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By Tim Vandenack and Marilyn Odendahl
Truth staff reporters
ELKHART -- Of course the down economy played a significant role.
"The first year was very good," said LeRoy Troyer, one of the investors in American Countryside Farmers Market. "Then the economy started going down and people just didn't come and buy. It's economic."
There were other factors, though, that led to the decision, announced Wednesday, to close American Countryside's doors on Sept. 4 after just three years and two months of operation. The American Countryside owners, a group of investors mainly from northern Indiana, plan to consider alternative options with an eye to potentially reopening the facility at some point.
Grant Black, an Indiana University South Bend economist, noted the lack of fresh vegetables and fruit. As a market, more produce, perhaps, would've drawn local consumers back from week to week.
"It's called a farmers market . . . but the farmers market component is limited," said Black, an occasional visitor.
Ron Schmanske, another American Countryside investor, cited marketing efforts. More specifically, the facility -- which opened its doors in May 2007 -- should have been more heavily marketed to the local community.
"All of us were certainly aware of the fact that we had challenges," said Schmanske.
Even so, Troyer, one of the initial project promoters, was reluctant to second guess too much.
"Everyone's going to have an opinion," he said. "Hindsight's always better than foresight."
And the grand scale of American Countryside notwithstanding, Schmanske rebuffed any suggestion that project promoters were too ambitious, thought too big. The massive American Countryside facility -- containing some 51,000 square feet of space on its main two floors -- looms large amid the open land south of Elkhart, northeast of the C.R. 26-S.R. 19 crossing.
"I don't think that at all," Schmanske said.
Boosters, Schmanske noted, hoped to draw visitors from up to 150 miles away, from an area that includes Detroit, Indianapolis, Chicago and Milwaukee and has a population of some 22 million.
ALL BY ITSELF
Aside from the dreary economy, the mix of goods seemed to be the most prevalent point of contention among observers trying to figure out Thursday what went wrong.
"Certainly at the very beginning, they had a number of vendors and there was a lot of excitement," said Diana Lawson, executive director of the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We were able to communicate that to leisure travelers and tour operators."
Still, the red, timber-pegged barn itself -- with an assessed valuation of $4.58 million, according to Elkhart County records -- seemed to draw the most comments. A tourist attraction, Lawson pointed out, needs to offer other things besides a magnificent structure, and visitors were disappointed when they did not find all the fruit, vegetables, baked goods and meats they thought a farmers market would have.
American Countryside vendors also offer crafts, clothing and other items and the facility houses a food garden.
Grant noted the location of the farmers market, by itself south of the U.S. 20 Bypass. There are no other nearby retail outlets, "so the cost for consumers to go there is a little high," he said.
Project developers had envisioned American Countryside as just the first phase of development. "This was just not planned to be stand alone," said Troyer.
But efforts to develop other draws, most recently a $165 million to $170 million travel resort centered around a domed water park and a domed shopping and restaurant complex, have yet to yield concrete results. Boosters of that project element are still seeking investment capital.
'GOING TO DEVELOP'
So American Countryside investors are left to regroup, rethink how to use the farmers market structure.
"I don't think anyone wants to abandon that project," said Schmanske.
"All I can tell you is that the investor group wants us to explore other options," added Troyer.
That, Lawson thinks, is a "smart thing for them to do." Many Elkhart County businesses have struggled through the economic downturn but have been able to redefine themselves and reopen.
"We hope that happens here," she said.
At the same time, though it may sit by itself, Black said American Countryside is in an area with plenty of potential. County Administrator Tom Byers noted the accessibility of water and sewer service, the new four-lane road in front of the farmers market, C.R. 26, and nearby arterials like S.R. 19, good for bringing in visitors.
"That whole area is going to develop some day. It's just a matter of when the economy turns around," Byers predicted. "It's going to develop."