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Shirley residents to share ideas for town

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SHIRLEY — With a new wave of energy and a financial boost from local philanthropists, residents in Shirley will meet Monday to brainstorm ways to improve the downtown area.

A community meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. at town hall to discuss ways to strengthen the community that straddles the Hancock-Henry county line. And with thousands of dollars in grants available from the White Family Foundation over the next several years, local officials are eager to plan for the future.

“We don’t have a chamber of commerce. We don’t have a Lions Club. We don’t have a group just to try to build up business and strengthen the town,” said Andy Ebbert, Shirley fire chief.

Ebbert is a member of the visionary committee for the White Family Foundation. The committee was set up to advise siblings Stephanie White-Longworth and Keith White on grants for community projects.

The Whites formed the foundation after the sale of the family’s business, GasAmerica, to Speedway. GasAmerica was founded nearly 100 years ago in Shirley, and the siblings decided to give back to the community that helped their great-grandfather get his start back in 1916.

A first round of grants this summer provided funds for new park benches, a K-9 training facility, digital photography equipment for the youth center and soundproofing for the town’s shelter house.

Applications are being accepted now for another round of grants to be given out early next year.

Meanwhile, the visionary committee wants community input on how to improve the downtown district, according to Ebbert.

“(The White Family Foundation) is kind of stirring this up, the idea of building up the community and trying to get businesses and the town strengthened,” Ebbert said.

While other groups can still apply for grants, Ebbert said the meeting Monday will focus on business growth. A chamber of commerce or a downtown Main Street group might form.

Jerry Duke, another member of the visionary committee and president of Shirley Historical Society, said the meeting is open to anybody who has an interest in improving the community.

One idea promoted so far, Duke said, is painting murals on the sides of downtown buildings.

If a Main Street group is formed, Shirley could also apply for state grants to improve the downtown’s look and feel. Greenfield Main Street Inc., for example, has received state grants to improve the façade of historic buildings.

In addition to Shirley’s  historical society, community groups in Shirley include the park committee and the Jane Ross Reeves Octagon House Foundation. Ebbert said a business group is needed, especially in an era where many residents work outside of Shirley and do their shopping elsewhere.

“We need to develop a community spirit,” he said. “I work in another town, most everybody works outside of Shirley. But back in the good old days, people worked in town and everybody knew everybody. We’ve had a lot of people move in and out….”

Ebbert said he’d also want people who don’t live in Shirley to know where the community is and what it has to offer.

“I think we’ve got to get back to everybody working together to keep the smaller community, to keep building it up,” he said.

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