Wabash, Indiana Boasts Small Town Flavor With Locally Owned Diners and Shops

May 10, 2016

A small Hoosier city is competing in a national competition against a city in Oregon for half of a million dollars. 

The money for the winning city will assist small businesses with marketing and revitalize its downtown.

In this week’s NorthEATS Indiana, WBOI’s Lisa Ryan visited Wabash, Indiana and reports on some local diners and shops she discovered.

Whitney Millspough works at the Wabash County Visitors' Center, which displays many signs urging people to vote for the city.
Credit Lisa Ryan, WBOI News

Walking around downtown Wabash, there are signs telling people to vote. Not for president, or any other political office, but for a national competition that could bring $500,000 to the city’s downtown, which boasts many local shops, but also has a lot of open storefronts as well.

“We’d love to have more restaurants down here. We had a restaurant in that building right there, but it had closed,” says Shelby McLaughlin, who works for  Marketplace, a downtown development organization in Wabash. “We’re just kind of waiting for someone to come invest and start a restaurant. We need it.”

Marketplace is the organization that nominated the city for the award.

“We were so surprised that we even got a call because there was I think 10,000 submissions from all over the United States,” she said.

The award will be given out by a private marketing company called Deluxe. It started the competition to bring attention to small businesses, which it says employs about half of the workforce in the United States. The two finalists are Wabash, Indiana and Silverton, Oregon.

"It's not just a win for Wabash, it's a win for the state."

If Wabash wins, $250,000 would go toward small business owners to help them with marketing, like redesigning logos or websites. The other quarter of a million dollars would go toward revitalizing downtown.

“So it could be signage, it could be new trees, it could be flower pots, just to really aesthetically improve our downtown,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin cares about Wabash not just as project manager for Marketplace, but also as a resident. She moved to Wabash with her husband about a year ago. She was raised in Noblesville, a city that’s about five times the population of Wabash.

This sign leads to a pedestrian walkway connecting Market Street with Canal Street in downtown Wabash.
Credit Lisa Ryan, WBOI News

She says it’s been a totally different change of pace, but she’s happy they decided to move to Wabash.

“My entire perspective has changed on small town living,” McLaughlin said. “It’s so nice to walk around here and people know my name and who my family is and there’s nothing like a small town. And that’s so cliche, but I could walk around Noblesville and not know anybody around me because the population is so huge.”

Wabash has a lot of small businesses and locally owned restaurants, including Twenty, a 1920s themed restaurant located in the renovated Charley Creek Inn.

The menu uses some local ingredients for its dishes, which include pizza, pasta and steaks. The lobster mac and cheese is a popular item.

Owner Bob Budd describes the theme of Market Street Grill as American fine dining without white tablecloths.
Credit Lisa Ryan, WBOI News

Around the corner from Twenty is a restaurant called Market Street Grill, which serves steaks and pork tenderloin. Bob Budd bought the restaurant three years ago. He says if Wabash wins the competition, it will be a great opportunity for the city.

“I think anything that helps bring visibility and potential for revenue to a town like Wabash is awesome,” Budd said.

Budd says the city has seen some hard times. Factories like GDX Automotive closed their Wabash locations, leaving hundreds of people out of jobs. Now, factory workers typically commute to Fort Wayne or Kokomo, both about 50 minutes to an hour away.

“It’s a challenged area in terms of geography, in terms of companies that were so reliant on the auto industry for so many years,” he said. “Wabash was one of them.”

But Budd says Wabash is adapting with the times.

“It’s pretty neat what Wabash has been able to do,” he said.

They have other restaurants too, like Eugenia’s in their theater, the Honeywell Center. McLaughlin says the city is lucky to have the Honeywell Center, which brings big performers, like Blue Man Group, which just performed in Wabash. The events bring tourists from Fort Wayne, Indianapolis and Chicago.

Elephants line the street in front of Modoc's, which also has a mural of the elephant eating Bradley Bros. peanuts.
Credit Lisa Ryan, WBOI News

Some of the shops incorporate local history, like Modoc’s, a coffee shop named after an elephant who escaped the circus in 1942. It ran into the market, which was then Bradley Brothers Pharmacy, and scared customers and employees. Modoc wandered the town for days before she was caught.

The merging of history with modern, locally owned restaurants and boutiques are what make Wabash a finalist for the national competition. McLaughlin hopes Hoosiers will vote for her city.

“It’s not just a win for Wabash, it’s a win for the state,” McLaughlin said.

She says the competition has helped small business owners put aside their differences and work together.

“We’re all fighting for the same cause and that is to get attention to Wabash,” she said.

McLaughlin says many local merchants have developed new friendships and a renewed sense of pride for their city.

Voting ends at 10:00 p.m. Tuesday. You can vote and find out more information about the two cities at smallbusinessrevolution.org.