Evansville's Innovation Inflection Point
The year is 2008. Cassaundra White has just begun her time at Signature School, and Jonathan Weinzapfel is about halfway through his time as Mayor of Evansville.
Weinzapfel: I used to joke that, especially looking at downtown, that by five o'clock you could see tumbleweeds blowing down the middle of Main Street.
He wanted to see a change. And so did White.
Weinzapfel: I used to joke that, especially looking at downtown, that by five o'clock you could see tumbleweeds blowing down the middle of Main Street.
White: When I went to Sig, you know, most of downtown was shut down during the day.
Weinzapfel: Downtown is an example of the life of the community, and if your downtown isn't thriving, then your community isn't thriving.
White: I know a lot of people seemed to live in Evansville and not like the fact that they were in Evansville. It was kind of like nobody ever left Evansville but everybody kind of seemed to have this disdain for being here.
Weinzapfel: And so I think there was just a general sense that things weren't happening in Evansville.
White: I always joke with people that I kind of had this, like, pop punk hometown hatred kind of thing. It was always the plan to kind of get out of Evansville.
And she did, for college, but she came back. White now runs Mystic Hand Press and has worked on branding for some of Evansville’s most celebrated new businesses.
You may have noticed. Evansville’s urban core has undergone a change. Downtown, Franklin Street, and beyond. It seems Evansville has reached an innovation inflection point.
White: I think that that changes the perception of who we are as a town. And the fact that people are starting to pay attention to downtown is a big part of that.
Weinzapfel: I think that level of engagement, that level of community risk-taking, that level of social entrepreneurship -- once it becomes kind of a way of being, that this is how the community operates, I think more people just instinctively start thinking at that level.
Today, Weinzapfel is the chancellor of the local Ivy Tech Community College. He says Evansville is headed in the right direction.
Weinzapfel: It's more of an attitude of possibility instead of negativity.
we’re actually up to 4 SNOOT BOOPS come say hi and let us pet your dog! #hcadfirstfridays #evansvilleindiana #weareevv #weartevv #doitalldowntown #hayniescornerartsdistrict A post shared by Mystic Hand Press (@mystichandpress) on Aug 3, 2018 at 5:36pm PDT
Talk to the founder of Evansville’s Tech on Tap, Drew Peyronnin, and he’ll tell you entrepreneurship and innovation is ingrained in Evansville’s history.
Peyronnin: We were very, very big in lumber production.
Evansville had ammunition, furniture, refrigeration. But in the 1950s, big manufacturing began to wane.
Peyronnin: Either they've become economically irrelevant or the incumbents locally have been moved elsewhere. Those focuses of our economy have shifted, and it's nothing good or bad about Evansville. It’s just the typical lifecycle of economies.
But it might be worth mentioning that there is something else in Evansville’s history.
As manufacturing slipped away, in the late fifties, the factory locating service Fantus studied the city.
The authors of the study wrote, “Evansville is racked by pessimism, gloom, inability to work in unified fashion; one group stymies another simply because of personality differences between members.”
Wallace: The Fantus study talked about getting rid of the settling-for-less attitude,
This is former Evansville resident and entrepreneur Joe Wallace.
Wallace: doing whatever it takes to get people to think positively about the City.
The authors of the study also wrote, “Evansville has what it takes. Of that we are convinced. All it needs to do is learn to use its abilities more effectively and constructively.”
Evansville has what it takes. Of that we are convinced. All it needs to do is learn to use its abilities more effectively and constructively.
But that didn’t happen right away. So, between 1960 and 2016, what happened? What made Evansville into a city that a college student can leave and return to with excitement?
According to local entrepreneur and community visionary Amy Word-Smith, it’s been decades in the making.
Decades in which a more diverse group of people grew to share entrepreneurial power. They began working together across neighborhoods and sectors. They found support in a community ready to improve its self-image.
But first, let’s go back to 1963, when Washington Square Mall opened its doors.
Wallace: And then you had to choose between Downtown and Washington Square, and Washington Square won. Then Eastland came online.
That was 1981.
Wallace: And Eastland killed Washington Square.
As Eastland rose, so did the Millennial Generation. It was different from the last just as every generation is different from its predecessor.
Rudibaugh: You know, they grew up when shopping malls were the place to be, and then we see how they've kind of sucked the soul out of local business because they usually consist of, you know, chains.
Local business owner David Rudibaugh says people in his generation began to see the benefit of shopping local. And people like him began to offer those local establishments, like White Swan Coffee Lab.
