SIT A SPELL: Fortville embraces two new downtown gathering spaces

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FORTVILLE — When Fortville hosts its annual Winterfest next Saturday, Dec. 3, visitors will have plenty of places to sit and enjoy a cup of hot cocoa thanks to the addition of two public gathering spaces over the past few months.

A volunteer-driven nonprofit called Fortville Action, Inc. converted an unused alleyway into a brightly-lit gathering space called The Alley this past summer.

This fall the same group created a similar space called The Patio at the south end of town, on a stretch of Main Street that was permanently closed to traffic earlier this year.

Both areas — just a few hundred feet apart — are set off by ornate signs in bright, gold lettering.

Throughout the fall, the spaces were decked out with pumpkins and gourds, creating a picture-perfect autumn backdrop.

Earlier this week Fortville Action volunteers swapped out the fall touches with holiday decor, transforming the spaces into festive areas for visitors to sit and relax while shopping and celebrating this holiday season.

“They really are amazing places to sit and enjoy being outside,” said Jeff Wyatt, co-owner of the 305 Wine Garage, which sits right next to The Patio on Main Street.

Wyatt said the gathering spaces are a big boon for downtown businesses, which he says benefit from having such an inviting downtown.

“Fortville to us is that perfect small town. It has a great community feel,” said Wyatt, who co-owns the wine garage with his wife Libby and another couple. He and his wife also own Libby’s Ice Cream & Gifts, with locations in Fortville and Greenfield.

Wyatt had high praise for the Fortville Action volunteers who created the downtown gathering spaces, doing most of the fundraising and handiwork themselves.

Over the summer, FAI members worked with local merchants and town officials to create The Alley — a 15-foot-wide alleyway between two buildings just across from the Fortville post office on Main Street.

What was once a darkened corridor is now a vibrant space with patio lights strung from posts throughout the 135-foot-long alleyway, with benches and tables situated beneath decorative sails overhead.

Fortville Action carried that same aesthetic over to The Patio, an inviting 30-by-90-foot space featuring benches, octagon-shaped picnic tables and patio lights strung from poles secured within decorative wooden barrels.

The barrels were donated by Moondrops Distillery in Fortville, one of the many local businesses to support the FAI’s efforts to beautify the downtown.

In the past, the nonprofit focused on hosting events like the town’s popular Winterfest and summer concert series, but the volunteers have shifted their focus to creating more lasting projects throughout town.

“We thought if we could come up with projects every year instead of events we could make an impact that last for years, rather than just one day,” said FAI’s chairman Bob Sterrett, who lives in downtown Fortville with his wife, Milda, a fellow volunteer.

Winterfest has been handed over to the Fortville Parks Department, allowing Fortville Action volunteers to focus on more endeavors like the alley and patio projects.

They got a big boost from the Hancock County Community Foundation, which awarded a $15,000 grant for The Alley and another $2,500 grant for The Patio.

“The Hancock County Community Foundation prioritizes funding for quality-of-place projects, and this was a perfect opportunity,” said the foundation’s president, Mary Gibble. “We so appreciate the hard work of Fortville Action, Inc.”

Sterrett said the nonprofit couldn’t thrive without the support of town officials and local business owners, who have stepped up to make the alley and patio projects a reality.

The town agreed to shut down the section of Main Street which would become The Patio, closing off a section of road that served as an auxiliary access downtown. Converting the roadway into a public gathering space was safer for pedestrians and traffic flow, said Sterrett, and created an eye-catching spot that welcomes visitors to town.

Town employees also chipped in by helping to move furniture and hefty planters into place, and installing bollards to protect the areas from traffic.

Local businesses also did their part, donating or discounting products and services. Barn Signworks crafted the gold-lettered signs for The Alley and The Patio, Moondrops Distillery donated the barrels for The Patio’s lighting system and IMI provided the concrete.

Sterrett said that Thursday Pool and the Wyatts, who own the wine garage and Libby’s, have also been top contributors.

While some business owners like the Wyatts get in on the action, the bulk of the labor has been done by Fortville Action volunteers, who have mixed concrete, set posts and strung lights and garland, all in an effort to beautify the small town they call home.

“What Fortville Action has done for the town has been really outstanding. We’re very blessed to be part of a community that has such a nice feel to it,” Wyatt said.

He’s confidant downtown businesses will benefit from The Alley and The Patio, the latter of which is situated right outside his wine shop’s front door.

Downtown visitiors can use the spaces to take a rest, read a book or have a picnic in the warmer months, said Wyatt, or enjoy some food or beverage from dowwntown Fotville restaurants.

While businesses are not permitted to serve patrons within the public seating areas, the town’s open container law does allow patrons to consume alcohol in public spaces, so long as its purchased on a carryout basis.