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Something old becomes something new

March 1, 2009
by Terry L. Stawar, EdD
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How a behavioral health center helped revitalize a historic downtown

LifeSpring's headquarters in downtown jeffersonville, indiana

LifeSpring's headquarters in downtown Jeffersonville, Indiana. Photographer: Roger Whaley

In 2002 LifeSpring, a community behavioral health center serving southern Indiana, was looking for new corporate headquarters after outgrowing its home for the past 30 years. The board of directors had a lot to consider.

LifeSpring's main center consisted of a few small buildings and leased space at the county hospital in Jeffersonville, Indiana (Many community behavioral centers that began with hospital affiliations have such arrangements). LifeSpring lacked a separate community identity on the hospital's campus, and clients often had problems discriminating LifeSpring's services and programs from those of the hospital.

A few years earlier, consultants had developed a comprehensive building plan recommending LifeSpring build a large flagship office to consolidate several administrative and clinical programs. Such a building would have required purchasing several acres and moving away from the population center where most of our consumers lived and worked.

At this time Jeffersonville was revitalizing its historic riverfront and downtown business district, but several deteriorated buildings remained empty and were attractive targets for vandals. Among these buildings was a classic Federalist limestone bank built in 1908, which originally housed the local Citizen Trust Bank and a series of successor banks. This was one of three landmark Jeffersonville buildings designed by a prominent Louisville architect around the turn of the 20th century.

With community support and a determined board, LifeSpring purchased and completely renovated this building in 2003 as well as the Lindley Building, another historical structure in the same block. The Lindley Building was formerly a lumberyard and livery stable rebuilt after a devastating 1937 flood (Jeffersonville is directly across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky).

LifeSpring's new dual-diagnosis facility in jeffersonville is scheduled to open in april
LifeSpring's new dual-diagnosis facility in Jeffersonville is scheduled to open in April. Rendering by Laughlin, Millea & Hillman Architecture

William C. Keeney, a Jeffersonville native and senior vice-president at the local Chase Bank branch, was a leader of the project on LifeSpring's board during the expansion. “The actual purchase of the buildings was made from agency cash,” he notes. “The rehabilitation part was originally financed via bond issue that was sold in the open market with the support of a bank letter of credit.” After the bonds were issued, rates fell to the point where the board collapsed them into conventional fixed-rate financing.

Despite some initial concerns expressed by local businesses, the move has turned out to be an unqualified success. LifeSpring daily brings in approximately 200 employees as well as many clients and vendors, who patronize local shops and restaurants. Local attorney John R. Vissing, formerly board president and now chair of the LifeSpring Foundation of Indiana, was instrumental in acquiring the buildings. Vissing, whose father was Jeffersonville's mayor for more than 40 years, says, “We could have gone anywhere. This was a good usage of a historic structure and we had board members who wanted to build a sense of community rather than a sterile clinical environment. We also saw value in keeping our clients in the mainstream and not isolated.”

To honor local merchants' request that LifeSpring develop downtown retail space, we also opened JeffBook, a fully operational retail new and used bookstore. Staffed and managed by volunteers, JeffBook provides real-life job experience and retail sales training for LifeSpring clients reentering the workforce. Staff, local residents, and other friends of LifeSpring have donated more than 25,000 books. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Sen. Barack Obama's staff chose a section along Spring Street with JeffBook as the backdrop for one of his commercials.

LifeSpring transformed the bank's vault, which has a five-ton door, into its professionally designed Vault Museum, where historic artifacts from local citizens and items discovered during the renovation are displayed (see sidebar). The Vault Museum is the starting point for local historic walking tours of Jeffersonville.

Not only did the Jeffersonville community profit from the economic boost LifeSpring brought to the revitalized district, but mental health consumers specifically benefit from easily accessible services in a pleasant therapeutic environment that helps fully integrate them into the community.

“This was a win-win situation for all involved,” Keeney says. “The bank that owned the buildings was able to dispose of empty and deteriorating office space, while at the same time adding a profitable asset to its books. Downtown Jeffersonville gained approximately 200 jobs that could have easily gone elsewhere, while losing 50,000 square feet of empty buildings, and the agency was able to accomplish its goal of relocation and consolidation.”

Karen Carden, owner/operator of The Springs Salon & Spa in Jeffersonville, says, “Since LifeSpring has been downtown, our walk-in trade has increased as our client base has expanded. I had been a little leery at first, but everything seems to be professional in their business transactions. It is a pleasure serving the clientele from there.”