ELKHART -- The ambitions of the investors who built the massive barn-like structure off S.R. 19 south of Elkhart were apparently no match for the weak economy.
American Countryside Farmers Market officials on Wednesday announced that the operation will be closing its doors on Sept. 4. The distinctive red building opened amid much fanfare in May 2007 -- on the eve of the U.S. economy's downward skid -- but seemed to consistently struggle with low attendance.
"The economy definitely had a huge impact," said LeRoy Troyer, an investor and a member of the American Countryside Board of Managers.
Still, investors aren't throwing in the towel completely. They want to reassess their options with an eye to reinventing the farmers market, a sprawling, 51,000-square-foot structure meant to reflect the agricultural roots of the region on a grand scale.
"We need to step back and refocus our efforts on a more sustainable business model," Dale Weaver, president of the American Countryside Board of Managers, said in a press release. American Countryside investors -- who come mainly from northern Indiana -- "will explore other opportunities in the months ahead."
Moreover, Troyer said efforts to develop a sprawling holiday resort adjacent to the American Countryside structure continue. Development of the land has always been a goal of the American Countryside investors, and they announced plans last January to build a 300-acre vacation facility there centered around a domed water park and a domed shopping and restaurant complex.
Nonetheless, even those plans, with a price tag of $165 million to $170 million, seem to be facing obstacles. Dale Weaver, president of the American Countryside Board of Managers, said earlier this month that willing investors hadn't yet been found, though he held out hope.
As envisioned, the American Countryside Farmers Market -- characterized inside by massive wooden beams and hardwood floors -- would have lured visitors from far and near, complementing the Amish-themed draws in the area. It houses vendors selling everything from produce and candy to crafts and clothing.
Elkhart County leaders even got in on the act, approving some $4.8 million in improvements to C.R. 26 between S.R. 19 and C.R. 7 in front of the farmers market to accommodate anticipated traffic.
But attendence never seemed to really take off. Some noted things like the seemingly limited array of fruit and vegetable offerings, others the empty stalls in some corners of the building.
Whatever the cause, Troyer said the project boosters are "very sad" over the turn of events. Vendors were informed of the decision Wednesday afternoon, shortly before the media was notified.
"They're not very happy about it, but they understand," Troyer said.
Sept. 4 was picked as the last day to close in part because business typically tapers after that, when school starts, Troyer said. It also gives vendors time to devise alternative plans.