We have some fantastic local products available for purchase @thehubonfranklin come see us Tuesday through Saturday 9-? Featuring @sixthstreetsoapery @olivemanna @roadtripfibers A post shared by White Swan Coffee Lab (@whiteswancoffeelab) on Jun 2, 2018 at 6:25pm PDT
Rudibaugh: We see the benefit of the heart in the real people that you get to interact with in a mom and pop shop versus, you know, going to Walmart.
He says they want more, a better experience. They want to interact and have a real community and seek out quality over quantity.
Rudibaugh: Those are all things that you see my generation starting to really strive more for in their life. So you see much less of the big chain and more the mom-and-pop growth, because that's where we want to spend our money. Money talks, so we kind of shifted the dynamic I think culturally, and I think everybody's benefiting .
So there’s the first part of the change — the rise of a new generation interested in the experience, community and artistry ingrained in the city’s roots.
The year is 1997. Tim Piazza had just come from Denver to Evansville to work with Keller Crescent.
He and some of those around him missed the coffee they’d been drinking in big cities.
Piazza: So we opened a coffee shop. At that time, a lot of people were telling us it'll never work.
People told him that if it was going to be successful, someone would have already done it.
Piazza: And that was the prevailing attitude 20 years ago.
But Piazza did it anyway, with partial credit to low economic barriers.
Piazza: Well, we could start a coffee shop on a credit card, basically, whereas trying to do the same thing in Boston or LA would have taken about a million dollars.
And, voila, people in the Historic District had a sort of neighborhood kitchen table. And for a long time, it was effectively one of a kind. But then, something mysterious happened.
Piazza: All I know is about three years ago. I was at a Startup Weekend, and I noticed several of my friends were talking about doing something in the coffee business.
But why now? Why can Evansville suddenly have high quality coffee shops from Burkhardt to Franklin Street?
Piazza: Sometimes it takes a shock, you know. It takes something that that makes people realize, oh my god, is that really how people see us, or is that how we see ourselves in order to change.
Sometimes it takes a shock, you know. It takes something that that makes people realize, oh my god, is that really how people see us, or is that how we see ourselves in order to change.
If you were in Evansville in 2011 and 2013, you may remember receiving the distinction of “fattest city” and “one of the most miserable cities.”
Piazza: People reacted to it and they said, look, Evansville is not that bad. Actually there's a lot that's great about this place. And if nobody else is talking about what's great about Evansville, maybe we need to start talking about what's great about Evansville.
Rudibaugh: To me when people locally are creating things like that, it kind of gives this thing where kids can look at it, going, they’re from my town.
They see themselves.
Rudibaugh: It's a perspective that makes people go we can create, we can innovate, we can produce things.
It’s what you might call inspiration.
One more... A post shared by White Swan Coffee Lab (@whiteswancoffeelab) on Jun 23, 2018 at 2:12pm PDT
Rudibaugh: Art kind of encourages production in other areas. You know, when you make a cup of coffee, you can make it fine, or you can consider it your art. It just pushes the bar up for everyone involved.
And this art, it mixes so intrinsically with the business and social sectors that you can’t buy Honey Moon coffee without noticing the clean half-moon in its logo. And you can’t research a trip to Perry County without feeling the turquoise of its brand.
White: That's why I wanted to run a creative business.
This is Cassaundra White. She’s the artist behind the half-moon and the turquoise and a lot of other things. She graduated from Signature School, went away for college, and returned to open her letterpress company, Mystic Hand Press.
I love my job! I love getting to do what I love every day! I love making my own schedule and being my own boss! I love thinking conceptually on a daily basis! I love getting recognized in my field for my talents! I love learning and growing as a person and a small business owner! I love that every mistake I make shows me a better way to do the next thing! I love connecting with other people who share my passions! I am so fucking fortunate! I thank my lucky stars every day that this is my life ✨ #mystichandpress #mystichandletterpress #smallbusinesslife #luckyduck A post shared by Mystic Hand Press (@mystichandpress) on Oct 24, 2016 at 9:58am PDT
White: It was really kind of fun to be able to do what I wouldn't be able to do in Chicago, which is work one-on-one with these small businesses and then be able to drive by that business every day and see my logo.
And as others drive by, the identity captured in those logos says something.
White: It gets people to go into the businesses and meet the people who own them to learn a little bit about it.
Those are customers, forming relationships, building loyalty.
White: It's something that really can do a lot for the longevity of this kind of blossoming Renaissance type thing that is going on in Evansville.
A renaissance. That’s not something that happens overnight, and it’s not something that can be traced to one person.
Piazza: It was very much a grassroots thing. It was business owners. It was people who maybe weren't considered civic leaders or community leaders.
