Indianapolis was recently ranked the 19th most unexpected city in the United States for international flavor – and that was in large part due to a little neighborhood known as the International Marketplace. But that wasn’t always the case – just ask Mary Clark, founder and executive director of the International Marketplace Coalition (IMC), who has lived in the neighborhood since the 1970s.
IFF: You’ve lived and worked in this neighborhood for a long time. Can you tell us a little about its past, present, and future?
Mary Clark: In its heyday, back in the 1960s, it was known as the Lafayette Square Area and it was the site of the first regional mall in the state of Indiana. People came from as far away as Cincinnati to shop there. By the late 1990s, when a lot of those big box stores were already 30 years old, a lot of the corporate owners decided it was cheaper to close the stores than to remodel them.
Being the branch manager at the local National City at that time, I got to see first-hand the businesses that were coming and going. One of the things I noticed was that a lot of the new businesses that were replacing some of those older department stores were international businesses from first- or second-generation Americans. I started wondering – Why are some businesses leaving? Why are some businesses coming?
Around 2004, I started knocking on doors of business owners to ask them – Do you have any thoughts on how we can prevent this from becoming a blighted area? Are you willing to come to a meeting? Well, we had 75 businesses show up. At that time, I didn’t think it was enough – I guess I wanted everybody – but people kept telling me they couldn’t believe we had that many people. When the city saw our first meeting, they said: What are you going to do next? That’s when they recommended that we formalize our organization, and we became the Lafayette Square Area Association.
That’s also when we found out about CREeD – community revitalization enhancement districts – which had just started in 2004. The point of CREeD was to help areas like ours bring in new development. One of the ways it works is the state will send $750,000 back to the area if they meet certain thresholds in sales tax. The city hadn’t really put together a plan for how to get those funds or how to use them. They kinda looked to us to help them figure that out.
One of our first successes was in 2007, when we collected 1,750 letters from the community asking Walmart to come to our area. We got that Walmart. Without it, we never would have met the state threshold to get the $750,000 per year to re-invest in our community. We got the first funds in 2008.
Since then, it’s really been an evolutionary process. Our goal has been to help developers and small business owners understand our vision of where we’re trying to go and what has happening here – to help grow our local businesses and not gentrify the area, to make sure any project will enhance and complement the neighborhood, rather than just go back to big box stores.
Today, we have 150 different languages spoken in the area and well over 800 different ethnic businesses, all within 2 square miles on the west side of Indianapolis. That’s why we re-branded from Lafayette Square Area to the International Marketplace. We’ve become regionally and nationally known for international flavor. I tell people this: If you get out of your car and go into these businesses, you can leave the United States and travel the world.
IFF: Tell us about the new “global village” that you just launched last month?
MC: Think children’s museum, Disney, Epcot, and convention center all rolled in together, with an international flavor. We will have pavilions representing different continents, just like a museum, with interaction. We’ll also have a demonstration kitchen, dance studio, theater space, and outdoor activity area. We want this to be a place that showcases who Indiana is becoming – the new Americans.
It’s quickly becoming the place to be – we just opened last week, and we haven’t even made a formal announcement yet, and we’re already booked every weekend through most of this year and some of next year. That’s been really reaffirming to our decision to move here. This is a 22,000-square-foot space, and we moved here from a 5,000-square-foot space. Six years ago, we were operating out of a 900-square-foot house.
IFF: What current projects are you most excited about?
MC: Right off the bat, we have three projects that we’re working on with IFF.
First, we have groundbreaking April 6 for a 26,000-square-foot new mixed-use space with 60-65 units of housing. That’s going to help local businesses because it will bring more residents who can walk to their locations.
Second, we also have a groundbreaking on April 20 for a 16,000-square-foot commercial space that will complement 130 units of mixed-income independent living senior housing.
And finally the Indiana Guide Right Foundation is expanding to serve more kids and families in the area.
Then there’s a new YMCA under construction that’s just adjacent to our area; it will be the first of its kind to partner with the Veterans Administration to provide support services to veterans in addition to all the elder offerings that a YMCA would typically offer.
We have an international culinary school that’s opening in the area.
We have a rugby team that’s bringing national and regional tournaments to the area – we were surprised to find out that this rugby association, which has teams from elementary school through college, has a high school team here that has won several national tournaments.
So there’s a lot of growth in the area in 2018 – more than $170 million worth to be exact!
IFF: What are you doing to help all those businesses in your area?
MC: Most of our businesses re-invest back into their own operations. For example, one of my favorite places is India Palace. This year they invested over $1.4 million in their banquet hall and restaurant. Everything in there came from India, and it’s simply beautiful. We have many businesses like that, but unfortunately you can’t tell just from driving down the street. That’s why we’re working feverishly around here to help brand the area so that people know they’re in a place that’s special and unique.
Another thing we’re doing is helping business owners who are interested in moving from leasing to buying their properties. They are investing a lot in the properties, and they aren’t planning on leaving any time soon, but sometimes they need help understanding how to negotiate and navigate the process – especially since many of them aren’t originally from America.
Another cool thing that’s happening recently is that we’re becoming co-developers on some projects where people have reached out to us. For example – I love this story – there is a property in our area that has been blighted and abandoned for some time. The owners are from Lebanon, and they live in California, and their only tie to Indiana is this property. They reached out to us and said that they had done their research and seen that IMC is trying to do something special in the area, and they asked us our thoughts before they decided who to sell or lease the property to. I think it’s pretty neat that people who don’t even live here thought enough to reach out to us. They liked what we proposed to them, and now we’re co-developers on the project.
IFF: You’ve been active in the community for a long time, and you must know everyone. What is it like to go out and about in the community? Do people constantly stop you with questions?
MC: My colleague Terri calls me the ambassador of the International Marketplace! Sometimes when I go out to eat or go shopping, the people are so appreciative that they try to tell me not to pay, and I’m so embarrassed. I keep telling them – this is your business, you can’t give it away for free!