SHIRLEY — A group of two dozen townspeople gathered in Shirley Monday to think of ways to improve the community.
Gone is Shirley’s heyday when plentiful free natural gas helped power industries like the town’s glass factory and helped give a major railroad reason to keep Shirley as one of its stops.
But the gas eventually ran out and industries and many businesses went by the wayside as well.
Shirley’s downtown strip is now filled with empty buildings. The community on the Hancock/Henry County line has no state highway running through it, and its decreasing population has been marked as low- to-moderate income.
But there is hope. Since Shirley was the birthplace of GasAmerica nearly 100 years ago, fourth-generation owners Stephanie White Longworth and Keith White want to give back to the community now that they have sold the company to Speedway.
The White Family Foundation has earmarked roughly $200,000 for grants to help improve the town.
The grants will be given to various groups over the next 10 years, but in the meantime, the White siblings are hoping the community also weighs in with ideas and community fundraisers.
Monday, a group gathered at town hall to brainstorm ideas for the future.
“People don’t know their neighbors anymore; people don’t know what’s going on anymore,” said Andy Ebbert, chief of the Shirley Volunteer Fire Department and a member of a visionary committee for the White Family Foundation.
The visionary committee was set up to advise the White Family Foundation on grants and come up with fundraisers to replenish the foundation.
While the committee has core members like Ebbert, he also encouraged the assembled crowd to become active members of the committee. He said there could be an annual membership fee that would go toward replenishing the foundation’s funds.
The good old days were remembered at the meeting – the Shirley town fair, the strawberry festival, youth baseball games, and even a “welcome wagon” that would provide new residents with a basket of information about the community.
Those ideas could come back, but new ideas were also brought up: an annual street festival, a covered stage for concerts, outdoor movies in the park, and a Christmas event to promote downtown shopping.
“It doesn’t matter what you plan; if you don’t have the people to do it, it won’t be done,” Kyle Austin said about the need for people to participate in community ideas.
The annual Shirley Founders Day has been waning in participation in recent years, the group acknowledged. Part of that is because older residents who have been volunteering for years have been struggling to keep up, and younger families aren’t volunteering.
“A lot of people my age don’t feel like they can physically help anymore,” said Joan Cupp, a piano teacher and organizer of the Founders Day talent show.
Austin, who is town council president, said he’d like the community to provide hands-on events for children so they aren’t just playing video games all day.
There could also be a Main Street group formed in Shirley, which could apply for state grants for downtown improvements. Murals and old-fashioned streetlights could be added, for example.
New resident Roger Liming said he’d like to see more signs and lighted entrances at the main roads leading into town. The road to Shirley from Ind. 109 is dark and hard to find for newcomers, he said.
Still, the owner of Liming Family Funeral Home said he’s glad he moved his family to the area from Columbus, Ohio.
“One of the reasons we moved here was to get back to a small town,” he said.
A key problem for the community, Ebbert said, is communication. With no town website and no newsletter, word of mouth is hit and miss.
Postmaster Debbie Faucett suggested quarterly newsletters in mailboxes.
She added because there are no main roads going through the community, Shirley should have events or businesses that make people want to visit.
“One of our goals should be, people should have a reason to go to Shirley.”
The group plans to meet regularly to narrow down ideas and move forward. The next meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. Jan. 8.