Our Most Livable Small Towns: Franklin
With a revitalized courthouse square, the Johnson County seat has emerged from Greenwood’s suburban shadow.
This article is part of Indianapolis Monthly’s July 2016 Small Towns package. For more on these cozy small towns, click here.
Chances are, you last visited Franklin to catch a movie at The Historic Artcraft Theatre and grab a bite at The Willard next door, if you could even score a seat. Roadtripping for a flick became a tradition for city-dwellers enchanted by the theater’s vintage setting and quirky pre-show, which includes live skits and standing for the national anthem. In the last couple of years, though, downtown has boomed. Indy’s Gray Goat Sports opened a location there, next to a coffee shop and a bistro. The Marshmallow Monkey’s elevated taste in furniture, lighting, and gifts comes as a surprise—you don’t see chic copper bar stools in many small-town boutiques. Those spots keep company with a candlemaker, pizzeria and taproom, two toy stores, a clothing shop, and more businesses in well-preserved, century-old buildings. A couple of blocks away, a recreation trail noodles by a members-only dog park, an art garden with a labyrinth, and a new urban forest, all on its way to the Blue Heron Park and Wetland. Leafy, well-kept streets spread out from there, reaching to Franklin College’s stately brick halls.
Residents still talk about the 500-year flood of 2008—and how Franklin rebounded. A blue-collar area south of the square flooded so badly that it made national news. The city came to the rescue by purchasing those properties so the affected residents could recover, then cleaned up the area and planted 1,100 trees. The sign for this “urban forest” includes the names of those who lost their homes, a nice small-town touch.
The city didn’t stop there. It fixed the drainage issues so the town wouldn’t flood again and spent $5 million to spiff up abandoned buildings and derelict houses downtown, attracting new businesses and residents. The tipping point has come and gone, says Rob Shilts of Franklin Heritage, the town’s instrumental preservation group, which owns the Artcraft. In a town of 24,000 (including a Japanese community—upper management at auto-parts factories that have arrived since 2009), the Artcraft alone attracts 30,000 people a year, and a new slate of summer festivals draws such a crowd that parking has become a gripe for residents on those days. Yet more projects are underway. The Garment Factory condos, a historic reuse project, and Old Post Brewpub, in a former post office across from the Artcraft, are on the drawing board. Most notably, $40 million in federal and state grants is pouring into the town, most of it going toward a beautified gateway along State Road 44. The makeover will signal to I-65 traffic that there’s a destination close by—a thoroughly grown-up one.
Software engineer Doug Heavilin commutes from Franklin to Enghouse Interactive on Mass Ave. He and his wife, Amy, the Indian Creek High School band director, are restoring a Queen Anne.
What brought you to Franklin?
Amy’s job—and Franklin drew us in. The core of older homes in a walkable downtown is a big plus. I can be at my office in 30 minutes. That’s the same time it would take to commute across Indianapolis.
What does Franklin get right?
I really like that the city leadership is willing to take on these big projects to make Franklin a better place. One example is the buildup of fiber-optic
Will people notice if you don’t go to church?
There’s no shunning. We’ve lived in Franklin for over 10 years, and I don’t think this has ever come up in conversation.
Franklin is known for its festivals. A favorite?
Our street, Martin Place, throws a fantastic Halloween party. More than 1,000 kids show up. The homeowners go all out. The person across the street has a working
You’re a runner. Bored with your route?
For a small town, Franklin is very runner/walker–friendly. We have a 4.5-mile pedestrian trail that runs through town, and there are plans for an extension. Plus, huge bonus: The parks department started plowing the trail last winter.
What gets people in Franklin riled up?
People get argumentative when someone suggests that “at least Greenwood is only 15 minutes away.” People not from here tend to discount what we have locally.
Queen Annes, Italianates, American foursquares, and bungalows fill blocks around the courthouse and Franklin College, and your neighbors might be a professor or a scientist with the new biotech firm coming to the square. Franklin’s commercial renewal is farther along than its residential side, but that means opportunity still exists—for now. Updated houses with desirable addresses like Martin Place and Yandes Street are selling fast. Property taxes run high for Johnson County.
Check It Out
Hit the industrial-cool Pavilion—the only area restaurant with a fully retractable roof—on a weekend night for live music … At The Historic Artcraft Theatre, daytime kids movies are $5 on July 5 and 18 and include popcorn and a drink … The square’s Beer and Bluegrass Festival offers 15 pours from Indiana breweries, which might loosen you up enough to slap your knee in the streets.
How to Make Friends
Restore an Old Home
Franklin is rich in resources for DIYers. The active nonprofit Franklin Heritage (franklinheritage.org) helps homeowners find money and tax credits for projects—such as $25,000 facade grants through the Franklin Redevelopment Commission—and runs a retail shop, Madison Street Salvage (350 N. Madison St., 317-736-6823; open weekends), selling the rescued bones of old homes and buildings. A few similar stores sit within blocks. Plus, with a friendly network of other home renovators in town, it’s easy to find the name of a good turret repairman or advice on curving wood for a baseboard.