Since 2009, the city of Elkhart has gone from being the poster child for the recession to leading the nation in job growth.
The economic upturn is largely attributed to the recovering RV industry, which touts sales numbers reaching 2006 highs. Community leaders said they learned a lesson from the collapse. Instead of relying solely on RV manufacturing and sales, they want to diversify the types of industries located in Elkhart in the hopes of better surviving a future economic downturn.
It’s that type of objectivity that brought about the chamber’s “500 Families” initiative.
“There was so much written on how Elkhart was affected in the economic collapse and where we have been, but we’ve turned a corner” explained Trevor Wendzonka, director of communications and government relations for the chamber of commerce.
The website www.500forthefuture.com promotes pictures of the downtown’s arts and entertainment scene, crowded galleries and a packed Lerner Theatre. When community leaders talk about attracting 500 families, they’re talking about gray and white collared professionals engaged in careers outside of light manufacturing.
According to SOMA contributor and commercial loan officer for Lake City Bank, Dan Boecher, the targeted demographic values a quality of life rich with entertainment, restaurants and higher-end housing options.
That’s why the initiative highlights the city’s features like Art Walk, the Lerner and the river walk, and emphasizes drawing new businesses and storefronts to the downtown.
But the website doesn’t just look at Elkhart’s economic condition with rose-colored glasses, it points out the nearly 27-percent child poverty rate and median home value as the foundation upon which the city can build.
Chamber representatives said the measures of success will include several factors: raising per-capita income to above its current $30,000 per year average, improving education and training beyond high school levels, lowering childhood poverty rates, increasing the median home value, as well as fostering better relations between businesses and the government.
500forthefuture launched around Thanksgiving and is in its starting phase, but Wendzonka said it established what a plan could look like and where the city can go moving forward.
Moving forward starts with reevaluating the downtown and creating a destination for tourists and residents.
Jenifer Rupnow manages Matzke Florists, located in the heart of the downtown. As a former RV employee she recognizes the economic impact the industry has on the entire area, “when the RV industry hurts, it hurts bad. But when it’s good, it’s good” Rupnow explained.
New businesses are slowly moving in on Main St. Rupnow said a new gallery will take the former Art Walk building adjacent to Matzke Florist and more restaurants are popping up.
Across the way on Main St., Pumpernickel’s pretzel bakery owner, David Ullery said he has watched the downtown change for the better.
“There’s a lot more downtown then there used to be,” said Ullery.
This fall has proved a fruitful and productive one for the city. The SOMA project received and influx of funds for advertising purposes, and there is a joint effort among business leaders to better promote what is happening in the city.