Comprehensive economic development effort is a grand plan for Elkhart
By Marshall V. King Tribune Columnist
The city of Elkhart hasn’t had this kind of plan before.
The city has hired Thomas P. Miller & Associates, which will subcontract with a variety of players, to do the city’s first comprehensive economic development plan dubbed Elkhart 2040.
One of the key players involved will be Shelley Moore, president/founder of Insight Strategic Concepts, Inc. Moore has been a key planner of the River District and was hired to help see that the Elkhart Health & Aquatics got built.
“The city of Elkhart has never taken proactive account for its own development and growth,” Moore told me last week as we chatted at The Electric Brew. The city’s Board of Public Works had just approved the $320,000 contract for the plan.
TPMA was involved in planning the River District and conducted a diversification study of the city of Elkhart. This second phase of Elkhart 2040 is focused on communications and development, which will lead to a roadmap, implementation plan and a prospectus on Opportunity Zones by next summer.
Moore and Mike Higbee, vice president of TPMA, are forming three public/private teams on economic diversity, talent optimization and land use/infrastructure to discuss and prioritize projects. They aren’t doing much on talent attraction or quality of life since Vibrant Communities and other efforts are underway on those fronts.
Moore said there are 12 to 14 projects not in the River District that will likely be a starting point for the planning.
Identifying Opportunity Zones could result in state and federal grants to help development. In Elkhart, those could center around Cassopolis Street, downtown and the southwest industrial zone.
Cassopolis Street continues to grow and change, but planning for how to do that in the future simply makes good sense.
As the River District takes shape, maintaining and using downtown properties in smart ways will continue to be integral. Moore noted that the Chase Bank building and Elkhart Truth building are both prime redevelopment opportunities. Hotel Elkhart’s transformation at 500 S. Main St. can be a key part and a potential redesign of the Civic Plaza are also pieces of that effort.
Higbee, an Elkhart native, said that the city has over 2 million square feet of office space, but only about 600,000 can be leased and almost all of that is off the market. For the city to woo or grow business, it’ll need more office space.
Moore said she’s excited about the process to “design build” with action teams over the coming four months or so. “This isn’t to result in a study. It’s to result in action,” she said.
Both mayoral candidates are aware of the planning process. Both should be supportive. This plan is likely to do heavy lifting that no Elkhart mayor has done in recent decades.
Elkhart 2040 is intended to nestle into plans for the county and South Bend-Elkhart Region. At the regional level, there’s work being done to target promising job sectors. Having a strong Elkhart plan as a piece of larger plans is how a city can move forward and help a region do so.
Creating an Elkhart 2040 plan also means asking questions about how to build or attract industries that diversify the workforce. The lack of diversity is still one of Elkhart’s economic weaknesses. “What happens with the RV industry goes away? And it will,” said Moore. As she studied Elkhart history, she found manufacturing and motion were themes, but so was losing key industries such as pharmaceuticals, musical instruments and manufacturing housing.
Moore wants to start keeping score with data that’s readily available for how Elkhart is doing on this. A number of efforts are underway to create scorecards for Elkhart County. Both Vibrant Communities and the Community Foundation of Elkhart County are working at crafting a set of measures to track over time. Moore plans to keep score related to the economic development plan. “What are our indicators for success?” she asks. That’s the right question; however, I hope there’s collaboration on scorecards, rather than a handful of different ones.
In the 1980s television show “The A Team,” Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith used to say, “I love it when a plan comes together.” Creating the one for Elkhart 2040 will take a little time, but not too much. It will come together quickly and Elkhart will have a plan to help it grow and move forward. It just makes sense to do this.
For more information, go to Elkhart2040.com.
Marshall V. King is a freelance writer and photographer who has worked in Elkhart County as a journalist for more than 20 years. You can read his Food For Thought each Monday and his Dining a la King column each Friday.