Helmsburg development: What is area’s next chapter?

A little more than a century ago, residents of Helmsburg were discussing making a bid to replace Nashville as the county seat.

Now, Helmsburg residents and business owners are discussing how to keep the unincorporated village on the map.

Some of the concerns are as basic as appearance.

In meetings over the past two months, residents have talked about run-down buildings being among the first things visible when driving into town.

Others are worried about the future of the sewer system.

Helmsburg is one of only three communities in Brown County with sewer service. While that is a positive for future development, it also means development is essential for the system to remain viable.

Money is tight, said Harrietta Weddle, Helmsburg Sewer District president. Keeping up with bills is a perpetual concern for the all-volunteer board.

The biggest hit to the district was the loss of the For Bare Feet sock factory in 2011. Though that property is occupied now, the usage is lower than it used to be.

Helmsburg has one of the lowest base sewer rates in the county, around $45 per month — though residents may pay significantly more due to usage. If trends continue, the district may have to raise rates to stay in operation, Weddle said.

For Helmsburg residents such as Julia Russell, keeping up with sewer bills is already a struggle. She pays two of them, having bought the trailer next to her home to help keep drugs and other problems out of the neighborhood.

Every month, Weddle estimates that at least two to three residents have to be sent notices for unpaid bills. Some owners of vacant properties have stopped paying altogether, not even covering the base rate the community shares to keep the plant operating.

Bruce Gould, a member of the Brown County Redevelopment Commission, said Helmsburg could also benefit from some attention to zoning. Currently, the only record of how the town is zoned is hand-drawn lines on a map in the county’s Planning Commission office.

Zoning seems to mirror property lines in some places; other lines cut through properties, and it’s not clear if they are intentional or just a result of being hand-drawn.

Better-defined zoning is going to be important for future development, Gould said.

Helmsburg community meetings began in October after resident and proprietor of Our Brown County magazine, Cindy Steele, approached the RDC asking for assistance with redeveloping Helmsburg.

She had hoped that some of the money the RDC has from the sale of the former sock factory property might be used to help the community.

Brown County RDC President Dave Redding said that he is uncertain the commission will be able to use the sock factory money directly for that purpose. However, the RDC is willing to promote Helmsburg, both online and in direct conversations with potential businesses.

Whatever change happens, it should be guided by the residents of Helmsburg, Redding said.

Bright side

Helmsburg is home to several thriving businesses, most of them manufacturing-oriented.

It has an elementary school that was awarded the Four Star designation for academic performance in the 2013-14 school year.

Fire protection is provided by Jackson Township Volunteer Fire Department, with a station near the village center.

Helmsburg even has fiber optic internet running into its heart — a rarity in a county where some residents along major corridors have to use satellite or a cellphone hotspot to get online.

And though it has moved from where it was established in 1904, the Helmsburg Post Office still serves the community six days a week. Neighbors see each other there in passing and pass information through the bulletin board.

Leonard Richey, the owner of LSR Construction in Indianapolis, recently bought the last remaining retail business in Helmsburg — the general store — so it wouldn’t close for good.

“I really think you guys gotta play off this railroad track, because that’s been a big part of this town,” Richey said, gesturing toward the crossing visible out the front door of his store.

Right now, there isn’t much for anyone to stop in Helmsburg who doesn’t live or work there, Richey said.

Richey and others at the community meetings have discussed buying and developing properties around Helmsburg.

Residents have asked whether the county could help, even if only temporarily, by purchasing vacant properties.

Some of those properties are in danger of going into tax or sheriff sale, Steele said. If that happens, the properties would be tied up in legal proceedings for at least a year.

Redding said that the RDC does not currently have a way to buy and resell properties, though the commission has looked into how to do that.

The next Helmsburg community meeting is Wednesday, Jan. 11, and Redding expects that to be the last one to identify problems. From there, he hopes to see meetings grow into specific actions.

Even if residents started with something as simple as a trash pickup day, they would be taking action to improve their community, Redding said. The key is maintaining the momentum the meetings have started.

Develop a theme?

In the early 1900s, Helmsburg businessmen lobbied to move the courthouse to Helmsburg from Nashville in large part because Helmsburg had a railroad station and Nashville didn’t.

That bid never succeeded, and over the next century, a waning dependence on the railroad and a series of fires dealt blows to Helmsburg’s economy.

