Investments in Downtown could be key to South Bend's future

South Bend, Ind. Incremental investments in downtown South Bend are the key to the city's economic future, according to engineer and city planner Charles Marohn who presented a "Curbside Chat" on the realities facing American towns Friday morning.

The presentation was hosted by the City of South Bend Department of Community Investment and the Greater South Bend-Mishawaka Area Association of Realtors.

Marohn said spending on infrastructure without the promise of efficiently recouping the costs is a dangerous strategy.

"The problem is it's like throwing gasoline on the fire," Marohn said, in reference to funding city projects on debt. "The problem is the fire goes out really quickly because there's nothing sustaining it. Investments that you do from debt have to be the result of other investments; they can't be used to induce new growth."

The way to generate growth, he said, is to invest in the most valuable real estate in town - the city's downtown.

"You have investments that were made over 100 years ago that are still some of your most productive investments," Marohn said.

The President of the Greater South Bend Mishawaka Association of Realtors, Quinn Thurin, agreed.

"The idea of incremental investments is a great idea," he said, "taking existing opportunities out there and improving upon them. That's a lot of what we have in greater downtown area, as opposed to carving out new space out in vacant land, let's take what we have and see what we can do to improvement."

Marohn suggested building shops around parking lots and fixing up sidewalks and run-down buildings as a way to improve the value of downtown real estate, which is already much more valuable that land on the outskirts of the community.

Willow Wetherall is an organizer for the group Ignite Michiana, a community action group focused on celebrating and revitalizing the area. She thinks the push towards downtown is the right direction.

"We are definitely seeing the trend of people wanting to move back to walkable neighborhoods and walkable cities," Wetherall said. "We're seeing that in South Bend. Millennials are definitely looking to be located in a place where they can live and shop and eat, experience arts and culture -- all within walking distance of where they are."

Wetherall appreciated having an outsider's perspective on local issues.

"The presenter was able to say things that our political officials can't always say," she said. "It was good to have a neutral outsider come in and give us a reality check that the way we're doing things is making us go broke and we need to do it differently in the future."

Marohn tours the country giving presentations on the economic strategies available to America's towns. He is the author of Thoughts on Building Strong Towns and the primary writer of the Strong Towns Blog.

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