Local visionary to walk new path

NAPPANEE — Saying Larry Andrews cares about his hometown is an understatement. But after two decades of improving the area’s appearance, commerce and reputation, it is time for a change of pace.
At month’s end, Andrews will step away from his role as executive director of the Nappanee Area Chamber of Commerce and Community and Economic Development.
“I’m not retiring, just slowing down a bit,” Andrews said. “I want to work part-time and do some mission work, but also enjoy time and do things around the house.”
Andrews started in Nappanee community development in 1990, when he went to work part-time for the Main St. Program, which focused on downtown projects. The group received a grant to study heritage tourism.
The three-year grant program’s goal was to formulate a plan to attract tourists to Nappanee.
“We were one of 16 communities in the country to be selected, so we were very honored,” Andrews said.
For a decade, Andrews balanced his own marketing business, the community development gig and another part-time job with the Chamber. Then, Mayor Larry Thompson decided to meld the latter two into one full-time position in the Community and Economic Development office.
“It’s a rather unusual mix, but in a small town you have to wear several hats,” Andrews said.
In his 20 years on the job, Andrews has seen Nappanee change structurally and philosophically.
“The thing I’m most proud of is the town’s sense of pride,” Andrews said. “I used to hear the comment, ‘Why would anyone want to come to Nappanee?’ I don’t hear that anymore. People know we have some special things. I can’t take the credit for it. The community has done it. “
Nappanee has become a model. During Andrews’ tenure, it has earned distinction as one of America’s top 10 small towns and one of the 100 best downtown communities, in addition to numerous other honors and grants.
Andrews believes the town’s response to the 2007 tornado showed its pride, resolve and unity.
“I think it was always there, the idea of cooperation and doing things together,” Andrews said. “But it really came out after the tornado. We all pitched in and the town and rural communities came together. We didn’t know each other as well before then, and now we appreciate each other more.”
Andrews refers to the current financial strife as an “economic tornado,” which rural residents and business owners have faced head-on.
“Many had businesses but worked in the RV industry and made a comfortable living,” Andrews said. “When they got laid off, they wondered what to do, and their shops began to flourish. Now we have 227 rural shops in the area, and they have joined the Chamber and there is a new level of closeness.”
Among the changes under Andrews’ watch was to the current motto: “Embrace the Pace.” Seven years ago, local leadership decided it needed a brand, and asked for public ideas. The winner came from a couple that had moved in from California.
“We liked it because the pace could be the slow pace of an Amish buggy or the fast pace of a motor home,” Andrews said. “We’ve tried to use it to say, ‘Take time to enjoy life.’ It has really caught on.”
Andrews lost his wife, Joan, to leukemia last December, which he called “quite a blow.” At the beginning of this year, he started to think about embracing a different pace himself.
“I’ve always had so many meetings at night, I decided I needed to start doing things I wanted to do, especially in the evenings,” Andrews said. “That’s when I decided to slow down.”
Joan, who started the Family Christian Development Center and helped build homes through Habitat for Humanity, also was a pillar of the community, who shared Andrews’ love for Nappanee.
“She had a real interest in helping people and had a nurturing personality,” Andrews said.
The Andrews’ affection for Nappanee extends to their three children — Jon Andrews, Jennifer Martin and Janelle Salinas — who all settled in the area. Andrews, who went on a Kenyan mission trip a few years ago, will take his skills to Nepal with Jon, to help build individual businesses.
“Whether it’s raising chickens or opening a food store or whatever, we want to help get them started,” Andrews said. “I’d like to travel to counties over there once a year.”
Andrews said much work still remains in taking advantage of industrial opportunities and bringing in and keeping tourists in Nappanee.
No matter how much he looks forward to his own future, he knows his final days will be emotional.
“Right now I’m thinking, ‘What will I do Jan. 2?’” Andrews said. “But I’ll still be here and will stay on some local commissions, so it’ll be good.”
The public is invited to an open house honoring Andrews from 2-5 p.m. Dec. 17 at Nappanee Center, 302 W. Market St.