By the mid 2000s, Helmsburg was still a tourist destination, with a coffee shop and art gallery, a tea room, an antique shop and a general store. The Indiana Rail Road Company brought monthly groups of sightseers.

Helmsburg was also home to For Bare Feet, a nationally known sock brand that employed around 150 people at a factory on the edge of town. But fire struck Helmsburg again in 2011, forcing For Bare Feet to move for insurance reasons.

Now, the only train that stops in Helmsburg is the Santa Train at Christmas.

Steele has lived in Helmsburg for 23 years. She said she loves to hear the trains come through both night and day, and she likes the idea of looking at the historic connection with the railroad for inspiration — perhaps even a railroad-themed restaurant.

Almost 50 years ago, Ken and Tina Fleener rented railroad cars as overnight accommodations for tourists in Helmsburg, said nephew Norman Fleener. The family also operated a restaurant out of the former Helmsburg High School building, which was torn down around 2010.

In addition to the railroad cars and restaurant, the Fleeners operated other accommodations — including a log cabin that has since burned down — offered horse rides and carriage rides and ran a small airport that many guests used, Fleener said.

Glenn and Thomi Elmore used to run the Fig Tree Gallery and Coffee Shop, which sits empty and for sale nearly next door to the railroad tracks. The couple closed the Fig Tree in January 2012 for personal reasons, but there is no reason it couldn’t be profitable again, Thomi said.

The property adjoining the Fig Tree is also for sale, which was an antique store and before that, a broom factory.

“Really, Helmsburg is ideal for some kind of niche market, but you have to create a destination,” Elmore said. “If I was 30 years younger, yeah, I could do this. That’s not in my life now.”

Industrial base

In 2014, David Watters bought the For Bare Feet property, including 72,000 square feet of building space, from the county.

In addition to his businesses, The Beamery and Helmsburg Barrel, the property also hosts two others, Quarter Sawn Flooring and Stainless Manufacturing and Automation.

Watters is working with Malt Guild owner Robert Pate on setting up a whiskey-aging business there, too.

Watters took interest in Brown County while building an energy-efficient passive house in Nashville.

The former sock factory offered a lot more space than The Beamery’s building in Whitestown. Projects there often had to be moved to their parking lot for later stages; now, they can do everything inside.

When The Beamery Group bid on the property, Watters projected having 32 to 56 workers by the third year. The business began operations there about two years ago, and by September 2015, about 17 people were working there among the various businesses.

Since then, both Quarter Sawn and The Beamery have been hiring.

About 8,000 square feet of office space hasn’t been leased yet. Watters said with how busy he has been, he hasn’t had much time to try to fill it.

Watters has been attending the meetings between the Brown County Redevelopment Commission and local residents about bringing more life back to Helmsburg.

“I would like to see something happen,” he said. “Seeing people like that who are motivated to do something, I think that’s a positive thing.”

Down the hill from the Beamery, the Pool family runs the sawmill that Bill Pool bought in 1973. Visitors are likely to still see him sawing timber and be greeted by his daughter, Melanie Pool, in the front office.

The mill sells lumber for large projects under contract, but it’s also seen an uptick in sales to people who want to do small projects, such as something they saw on Pinterest.

The business will likely need to expand in the future, Melanie Pool said. They’d like to add a showroom, as well as a kiln so they could offer dried timber.

“We really need more space. We’re just popping at the seams,” she said.

Pool said she would like to see more service businesses move back to Helmsburg to compliment the industrial businesses.

She said a restaurant would attract visitors, but the community also needs to deal with buildings on the verge of collapse that could discourage people from stopping.

Pool is happy to know at least the general store is going to reopen, she said.

“I have lots of people stopping here and asking, ‘When is it (the general store) going to be open? I need to get fishing bait, I need to get this, I need to get that,’” she said. “If there were more things of interest, it would attract more people.”

Get involved

The Brown County Redevelopment Commission and Helmsburg community members will have their next meeting at Brown County Community Church in Helmsburg from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 11.

The meeting is expected to touch on zoning, updates on the potential for vacant properties, and future actions that can be taken.

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Ben Kibbey is a Brown County transplant from the cornfields of central Ohio. He covers county government, business, outdoors, sports and general news.