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Ball State at Muncie Mall: The Latest In A Decades-Long Design Center Movement

By Stephanie Wiechmann, IPR News | Published on in Ball State, Business, Government, Local News
The Muncie Mall in 1981. (Photo: Ball State Digital Media Repository)

Ball State University is opening a community design center in the Muncie Mall by renting out a former storefront.  The lead professor on the project says it’s the latest location trying to help envision the community’s future.  As IPR’s Stephanie Wiechmann reports, it’s something the university has been doing for decades.

For a time, Muncie’s downtown was a pedestrian zone only. (Photo: Ball State Digital Media Repository)

Scott Truex heads the Department of Urban Planning at Ball State University.  But 40 years ago, he was a graduate student working in another Muncie community design center.

“We opened up one on Walnut Plaza, downtown Muncie.  At that time, four blocks of the downtown had been closed, the businesses had begun to move out, and the mall had been built.  So, there was a pretty dead downtown.  So, having a place where we could stage meetings, have community leaders in, create dialogue, engage students in projects that would be of value to the community.  It’s somewhat ironic now to open up, 40 years later, a place in the mall, to have a conversation of ‘How do we save the mall?’  It’s a critical part of the economic picture of the community.”

The Ball State design center is renting a nearly 9,000 square foot space that used to house the Dress Barn on the mall’s north side.  That large size is important for 2020 while we’re still in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Normally my studio space is about 1,200 square feet.  I have 9,000 here.  So we’re able to spread out, have the classes.  And then we’ve got a lot of room with the exhibit areas, and where we can even hold some public meetings and keep the distancing that’s critical.”

Truex says getting students involved in real world issues means their projects become community conversation points.

“We do a ton of work that ends up just in the hallways of the College of Architecture and Planning building.  But when we can bring that out and create more community dialogue, we think that’s a big advantage to everyone.”

Scott Truex – Urban Planning

Muncie Mayor Dan Ridenour has been publicly supporting the future of the mall since his March State of the City address.  He says the property has the second largest assessed value in the city, so its tax revenue is an important part of the city’s coffers.  The Muncie Mall is currently owned by a management company that’s actively managing it while trying to sell it to someone else.  And Ridenour says he’s pleased to see the mall is willing to get creative with its tenants.

“It just indicates how creative [the manager] is willing to be and that company is willing to be.  And I’ve talked before that you’re going to have to be creative to fill that type of space with the big box retailers having their challenges.  The small retailers are doing great!”

Read More: Muncie Mall: Is It Sustainable For The Future?

Because of national corporate bankruptcies and closures, the mall will soon be without any anchor department stores and many other storefronts are dark.  Truex, like Ridenour, still sees life in the building.

“There are just a lot of people who come out here to walk.  It’s an amazing amenity for safety, for climate control – in terms of coming in when it’s real hot.  And there’s actually quite a few people I see walking by with a bag, shopping.  Even though we’ve lost the box stores, there is this sort-of B-level retail that’s still hanging on.”

The community design center is being financially supported by the city of Muncie and several area commissions, nonprofits, and community groups.  Truex says he wants to hear everyone’s ideas on the future of the city and on the mall property itself.

“We’re just getting things populated now, but we’re going to want to get their thoughts:  What are they looking for?  Why do they come out here?  What would enhance their experiences here?”

Plus, Truex says, there’s no shortage of parking.