EDITOR'S NOTE: The Place Where You Live is a regular column from a variety of writers in Elkhart County.
It was 2007, and Mayor Dave Miller had just been informed that pieces of the old Elco façade had fallen off the front of the building. Something had to be done with the old theater originally built as the Lerner Theatre in 1924 by Harry Lerner. The mayor appointed a task force, chaired by Diana Lawson, to decide what to do with the theater, which was still in continuous use. The task force eventually involved more than 100 Elkhartans.
The upshot was a consensus to restore the old theater rather than tear it down and have another vacant lot on Main Street. But the clouds were gathering on the horizon in the form of the greatest recession that the country faced since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The local Elkhart economy was soon to face 20 percent unemployment and unprecedented hardship. With this background, the challenge was to find the means and the will to proceed with the theatre restoration.
I headed a small group saddled with the task of finding a way to pay for an $18 million restoration project without raising taxes. We found that by paying off some small existing loans and issuing a new 20-year, $10.2 million loan, we could actually cut the city debt payments by half. We were able to secure a 3.3 percent interest rate, and we then set about raising another $4.2 million in private funds; the remainder would be supplied by TIF funding. Even though the economy was at the bottom during our three- year fund-raising efforts, the people of Elkhart came through and we raised as much as we did for the IU Elkhart building a few years earlier when the economy was much better.
Mayor Dick Moore succeeded Mayor Miller and quickly became an enthusiastic supporter of the theater restoration. He asked me to become the project manager. I agreed on the condition that he give me a free hand in the design and construction. He readily consented, and we began construction in 2009 – right at the depth of the recession. The fact that we started construction on the largest public works project in the history of the city at the very depths of the most severe economic challenge the city had ever faced says a lot about Elkhart and the people who live here. And it says a lot about Moore, who took a major political risk that the theater would turn out well.
Fortunately for all, the Lerner once again became the grand old dame of Main Street. With the addition of the Crystal Ballroom, the theater doubled in size. We were able to change old decrepit restrooms in the basement to beautiful rehearsal facilities for Premier Arts and to help it expose more than 500 children to the theatre.
The Lerner has become the focal point for a renaissance for the downtown with new restaurants and shops now opening. And the Lerner gave birth to SoMa – the grassroots group that is the engine driving future downtown success.
No one ever has a guaranteed roadmap for the future. But Elkhart is noted for its innovation and its willingness to take a risk. Look what we did with the Lerner.
Jack Cittadine is an Elkhart attorney. He served as project manager for the Lerner Theatre's restoration, completed in May 2011.