ELKHART - Just because the American Countryside Farmers Market is a thing of the past doesn't mean the area south of Elkhart is destined for oblivion.
The road infrastructure and utility connections are in place to accommodate development, and Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder thinks it's just a matter of time for the zone to grow.
"I don't think there's any doubt that's going to develop," said Yoder, also a member of the Elkhart County Plan Commission.
A dream fizzles
The American Countryside Farmers Market opened amid much fanfare in 2007 on a 315-acre plot of farmland off the northeast corner of S.R. 19 and C.R. 26. A sprawling theme park or holiday resort was to have taken shape around it, according to the original vision, luring visitors from near and far.
The market never caught on with the public, though, and its owners, investors from mainly the Michiana area, closed the operation last year and auctioned off the property last week.
Elkhart's Waste-Away Group offered the winning bid on the farmers market structure and 275 acres around it, potentially boding for a dramatic shift in development of the property. An unnamed bidder, which still hasn't been publicly revealed, offered the high bid on the remaining 40-acre American Countryside plot, abutting S.R. 19 just west of the farmers market structure.
The new vision
John Letherman, president of the Elkhart County Council and a commercial Realtor, offered high praise for the Waste-Away Group, which runs the trash-hauling companies Borden Waste-Away and Himco Waste-Away. The company plans to convert the farmers market building into its corporate headquarters.
"I have a lot of confidence in the Waste-Away people to put a good project in there and in the end, contribute to the betterment of the area," Letherman said. "They've got a good track record and they know what they're doing."
More generally, he sees industrial and commercial development evolving in the zone south of Elkhart, noting the road system there.
Elkhart County pitched in around $5.6 million to help upgrade C.R. 26 to a four-lane road on the south side of the farmers market land. S.R. 19 to the west also received upgrades to deal with traffic, funded in part with Indiana Department of Transportation money.
"I think that's going to be a commercial and industrial interchange," Letherman said of the crossing, just south of the U.S. 20 Bypass.
Indeed, unsuccessful bidders at the American Countryside auction included truck stop developers, he said. And he could see development of a gas station or food outlet at the S.R. 19-C.R. 26 corner, part of the 40-acre parcel to be purchased by the mystery bidder.
Letherman doesn't foresee stores or shopping outlets evolving because there aren't enough nearby homes to support such development.
Rosy forecasts notwithstanding, it's not clear what Waste-Away has in mind.
After last week's auction, Chris Himes, one of the Waste-Away owners, indicated that the 51,000-square-foot farmers market structure is probably more than enough space for the company's employees. Maybe the firm will open it up to others for professional offices, he said.
He was vague when asked if the land would eventually be used for recycling operations, but indicated that maintenance of Waste-Away vehicles would likely take place at the location.
In a press release this week, Waste-Away said it's in the "planning stages" of transforming the new property, just west of the Elkhart County and Earthmovers landfills, also on C.R. 26.
"I think we need to wait and see what they come back with or plan for the entire property," Yoder said.
Whatever the case, the end of the American Countryside vision doesn't mean an end to the possibilities.
"I don't know if it's important if it's a tourist destination or a business," Yoder said. "The important thing is there's some sort of economic activity that generates jobs."