A former Army base in northeast Marion County is continuing a more than two decades-long transition into a live, work and play destination. Fort Benjamin Harrison closed as a military installation in 1996, but in just the last five years, there has been more than $200 million in investment in housing, retail, and a burgeoning cultural campus. “We’ve begun to realize this is going to become the new downtown of the city of Lawrence,” said Mayor Steve Collier.
Collier talked about the development of Fort Harrison in an interview on Inside INdiana Business with Gerry Dick.
“A lot of the things that come, a lot of the investment in the city certainly provides opportunity for people to come in here and to settle,” Collier said. “During the pandemic, we went about…making sure we were participating in our locally-owned restaurants that grew up. All of those things were happening, and that began to attract even bigger and greater investments.”
Fort Benjamin Harrison dates back to 1903, when funds were authorized to purchase the land for a U.S. Army base. Three years later, it was officially named after Indiana’s own 23rd President of the United States.
It was a busy place in both World Wars I and II. In 1943, Fort Harrison was the largest draft inductee center in the U.S. But the 1991 Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended that Fort Benjamin Harrison close, and despite the efforts of state and local officials to try and keep it open, the base officially closed and 1,100 civilians lost their jobs.
But the investment in the last five years has helped revitalize the former Army base. Nearly 300 single and multi-family homes have been built with 250 luxury apartments on the way.
Projects also included a new Hilton True hotel, a $2 million civic plaza and new YMCA. A new Marion County Public Library is set to open in June.
One of the newest additions to Fort Harrison is the new headquarters for Heartland Film, which Collier said wasn’t something that was on the city’s radar but very welcome. The organization has set up shop in the Sterrett Center, formerly known as the Fort Harrison Service Club.
“It sort of was a surprise when it came out here,” he said. “We had spent some money on renovating the Sterrett Center beforehand, so when they came out and they made the decision to move out here, that was a big thing for us. It kind of marries very well with the theater and the Cultural Campus. It’s creating certainly an environment for culture and art.”
Last fall, Indianapolis-based developer Keystone Group announced plans for a $70 million, 248-unit apartment complex at Fort Harrison, which Collier said is the biggest investment in the city’s history.
He said the redevelopment of Fort Harrison is serving as a model for the rest of the country.
“We’re being held up as, ‘This is how a reuse of a government installation should be done,'” he said. “Ours was slow in happening as so many of them do, but once we got that synergy going, we began to see a lot of people with economic development on their mind wanting to come to Lawrence and talk. For me, it was a great situation, a great experience to be able to bring in people who had a lot of money and who wanted to put it in the city of Lawrence.”
Looking forward, Collier said there is another lot that the city is looking to fill, which could be taken up by some sort of medical facility.
“I do think that as the city continues to grow and mature…we’ll begin to see truly some transformational work in terms of having this cultural center here, in terms of having the civic plaza, all the events that we’ll host. We’re going to be bringing people in hopefully from throughout Marion County and throughout central Indiana.”