ELKHART -- SoMa’s press conference was like a Gateway to good news for downtown Elkhart.
City officials on Friday, May 30, announced details of two initiatives involving the private sector that will give downtown Elkhart and the city’s Jazz Fest a major boost.
Representatives of SoMa, the downtown revitalization group, announced the Elkhart Jazz Festival had gained a new corporate sponsor and also unveiled new loan program that will allow downtown property owners to make improvements.
The announcements were made in the lobby of the Lerner Theatre with a large number of city officials and others in attendance.
Representatives of Forest River announced it agreed to serve as a new corporate sponsor for the jazz festival, the three-day event that kicks off June 20.
David Smith, general manager of the Lerner, said the recreational van company will provide $50,000 for the upcoming jazz fest and an equal amount next year.
Smith thanked Forest River President and CEO Pete Liegl for the support.
“Pete Liegl and the Forest River team have long-running commitment to Elkhart and our community as a whole. We welcome them as a primary sponsor,” Smith said.
Mike Terlep, president of Coachmen RV, a division of Forest River, expressed pride in being “part of this great community” and mentioned his affection for SoMa’s “Live, Work and Play” mantra.
“We work hard to bring enjoyment to others and that’s one of the common traits between Forest River and what we bring with our products and what the jazz festival brings,” Terlep said.
Possibly the biggest news of the day came with the announcement that Downtown Elkhart Inc., had assembled a new loan program with $1.6 million dollars for property owners in the downtown business district to potentially access.
The Gateway Mile Loan Program, named after the city’s new marketing theme recently announced for downtown Elkhart, is the first loan pool focused solely on the central business district, according to DEI’s executive director Dan Boecher, a former banker who worked to assemble the cooperation of the local financial community.
The program, he said, will encourage the continuing momentum of investment for new and expanding businesses in the downtown.
While the downtown is in the midst of an upswing in momentum, Boecher acknowledged “our market is not exactly where we want it to be,” a likely reference to numerous vacant store fronts.
“We see this as a tremendous tool to assist those businesses” seeking to locate in the downtown or seek improvements to existing businesses, Boecher said.
The participating banks include First Source Bank, Teachers Credit Union, Inova Fedeal Credit Union, Interra Credit Union, Lake City Bank and Old National Bank, he said.
Representatives of the banks were lined up behind Boecher as he spoke.
Their commitment represents a “tremendous statement of support and all of you should be commended on behalf of your institutions for the commitment you’ve made here in Elkhart,” Boecher said of the assembled group.
The group will be among those serving on a loan committee that will review and ensure that any project that receives funding will be one that’s well thought out, well backed and has a high likelihood of success, he said.
“Downtown Elkhart is very much open for business and we look forward to many ribbon cuttings of businesses that access these funds,” he said.
One of the first businesses to apply will likely be Kurt Janowsky, a restaurateur who plans to open a new restaurant later this summer on South Main Street. The restaurant is tentatively called Artisan.
Janowsky said he believes the new program is perfectly geared toward businesses who lease buildings. Acquiring loans for improvements is often more difficult for businesses that don’t own the buildings they use.
Janowsky said he wants to improve the future eatery’s facade.
Initially, he wasn’t planning on doing much to the exterior.
“When I became aware this fund might be available, that excited me and so I looked into it,” Janowsky said. “Without it, we’d have a difficult time” making improvements to the exterior.
The media event was also a chance to formally unveil the city’s new marketing plan that embodies a new branding slogan for the downtown known as The Gateway Mile.
Mayor Dick Moore said the slogan and symbol signifies that the gates of the downtown are open and lead to a “treasure hunt” of opportunities.
Moore recapped a list of downtown amenities and expressed confidence with the new Gateway Mile Loyalty Card, a discount card that will be available to anyone free of change and provide discounts to participating downtown merchants.
“Look for the Gateway Mile symbol on doors and windows and look to enjoy a mile-long list of surprising benefits,” Moore told the crowd.
The long list of changes that are happening in the downtown, Moore said, is the result of a group of community advocates who got together and determined “how to open the gate and the direction our downtown would take once the gate was open,” he said, referring to SoMa.