Rockport Prioritizes Preservation in Downtown Revitalization

A diverse group of town leaders are leveraging Rockport’s heritage in efforts to preserve the city’s downtown business district.

Rockport IN downtown

Taking Care of Business

Tucked into a bend along the Ohio River, Rockport developed as a port of trade beginning in the early 1800s, growing further in the 1870s with the arrival of the Cincinnati, Rockport & Southwestern railroad. By the late nineteenth century, the Spencer County seat’s downtown hummed with commerce fueled by the region’s mills, mines, and furniture factories.

Today, a diverse group of town leaders are leveraging Rockport’s heritage in efforts to preserve the city’s downtown business district.

Rockport River City Brew WorksEstablished in 2015 to save, preserve, and highlight the community’s rich history, the Rockport Historic Preservation Commission demonstrated the economic power of preservation early on when it rehabbed a derelict 1870s building on Main Street just steps from the 1921 county courthouse. The makeover attracted new tenants who adapted the commercial anchor as a brew pub, River City Brew Works.

“That project really energized our efforts,” says Preservation Commission President Donna Ayer. “We are excited to make preservation a priority in revitalizing Rockport.”

Building on its momentum, in 2019 the preservation commission took steps to expand the National Register-listed Rockport Historic District to include nineteenth- and early twentieth-century houses at the edge of the commercial core. Rockport’s historic houses represent several vernacular house types, including I-Houses and center-passage houses, popular building forms in the South that point to Rockport’s early development by settlers from Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Carolinas.

Today, the Rockport Historic District includes almost 200 civic, residential, and commercial buildings, including several downtown anchors with cast-iron storefronts by Evansville’s George L. Mesker & Company. Along with honoring the town’s history and architecture, the designation qualifies properties within the district for rehabilitation incentives.

As early as 1935, Rockport capitalized on its history to attract tourists, using Works Progress Administration workers to construct Lincoln Pioneer Village to share the story of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood years in the region. At the same time, WPA labor built an adjacent shelter house of in City Park. As part of its preservation initiative, the City of Rockport recently announced plans to rehabilitate the neglected shelter house and return it to service.

Along with the preservation commission, Rockport’s Indiana Main Street organization, the Association for A Better Rockport (ABR), sees celebrating the town’s heritage and landmarks as a means for improving local quality of life. Among other plans, ABR intends to establish a wellness trail that uses the city’s historic landmarks as trail points. The group was recently selected to be part of the state Office of Community and Rural Affairs’ Downtown Affiliate Network, a designation that gives it access to resources supporting additional economic development efforts.

The focus on downtown revitalization is already starting to show results. John Obermeier, owner of local hardware store Obermeier Hardware, recently purchased a long-neglected 1940s gas station with plans to repurpose it as a WiFi Coffee Lounge run by a local startup coffee company.

Rockport IN coffe lounge

“We are grateful that business owners like John are willing to step up, support, and promote the City’s growth,” says Connie Hargis, ABR treasurer and Rockport City Council president.

To learn more about preservation incentives in Rockport, contact Hargis at 812-649-2242.

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