But they believed in the city, and as they started to push for change, others joined. Piazza says it was a groundswell disproving the idea that Evansville is a bad place to live.
Piazza: not just to raise a family, but a great place to work a great place to own a home to raise a family. Yes to have a career and to do many great things. When we were on those worst-of lists, that was hitting bottom. And we bounced back from that.
So there’s another part of the change — a city bouncing from an extreme low to a snowballing renaissance.
The year is 2007. Joe Wallace had just been brought on as the first President and CEO of the Growth Alliance for Greater Evansville. And the Growth Alliance’s home, Innovation Pointe, had just opened.
Wallace: I mean, it was set up exactly the way that places that are moving forward set things up.
Innovation Pointe also served as a business incubator, and it had plenty of occupants.
At the time, Wallace told Maureen Hayden of Evansville Business that the City finally seemed to have a critical mass of innovative people. They were the foundation of human capital on which Innovation Pointe would build, he said. Culturally, the city need to look upon failure as a learning process and not something to be ridiculed or punished.
Wallace left for California in 2009, but Innovation Pointe remained on the walkway.
Peyronnin: I like to think about Innovation Pointe as being an innovation community center.
Local entrepreneur Drew Peyronnin says incubators have fallen out of favor in the business community.
Peyronnin: You end up with a fairly stable set of companies that may or may not be advancing in a great degree, but are just comfortable to stay there.
The Growth Alliance didn’t want to be that place. So in 2014, they unveiled Innovation Pointe’s coworking floor, in which entrepreneurs from grant writers to software company founders work in the same space.
Peyronnin: And so that that has brought in a much different environment. And why incubators fail and why co-working spaces work is because co-working is focused on the creation of community. And again, that gets into trust and collaboration.
And why incubators fail and why co-working spaces work is because co-working is focused on the creation of community. And again, that gets into trust and collaboration.
It’s that trust and collaboration that a lot of people say has grown in Evansville.
Take Hadi Yousef for example. He’s a graduate from Signature School and Indiana University who found himself with an innovative idea — make it easier for people to access earnings calls when they’re researching investments. Now, he operates Borsa Finance from the coworking space and is bringing together Evansville’s innovative founders.
Yousef: My time in Evansville after school was just going to any and every networking event, entrepreneur event, tech event, or meet-up.
And there are actually a lot of those. The first he attended was the weekly Common Grounds, and now Yousef attends whenever he can make the time. He says the people there are all united under one mission,
Yousef: which is to bring in all the pieces and parts that are scattered across the city that are all working towards the same thing, which is to make Evansville and the region a more and more entrepreneur friendly place, a more networked place and a more business-friendly place.
He says he’s not sure if Evansville’s tight-knit, family-like entrepreneurial ecosystem exists many other places.
Yousef: This place benefits the people who have a long-term commitment and who really want to build something authentic and great and something with real values and just building a company from the heart.
“Metro Boomin want some more” should play before I talk @BorsaHQ because I spit truth and murda the beat #MurdaOnTheBeatSoItsNotNice #Borsa #earningscall #investorrelations A post shared by Hadi Yousef (@hadi.yousef) on Jun 27, 2018 at 10:00am PDT
Bolek: I think one of the things I've learned about this process is that you can't really be successful without surrounding yourself with a support network of people who understand exactly what your challenges are and can help you navigate those challenges.
This is Amy Bolek, a grant writer who shares the coworking space with Yousef. She says one of the things that sets Evansville apart for her is the generosity of the people around her, the support in and out of Innovation Pointe.
Bolek: And something that I always say when I'm working with clients is, you know, how can we build unique and unexpected collaborations?
And something that I always say when I'm working with clients is, you know, how can we build unique and unexpected collaborations?
Grant makers don’t want to fund sinking ships, after all.
Bolek: So I think it's important to really make sure that when you're presenting an idea, presenting a project to a funder, that you're able to show that there's definitely the need but there's also other supports and assets in place that would allow that funder to sort of jump on board something that's already moving in a positive direction.
And lately, she says, the hyper-collaborative local community has made that job a little easier.
Bolek: We can really paint a wonderful picture of what's going on here in this community, that I think is very enticing for investors who would want to support the things that are happening here.
One of those community investors made a call to Ross Chapman, who was working for a church in Charlotte. Chapman attended high school at Castle, but he had been away from the area 13 and a half years.
Chapman: My first thought was, I'm in my dream job in my dream city.
And he did not want to come back to Southern Indiana. But he listened to the call.
Chapman: He said, I want to free somebody up that can focus on helping all the good work that's happening in our city be more coordinated, more connected, more aware of each other, and to do special work with churches and help them come to a neutral table and talk about what could we do together to solve some of the needs in our city.
