Northern Lights

Hamilton County’s small towns grow at their own pace

By Ann Craig-Cinnamon
Photos by John Cinnamon

Just mention Hamilton County and most people immediately think of the big four communities of Carmel, Fishers, Noblesville or Westfield.  All have seen phenomenal growth in the past decade and have even won some national awards along the way. 

The Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business projects that Hamilton County will go from 4th largest county in the state to 2nd largest behind only Marion County by 2050.  That’s a lot of growth. 

But there’s more to Hamilton County than those four communities.  There are smaller towns that have their own niche and are experiencing their own growth and growing pains.  In fact, a coalition of towns was formed as the Northern Hamilton County Chamber of Commerce, which, according to Member Services Director Catharine Heller, is making inroads.  “We’re all very small towns, but we merged together two years ago to try to increase and now we’re getting new members each month.  We are growing.” 

Atlanta

One of those small towns is Atlanta with a reported 748 residents.  The downtown is starting to draw visitors, thanks in large part to Steve Nelson and his wife, Liz Foley.  Nelson, a model train hobbyist, moved his extensive train collection to Atlanta from Carmel three years ago.  The couple bought and renovated a building at 165 E. Main Street to house his 6000 train layout.  “Mr. Muffin’s Trains” is the third largest public train display in the country and is open to the public on weekends free of charge.

Nelson says he gets a lot of visitors.  “”In the summertime, I’ll have a hundred or so people visit the layout every Saturday.  In the wintertime, it’s several hundred.  I have people here every day from out of state,” he says, adding “We’re helping to bring people to Atlanta.  I think we’ve created an environment where other retailers could come here.”

The Nelsons eventually bought two other buildings in downtown Atlanta.  One is used as warehouse space for their burgeoning model train retail business and the other is the Choo Choo Café.  They are committed to Atlanta and have a goal of making it a destination for families.

Unfortunately, the Nelson’s businesses are surrounded by quite a few vacant buildings, some that are more than 100 years old and are deteriorating with the owners not currently repairing or investing in them.      

Arcadia

A little south is Arcadia, which is home to 1,666 people at last report.  Much like Atlanta, there are lots of downtown buildings sitting vacant after businesses closed when they were unable to make a go of it. 

Bob Foster opened the Hedgehog Music Showcase in 2006. Despite offering acclaimed acts including numerous Grammy winners at his venue, he says growth is stagnant, which has been a disappointment to him.  “I do strongly believe that Arcadia’s day is coming but, sadly, the Hedgehog cannot continue to survive with the status quo until that happens,” he says, adding that The Hedgehog has been responsible for attracting more out of the area tourists than any other business. But, he says, there is not enough local support.    

Arcadia Clerk Treasurer Jennifer Pickett says there has been residential growth but not much business growth in recent years.  “I predict in 5 years Arcadia will have several businesses, either store fronts or restaurants. We’ve had several inquiries about our vacant buildings in town over the past couple months.”  She adds that in the last few years the town has brought new life to Arcadia by beginning such traditions as Christmas tree lighting ceremonies, free chili suppers, Christmas and Farmers’ Markets, and an event in May called “Market on Main” which offered live music, food trucks and Nickel Plate train rides.

Cicero

Down the road is the big sister town of Cicero with a population of 4862.  It, too, is seeing growth, mainly in the residential sector according to Town Council President Chris Lutz, who points to Morse Reservoir as being central to the image and character of Cicero.  He expects the residential growth to continue. “I do also expect to see additional restaurants and small retail to continue to grow and flourish.  Any given night in Cicero there seems to be an influx of individuals coming to enjoy the vibrant downtown.  Cicero could benefit by some light commercial development and this is an area that continues to be worked,” he says, adding that there is an active downtown organization called Our Town Cicero, which sponsors several seasonal events.   

Despite being concerned that growth will change the small town character of Cicero, Lutz thinks Northern Hamilton County has a strong future.  “The Northern Communities have not experienced the growth of the communities to the south but I foresee that changing.  The improvements to US 31 and planned improvements to IN 37 will allow for faster commute times.”  

Nickel Plate Express

Fast becoming a major draw to Northern Hamilton County is the Nickel Plate Express, which celebrated its one year anniversary in September.  The Express is a tourist excursion train that travels 12 miles of old Nickel Plate Road track.  The train operates as far north as downtown Atlanta, and as far south as Noblesville. It uses 1956 Santa Fe El Capitan Hi-level cars and boards the majority of its excursions from the historic train depot in Atlanta that turned 150 years old in September.     

Nickel Plate Express Director Dagny Zupin says in its first year the express transported 14,000 people, a number that she says has blown them away. They hope in the future to add boarding facilities in Arcadia and Cicero, as well as more dining options on board. 

Zupin has been involved in the project from the start.  “It's been incredible to watch the train grow from an abstract idea to one of the largest attractions in Hamilton County,” she says adding that Nickel Plate Express is just one of many local organizations working hard to make the northern part of Hamilton County a destination.

While it is a mixed picture of progress, there’s no doubt that all three towns, with the help of the Nickel Express, are starting to see growth.  Do they want to be the next big thing in Hamilton County?  Not necessarily, says the Chamber’s Heller.  “Our growth will never compare to Carmel, Fishers, Noblesville or even Westfield because our people like to keep a small town appearance.”