Against a backdrop of New Orleans jazz, a new downtown Elkhart begins to take shape

Five years ago, Elkhart struggled to survive a collapsing RV industry and 20 percent unemployment. Now it attracts world-class talent like Marsalis and Neville. That’s no coincidence.

Posted on June 14, 2014 at 7:02 p.m.

If you want to gauge how far we’ve come since the Great Recession flattened us in 2008, look at the Elkhart Jazz Festival.

Last year, organizers booked legendary trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra as the Saturday night headliners. Guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli topped Friday’s bill.

New Orleans Jazz royalty fills the Lerner Theatre stage next weekend, beginning Friday night with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, followed Saturday by Aaron Neville. Jazz started in New Orleans, and for two glorious nights we get to swing to some of the best artists the city ever produced.

Five years ago, Elkhart struggled to survive a collapsing RV industry and 20 percent unemployment. Now it attracts world-class talent like Marsalis and Neville. That’s no coincidence.

We rebuilt our economy — and with it, our downtown.

Visionaries gambled on restoring and expanding the Lerner, our Depression-era jewel on the corner of Franklin and Main. When they did, they sparked a downtown Elkhart renaissance.

Cynics can scoff all they want, but that’s the right word: Renaissance. Even as the brutal recession lingered, entrepreneurs began opening restaurants and bars downtown. Landlords started rehabbing upscale apartments above the city’s storefronts, which filled with new tenants. And, while it’s a work in progress, new shops and businesses continue to open in spaces that once stood empty.

Mayor Dick Moore authorized the SoMa initiative — Supporting Our Main Assets — to encourage downtown renewal. Downtown Elkhart Inc. took on a bold new role managing urban properties.

It worked.

When you’re downtown next week, clapping your hands to the sound of New Orleans jazz, look around. You’ll see a vibrant new city taking shape.

What you won’t see is another downtown Goshen or Kalamazoo. And for good reason — nobody can out-Goshen Goshen or do Kalamazoo better than Kalamazoo.

They’re college communities with unique advantages, which they used to build dynamic downtowns.

This is Elkhart; we’re building a downtown that reflects our history, our assets, our culture. As much as we’ve accomplished — the restaurants and pubs, the gardens, the RiverWalk District, the lofts, the shops and offices — we’re still making crucial choices about what the city will become.

Diana Lawson made the same point earlier this year.

Lawson, executive director of the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau, served as chairwoman of the SoMa initiative. The Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce honored her in February as its Woman of the Year.

In her acceptance speech, Lawson spoke about what it takes for a downtown to become meaningful to a city’s residents. She identified four questions to consider:

1. How do people connect?

2. How do they work together?

3. What seems to be important enough for people to gather around and support?

4. Does the community sing its praise?

Between shows at the Lerner next week, reflect on those questions. Discuss them with friends at dinner or over drinks.

Because it isn’t just SoMa that’s rebuilding downtown Elkhart. It isn’t just Downtown Elkhart Inc. or City Hall.

It’s all of us.

We’ve already accomplished a great deal, as the Jazz Festival proves. But we’re just getting started.

You can help decide what downtown Elkhart becomes.


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