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Melissa Martin '71 outside with tree

Melissa Martin ’71: Breathing life into small towns

A high school counselor squelched Melissa Martin’s dream of becoming an architect. As a woman, she’d be allowed to design only plumbing and heating systems, never a building, he claimed.

All these years later, that counselor might do a double take if he saw Martin, a 1971 graduate of DePauw, at work.

Not only did she eventually take some architectural drawing classes that helped her flip several houses in the once decrepit and now posh Lockerbie Square neighborhood of Indianapolis, but Martin is assisting small towns interested in reviving their downtowns by restoring architectural gems.

Martin, who majored in studio art at DePauw and still paints, operates Great Towns Inc., a nonprofit she created in 2012 to assist small towns with revitalization. Over the next three years, she wound down her successful career as a public relations and marketing professional and owner of GMG Communications, which opened in 1984, and its principal division, Issues and Advocates, which was established in 1987.

She was inspired by the Orton Family Foundation, a Vermont concern that supports what it calls “community heart and soul development.” Martin said she admires Orton’s “totally different” approach to economic development in which it promotes “an emotional connection,” as opposed to the usual dollars-and-cents calculations made about economic development projects.

And so she has approached a few communities, offering her consultancy for free, thanks to some small grants that provide a tiny salary and cover printing costs. Her work generally starts with an essay contest for local teens, “If These Walls Could Talk,” to teach them architecture and “instill a sense of pride and hope in their community.” Participants write an essay about an historic building in their town, including its history and architectural style, and can win a smartphone and a $500 scholarship.

“It’s in my DNA to care about these communities. … I’m a behind-the-scenes person. I want to effect change. I get great satisfaction out of making things better.”

She ran such a contest in Sheridan, a town of 3,000 people 40 miles north of Indianapolis, which generated an idea that she hopes results in a board-game pop-up store before Christmas. It also generated interest from a local business owner who wants to create a façade loan and grant program to help neighbors spruce up their storefronts.

Martin launched the first essay contest in Ferdinand, a town of 2,065 in Southwestern Indiana.

“Melissa led our community in the restoration and redevelopment of the 1886 New Farmers’ Store at 1245 Main St. in Ferdinand starting many years ago with her ‘If These Walls Could Talk’ program,” said Keith Fritz, a custom furniture maker whose creations are owned by, among others, presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Fritz, who owns another Ferdinand storefront that serves as his furniture-making shop, bought the Farmers’ Store and is rehabilitating it. So far, he has opened a two-bedroom suite for overnight stays, and Martin is working with him to write a grant application to renovate the façade and the rest of the 13,000-square-foot building.

“I could not have done this restoration and redevelopment without her,” he said. “She has guided me and encouraged me every step of the way.”

Martin has worked with several other communities, though the COVID-19 pandemic stalled her for more than a year. Sometimes local government officials contact her; other times, it’s a citizens’ group seeking help.

She does it, she said, because “I grew up in small towns in Indiana, Columbus and Greensburg. And I’m a ninth-generation Hoosier on both sides. So going back, my peeps were here before Indiana was even a state. And so I think it’s in my DNA to care about these communities. …

“I’m a behind-the-scenes person. I want to effect change. I get great satisfaction out of making things better.”

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