There’s No Unguarded Hour in Jasper, Indiana, the Beating Heart of Strong Towns

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An art deco classic soaring four stories over a young frontier town, the Fourth Avenue Theatre was built in the 1940s by Austin “Cap” Lathrop, a developer who also built the Lathrop Theatre in Fairbanks. His Anchorage creation featured a gorgeous gilded ceiling with the Big Dipper constellation laid out in lights, along with chandeliers, plush red carpet, beautiful murals, and solid wood-paneled walls. An amazing neon sign in a vertical façade identified the focal point for cinematic and musical presentations in Anchorage for decades. All the way into the 1980s, it was a first-run movie theater, convention space, and a treasured performance venue.

Generations of Anchorage residents attended events there, but it’s been boarded up and closed for at least 20 years now. Despite a number of efforts to save this theater, which holds a place on the National Register of Historic Places, just the other day I learned the real estate holding company which purchased it from a local investor is going to tear it down

People in Anchorage are watching each step with horror, like the other day when electricians decommissioned all the power in the building. It’s like a fatal freeway crash you don’t want to see, but cannot look away from as you pass. 

The Fourth Avenue Theatre—where I once had teenage movie dates and produced rock shows—was the symbol of vitality, wealth, and community dreams in the most productive part of the city, its core downtown. It seems like it is about to start fading into a memory, a dream in search of a place to die. 

Jasper, across the continent in Indiana, made very different decisions

The beautifully refurbished art deco Astra Theater in the center of Jasper, Indiana, holds the heart of the community. Instead of letting it go and focusing new development on the fringes of the community, the folks in this small, central-Indiana community doubled down on their productive downtown. Later this year, Strong Towns Founder and President Charles Marohn, will visit the theater to honor the community as the winner of our 2022 Strongest Town Contest.

Like Cap Lathrop’s Anchorage creation, the Astra’s neon marquee hosted generations of movie-goers before decline and competition from mega-plex cinemas caused the Astra’s owner to shutter the theater in 2002 and list it for sale. But a non-profit group began campaigning in 2014 to give the Astra new life. 

It was one of many decisions made by community leaders who in 2020 formed the Heart of Jasper, a collaborative effort of several local entities including the City of Jasper, Jasper Chamber of Commerce, Dubois County Tourism, and the Greater Downtown Merchants Association. 

Their mission was to create an epicenter of activity for the community by “leveraging existing assets, transforming those in need, and instilling new energy through creative programs and collaborative leadership…to be the best small-town experience to all,” the group said in its Strongest Town Contest entries. “We are committed to moving downtown Jasper forward to advance positive changes in preserving historic buildings, supporting local businesses, and enhancing the atmosphere to make the downtown a destination for our citizens and visitors,” organizers wrote.

The town’s 10-year comprehensive plan, called Impact Jasper, intends to continually build upon, adjust, and strengthen the town, balancing priorities with budget decisions to “assure fiscal responsibility.” It is a fluid guide that includes a broad view of Jasper, including economic development, neighborhoods, transportation, community facilities, utilities, parks and recreation, environmental assets, quality of life, and more. 

“Our prosperous city has the potential to be better than we are now, and we are excited to be in control of our future,” said Mayor Dean Vonderheide. It was a community-driven plan that included 34 separate ways the town collected input from public workshops, resulting in 690 unique comments, 706 survey participants, outreach events, focus groups, interviews, youth engagement through school assignments, and social media engagement.

This summer many of the streets in the town center of Jasper are getting water utility upgrades. Its focus on the historic core areas of the community, the most productive part of the town, is helping it move forward in the future. 

It’s a lesson that can be shared with many other places, but many fail to learn from it.

In Anchorage, the city allowed a powerful state Department of Transportation to route the only southbound highway into the city right through the center of its once robust downtown. Where my parents used to get dressed up for a Saturday night out on the town, there is now a constant barrage of 30-plus mph through-traffic on a one-way, four-lane, major arterial.  Many of the legacy retail storefronts in downtown closed while people drive 20 or 40 or even 60 minutes to suburban homes on the outskirts of town.

New development in the Alaska oil boom of the 1970s pushed Anchorage outward, away from the productive downtown center. The city’s 300,000 residents are now spread out over 1,706 square miles (larger than the entire state of Rhode Island), making it the fourth largest city by area in the United States. The population is declining while its immense infrastructure ages. 

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