By Marshall V. King

Elkhart’s River District is still a vision off in the future, but it’s easier to see as buildings come down and streets take shape.

As the Elkhart Aquatic Center continues to take shape before opening in May 2019 and the streets and sidewalk around it are being made with all the utilities buried beneath them, those who have been crafting the vision are getting even more excited about the future. “This feels real,” said Shelley Moore, the project lead and president of ISC Community Development.

The River District’s 105 acres, with another 45 along Jackson Boulevard east of Johnson, are being transformed into a modern, walkable urban center.

Fourteen people from Elkhart, mostly private investors who are putting money toward the $300 million River District, recently traveled to Greenville, South Carolina, to learn more about how it has been revitalized in the last two decades since the textile mills left. Greenville, like Elkhart, is one of the manufacturing towns with rivers and less than 150,000 residents that is working at being a new kind of city rather than a rusty, industrial shell. Others on that list include Asheville, Grand Rapids and Fort Wayne.

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While there, Dave Weaver, chairman of the River District Implementation Team, said he saw how public/private partnerships, a mile-long Main Street and walkability, as well as pride in aesthetics, has helped change the city into an automotive hub for makes such as BMW.

Whether it’s Greenville or downtown Vegas, success happened not because of luck or a lucky bolt of redevelopment lightning. “The reality is someone made a decision and at some point they were going to execute on a vision,” he said. “As a community, we made that decision.”

Elkhart has been working at vibrancy for decades with the RiverWalk, Lerner Theatre and Wellfield Botanic Gardens, said Pete McCown, president of the Community Foundation of Elkhart County. “Now there’s a group of folks who caught the excitement for the River District and Aquatic Center,” he said.

The change is happening quickly as the River District takes shape. “Everybody is ready for big change,” Weaver said. Greenville and other places show what’s possible when, over time, a city integrates what it has to offer, said Weaver.

In Elkhart, the project is moving quickly.

Redeveloping a big chunk of downtown has a lot of moving parts and most of them are coming together neatly like cogs. The Elkhart City Council approved the River District plan as part of its master plan for downtown, helping assure that it becomes the map for what happens in the coming years.

Nearly 30 properties on the north side of East Jackson Boulevard will be coming down in the coming days. Most of those were residential properties, but the demolition of former businesses such as Edgerton’s Travel Service and The Moringa Tree could soon follow.

The first phase of making East Jackson Boulevard part of what will be a 105-acre walkable neighborhood is done and reopened. That’s a huge deal for those businesses that were affected by the closure, said Weaver.

Jackson Boulevard in downtown Elkhart is being transformed into a pedestrian friendly roadway that also accommodates on-street parking. (Photo by Marshall V. King)

The second phase is underway and should be completed by Labor Day, said Moore. Trees, light posts and street signs are expected this fall and Elkhart Avenue is expected to reopen by Thanksgiving.

“You’ll continue to see a lot of working being done,” said Weaver.

The former Alick’s building along East Jackson is also being scheduled for demolition after a number of years of vacancy. Redeveloping that plot along the river should be relatively easy, said Weaver.

The Elkhart Public Works employees have been meeting deadlines and the implementation team continues to work at upcoming stages. Flaherty & Collins’ luxury apartments are a few months behind schedule, but a spring opening is still being planned, said Moore.

By the end of September, a Request For Proposal process for Zone 1 will give developers a chance to submit specific plans for the area that includes the Aquatic Center a few blocks on the south side of East Jackson. The final stages of funding are also being put in place for the new Martin’s Super Market along East Jackson and construction could start this fall, according to Moore.

A vibrant downtown makes a community stronger. “A town is as good as its downtown,” Moore said.

Marshall V. King is a Goshen-based free-lance writer. He wrote this piece on behalf of Vibrant Communities.

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