A panel of experts from cities around the U.S. offered their recommendations on how to revitalize downtown Elkhart Thursday.
Experts from the Urban Land Institute, which advises communities on land use and real estate development, recently conducted a two-day virtual visit to Elkhart in search of ways the city could promote economic growth in its downtown core.
Based on stakeholder interviews, analyses of other studies and virtual site visits, the panel offered recommendations for everything from housing developments to street upgrades and reimagined parking.
Their biggest suggestion, though, was for the city and private partners to form a downtown revitalization corporation. Panel chair and former Orlando mayor Glenda Hood said a dedicated organization could help the city prioritize its goals for downtown and avoid “scattered leadership.”
“There needs to exist … one vision that’s sustained over the long term, through inevitable leadership changes and both financial and circumstantial ups and downs,” Hood said. “And there needs to be one entity as keeper of that vision.”
Panelist Greg Stype, an attorney from Columbus, Ohio, said similar public-private organizations have helped revitalization progress quickly and smoothly in other cities the ULI has worked with.
“A lot of other organizations that have something to do with downtown have a lot of other agenda items and priorities on their plates as well,” he said. “This organization would be solely focused on downtown.”
Stype said the corporation would take the form of a nonprofit, with a director and staff that answer to a city-appointed board. That format, he said, would allow the corporation to quickly respond to the city’s needs without sacrificing public transparency and accountability.
The corporation would be a point of contact for fundraising –– panelist Faron Hill, president of Peregrine Oak real estate in Atlanta, Georgia, said corporation staff would be responsible for securing state and federal revitalization funding. He said they could also leverage private investment from local groups, like the Community Foundation of Elkhart County or the We Impact Group.
The corporation’s director and staff would be responsible for forming partnerships with other organizations and developers to further the city’s downtown revitalization goals –– namely, continuing to develop its riverfront property and improving connections to its southern neighborhoods.
The panel recommended adding 500-600 housing units to downtown over the next five years, much of it along the river. Panelist Dan Anderton, a community planner from Hampton, Virginia, recommended adding retail space and disguised parking to those developments, as well as public plazas.
“It’s really trying to humanize and personalize these spaces –– make them more pedestrian-friendly –– and also make them more memorable, so that they’re more noticeable,” Anderton said.
Anderton said the city needs to create “destinations” at the southern end of downtown –– the train station and the train museum, for instance –– to promote the flow of people through its core.
Elkhart Mayor Rod Roberson says he’s looking forward to reviewing the report and seeing what recommendations the city could possibly make a reality over the next year.
“I’m interested in having further conversations … so that our downtown becomes a core for a larger area than just the city limits,” Roberson said.
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