of Greenwood, the group received a $400,000 grant in August 2015 specifically for that purpose. Construction for that initiative ran from May 2016 to early 2017.
“There are still some things lingering that need to happen, but this project has resulted in a big visual improvement,” Griffith says. “For us and the city, it’s a catalyst for things to come.”
For Griffith, as with Hollingshead, ROTG is a labor of love of old buildings.
“I grew up in the Old Town area and have lived on the south side my entire life,” Griffith says. “I knew the organization was looking for volunteers and board members, so I reached out and got involved. I’ve always had a soft spot for areas like this, and I wanted to do my part to make Greenwood’s downtown area thrive.”
ROTG also played a major role in the Old Town Greenwood neighborhood’s successful effort to be recognized as a National Residential Historic District. According to Hollingshead, now serving as the organization’s vice president, ROTG’s focus has expanded significantly in recent times.
“At first, we just wanted to stop buildings from being torn down,” Hollingshead says. “But now, we’re about historic preservation, supporting local business owners and encouraging people to get involved.” “We are not city run or affiliated with the city, but we try to work in partnership with city representatives in order to get things done,” she says. “Some people vent to us about city projects, but that’s not us. We’re just trying to help.”
ROTG provides Greenwood-area support by organizing periodic community cleanup days, assisting with small business meet-and-greet events and promoting local businesses through vendor discount cards that entitle buyers to savings at participating merchants.
“If you think about it, a lot of businesses in the downtown area are owned by our neighbors,” Griffith says. “We need to support them, shop there and use their services. It takes a community effort to make a successful community, and we all need to do our part.”
However, with its many successes, ROTG also faces challenges as it strives to maintain strong relationships with the city of Greenwood, residents and local business owners.
“Sometimes, it’s a little challenging to get on the same page as city leaders,” Hollingshead admits. “We have our vision, and they have theirs. We also struggle to get business owners involved. Because they’re small and have small staffs, they don’t have a lot of time to attend meetings or serve on committees.”
Despite periodic struggles, Griffith believes ROTG has the potential to pursue large-scale initiatives in the future. “I don’t know what those might be, and, honestly, a lot of that depends on the needs of the community,” she says. “We sort of let the community dictate what it needs, and we try to fill those needs by bringing in grants and funding.”
Griffith likes to foster an open dialogue; she feels that ROTG’s social media presence is helping with community-based communication efforts.
“I think Greenwood has the potential to be a great downtown. There are many things on the horizon, and now is the time to join us,” she says. “Everyone has an opinion as to what they think should happen, and the best way to be heard is to proactively get involved.”