EDITOR'S NOTE: The Place Where You Live is a column from a variety of writers in Elkhart County. As the column's name suggests, they'll write about issues affecting their neighbors and communities.
Upon appointment by Mayor Dick Moore, I started my employment as general manager of the Lerner Theatre in the spring of 2011. I am embarrassed to say that my experience with Elkhart was limited to the Dunlap area, as I lived in Nappanee at the time and only took SR 19 out of town for movies and trips to Walmart.
It is ironic that I now find myself in the middle of a developing, fun and energetic downtown that was birthed by enterprise and ultimately damaged by enterprise, the very same retail concept that kept me from reaching the heart of Elkhart. Long ago, the consumer visited downtown to have their needs met, but with the advent of the mall concept, that all changed. Consumers/shoppers went to the malls.
As the world spins and technology develops, humans continue to redefine traditional parts of their existence. The all-encompassing mall concept has now made it possible to redefine the meaning of “downtown.” This is a gift. In the same way that the Internet provides one-stop shopping experience for everything, your downtown becomes a one-stop destination for real -life experiences, cherished memories and meaningful moments.
The Gateway Mile, born out of the mayor’s SoMa initiative, is truly “our downtown” — the hub of Elkhart’s cultural importation and cultural inheritance. Downtown Elkhart moves into its new chapter with over 150 years of legacy building.
Today, beginning at the outstanding Wellfield Botanic Gardens and heading south on Main Street, downtown Elkhart hosts fine and family dining, museums, multiple outdoor recreation opportunities, bakeries, jewelry stores, bridal shops, a university campus, live theater, live music venues, artist’s studios and wonderful galleries, eclectic shops, great loft living, changing neighborhoods, craft breweries, yoga studios, salons and spa services, and more!
I have often said this publicly: “Memories saved the Lerner from demolition and ultimately will save downtown if we can continue to evoke the right memories.”
Upon hire, I began to hear stories about the theater and downtown: a kiss stolen in the balcony, sneaking in through the coal chute, or a first job. Ladies said, “When a boy took you to see a show at The Lerner (formerly known as the Elco), it meant he really thought you were special.” Those positive memories, as shared with me, stop around the mid- to late 1970s. But following on the Lerner’s renovation and its impact on downtown redevelopment, I am hearing so much more. People see the old paint get chipped away, and they see colors they remember.
However, downtown isn’t just for nostalgia. We have burgeoning communities here in Elkhart that seek a home for art and music, for vibrancy and for their voices to be heard. We have venues downtown for entertainment, food, shopping and art that cater to all types of people.
Yet one demographic is often missing. Young people live all over Elkhart — north, south, east and west of downtown. They have their own ideas about creating memories. Look at the “hipsters.” Minus the self-congratulation, they’re a valuable asset for continuing tradition.
Elkhart cannot grow if it becomes sedentary in memories. All residents of Elkhart must be allowed to recognize downtown as a hand extended, because we can’t just rescue downtown once. Rather, we need to take the next 80 years to create the positive memories that will step up and save this place if or when it needs it again.
I believe, with over 150 years of character building, it is hard to say "Let’s get started." But I do think it is appropriate to say "Let’s make tomorrow’s memories in a historic, lasting fashion." Let's continue to build on the momentum and energy the restored Lerner has brought to our downtown. Together, let's create new memories.
David Smith is general manager of the Lerner Theatre and co-chair of the Elkhart Jazz Festival. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.