Chapman thought and prayed and decided to return. He started his new job by reading and listening, by having 200 meetings with local leaders.
Crew at #Q2017 engaging with challenging and innovative ideas to advance the common good in our city. A post shared by Anna Hargis (@annahargisevv) on Apr 27, 2017 at 7:36pm PDT
Chapman: And I broke them into channels of culture. So arts, business, education, government, media, healthcare, social sector, and then church leaders as well.
So, today, he’s helping all those people come together to work on fixing what had made the community so miserable.
And that’s part number three — bonding similar people, bridging different groups, and trusting each other.
Imagine Evansville’s historic trajectory mapped out. It looks like rolling hills, tracking up and down. We’re low when Whirlpool leaves, and we’re high when we learn the Multi-Institutional Academic Health Science and Research Center will be built downtown. We’re still tracking up, but maintaining that momentum is a collaborative effort.
Peyronnin: Certainly the building blocks have always been here, and we've successfully invented and reinvented ourselves many times over history.
Drew Peyronnin is a local entrepreneur and champion of innovation. And he says Evansville is in a natural cycle.
Peyronnin: The difference right now is the speed with which things are changing.
You may have noticed, looking at Franklin Street or Haynie’s Corner, Evansville’s urban core has transformed in the past 10 years. And now, we have the Franklin Street Bazaar and First Fridays and, behind the scenes, a mass of entrepreneurs working on everything from nonprofit grants to software as a service to innovative ways of making things.
Abby is part of the live art at #FirstFriday. @abbylb127 @evansvillepodcast A post shared by Laura Burton (@fixitlaura) on Jul 6, 2018 at 4:06pm PDT
As a new generation with distinct life experiences and values is rising, we’re improving our collective self-image and getting excited about collaboration. It’s a perfect storm decades in the making.
#yogaatthebazaar #freeyoga #franklinstreetbazaar #fallinlovewithfranklin #evansvilleareacommunityyoga #franklinstreetbazaaryoga @yogagirl12 thanks A post shared by Chris Borries (@chrisborries) on Jul 21, 2018 at 12:25pm PDT
Looking to the future, Peyronnin cites the research he found in Enrico Moretti’s “The New Geography of Jobs.”
According to Moretti, there are three types of communities. The ones that have chosen to remain how they are and how they've been. The ones ready to adapt and eager to innovate. And then there are the ones in the middle, those that could go either way.
Peyronnin: So I think that, right now, Evansville is somewhat in that middle strata, but we clearly made a choice as a community to move towards that Innovation Community. There is a critical mass of collaboration here. There's a critical mass of people that know the direction we need to go.
There is a critical mass of collaboration here. There's a critical mass of people that know the direction we need to go.
And the key to staying on the rise is listening to those people.
This is former mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel.
Weinzapfel: Frankly, we're always one election away from having a leader that doesn't look at the world that way, that wants to look backwards instead of forwards. So there's a lot of momentum, but unless people work at it, nurture it, encourage it, it won’t continue.
That means we all need to vote. But before we vote, we need to research.
This is Peyronnin again.
Peyronnin: We have to realize we are not competing against one another. We're not competing against different counties. We're not competing against different states. We're competing on a global platform now, and we have to get past parochialism and provincialism. We have to be looking at ourselves as a way that we are globally relevant in what we do.
So, regardless of neighborhood or city or region, we need to work together.
Ross Chapman is helping us do just that by making connections between the churches of Evansville and the city of Evansville.
Chapman: If you're worried or concerned, I think one of the cool things about Evansville is you can get involved and do something, you know, and I think there's an atmosphere, a spirit in the city right now that would be very open to that, be willing to hear you say okay, you know, I didn't understand and thanks for making me aware and helping me understand your perspective and, you know, what can we do to work towards making that different?
That means we need to speak up in a constructive way. We need to tell our business, arts and social leaders what is bothering us so that we can adapt and innovate.
Tim Piazza began doing that back in the Nineties, and now he runs Evansville Coffee Company.
Piazza: As a community, we want to be more flexible and more adaptable and have the opportunities in place for a business to come in and innovate and thrive and attract employees and grow and become part of the community.
This means we need to protect our people and environment, but we need to balance that with low barriers to enter and succeed in business here.
One of the folks succeeding in our business climate is Cassaundra White, who runs Mystic Hand Press and has worked on branding for some of Evansville’s most celebrated new businesses.
White: It's really sad to me to see people have these wonderful ideas and especially those who don't have kind of the ability to support their ideas. It would be really cool to see, you know, government kind of looking for those projects, local groups kind of trying to find people to support in revitalizing that kind of attitude.
She says our innovation community needs to be inclusive and supportive. While government incentives and grants exist here, there is always room for more.
A beneficiary of one of those grants is David Rudibaugh, who owns White Swan Coffee Lab with his wife Kendra and is involved in the local arts scene.
Rudibaugh: Show up, be there, be present. You don't have to spend a million dollars to support local. It’s kind of a tragic thing that for people that want to do things that just don't know what's out there and they don't know where to look. So that's why when friends of friends of friends share things online and when they talk about things like talking about what's going on locally, it helps people go, oh, hey, I didn't have any idea. I want to go check that out.
Show up, be there, be present. You don't have to spend a million dollars to support local.
In short, we need to engage and help others do the same.
Peyronnin: My belief is that, through various leadership, you have to illuminate a path forward and be welcoming to the people that want to take that path, not be judgmental of the ones that don't. I think the history and the economy will take care of those who choose to stay where they are, but just be welcoming and embracing and hope that more people take that path. And the more people that do more, the more people that will see that that's necessary to move our community and our economy forward.
The reality is, we’re going to move forward. The question is, will we track up or down? We can continue to fill our empty buildings and listen to and support innovative ideas, or we can settle. And at the end of the day, that choice belongs to each of us.
BONUS: Q&A with local entrepreneuer Mo Hobgood
Growing up in the Tri-State, what sort of place did you see? What were the people around you like? What was there to do?
Growing up in the triple-state I was always with my grandparents. They owned a couple different businesses. My grandmother was a quilt maker and grandpa… well he did just about everything else. They owned a couple fruit stands and during the summer I would help them out a lot. They would go to different festivals and set up different booths to sell different odd and end things. My cousin and I would go and just loved it. I was always outside doing something. I had horses growing up and was always riding. During high school I owed a snow cone shack. After high school, my dad opened a bar downtown Henderson. I spent most of the summer helping out there. Growing up, I was friends with everyone. Everyone around here was always super friendly and nice.
Did you plan to return to the area after college?
I don’t know that I necessarily planned to come back but I did. In high school I always thought that i would be a fashion photographer and live in NY City. Neither of which happened.
Did you expect you'd open your own businesses one day?
I always knew that I would have my own business. Turns out I can be pretty stubborn. I like the idea of being able to be my own boss and make my own decisions when it comes to being creative.
How did your grandfather's influence affect your decision to enter business ownership and the way you run your businesses?
Honestly my grandfather was probably the start of it all. He taught me how to do everything. I was always with him. He taught me how to use tools, and be strong. How when you fail, you get right back up and go back at it.
Since you bought existing establishments, how supportive were the former proprietors and patrons of your efforts?
Everyone is always skeptical when you plan to change something that is comfortable to them Now, they love it, but when it was all happening everyone always has this look of terror on their face like “she has no idea what she is doing.”
Did you receive any other support while opening your businesses? From local government or individuals?
I did receive a ton of help when opening my business. I have never been one scared to ask. The whole reason my business is what it is is because I wasn’t afraid to ask. In the short story sort of it, I pretty much “shark-tanked” the whole thing. I had an idea. I met with a few investors. Presented my idea and found a partner that I am extremely thankful for.
Many of the people with whom I've spoken say Evansville is in a renaissance. Do you think that's true? What seems to have changed in the past few years?
I don’t know that we are in a Renaissance so to say but I do know that I am surrounded by a generation that is hungry to succeed.
Do you have a sense of what spurred the change?
Gosh that is a loaded question. I think this generation is just ready for there to be a change made and has really be driven to make that happen.
As someone involved in both business and the arts community, how do you see the two sectors interacting? Are they mutually important for their success?
Absolutely they are important together. My business wouldn’t be anything without art. Music, mixology, culinary arts all keep my businesses thriving as well as the many other businesses around here. Events like First Friday prove that to be true as well.
Where do you see this going? Will it continue or gain momentum?
I think there is no where to go but up. There is such a positive thing happening with the HCAD neighborhood. I love being down here. If you look at any little neighborhood in the bigger cities, the more they have in those little areas the better they will do. I am excited to see what will happen in the next couple of years.
Are there any challenges you or your peers are still face? What can civic leaders and community members do to support entrepreneurs like you?
I think with progress there is always constructions and other things that can cause challenges, but looking at the big pictures I think it will only make things better. The best thing people can do to support people like me is to actually support their businesses. Those businesses have local people working there for a living and supporting the business in return helps a lot of people maintain a living.