ELKHART — After 36 years of living on Division Street just east of Main Street, Toni Brayton knows a little about neighborhood revitalization efforts and how easily good intentions can fall by the wayside.
“The only thing I know is that if you don’t continually work in the direction of improvement, it won’t stay the same, it will actually get worse.” Brayton said while sitting on her porch that overlooks the brick paved street and numerous homes that are in disrepair.
While she withholds a pinch of skepticism, she’s also hopeful that real change is on the horizon.
Brayton and her neighbors got an inkling of the improvements Thursday when volunteers from Inova Federal Credit Union began constructing eight garden beds on a stretch of empty lots in the 100 block of Division Street.
The gardens represent the first step in a wide-range neighborhood revitalization effort known as SoMa, short for South Main Street.
“I’m glad in a way that other people from outside the neighborhood are getting involved,” Brayton said.
Officials believe revitalizing parts of Division and State streets are a key because of its proximity to South Main Street, an area considered to be a gateway to the downtown business district.
The neighborhood is riddled with vacant, boarded up homes and empty lots. Yet, it is just blocks from the downtown business district and the city’s marquee venue, the Lerner Theatre.
Over the years, the combination of limited resources and restrictions that limit renovations in the historic district have led to long-term disinvestment in the neighborhood, said Mike Huber, president of Downtown Elkhart Inc.
Efforts this summer are geared toward changing the existing perception.
“If you want to attract new investment in that area, the first thing you have to do is kind of re-energize it and change the perception and the image of it,” Huber said.
Unlike past efforts, SoMa appears to be fueled by a grassroots coalition and strongly supported by the city.
The gardens are the first sign of change taking root.
Another even more visible sign of change is set for June 30 when as many as several hundred volunteers are expected to descend on the neighborhood to help spruce up some of the properties by planting flowers, clearing overgrown vegetation and helping with some paint projects.
A handful of street lights will be installed as well.
Aside from providing a sense of security, Diana Lawson, chairperson of SoMa, said she think it will, in a way, put a spotlight on an area that has been in the shadows for too long.
“I think the street lights will make a huge difference,” Lawson said.
But the garden, fresh paint and new street lights are only the beginning.
Officials will showcase part of the neighborhood on July 18 in conjunction with ArtWalk. Along with art vendors and musicians, visitors will be able to tour some of the available properties and learn about the neighborhood’s history.
At least two properties will be “staged” and open to the public in hopes of attracting investors.
Organizers hope to attract several interested parties in participating in pop-up-shops, which allow new businesses to set up shop and test the waters of a business opportunity.
Huber said they intend to seek pop-up shops primarily for South Main Street.
Diane Overmyer, an artist who lives south of Elkhart and had an art gallery at the Old Bag Factory in Goshen for a few years, was asked to consider participating.
She said she’s contemplating the idea and trying to determine if she can coordinate it with other artists to ensure they can dedicate the hours to make it work. But she likes the idea.
“It’s a very smart move on the city’s part,” Overmyer said.
Numerous signs of new investment are also beginning to appear.
A large four-unit apartment building at 116 Division St. was recently renovated.
Lifeline Youth for Christ has an expanding presence in the area.
And three properties, some of which include a mix of retail and residential, are being renovated by Deidre and Mark Quiring, who moved to the area about four years ago, formed Turnbuckle Development, and began looking for investment opportunities.
“We thought this was a great opportunity,” Quiring said. “We feel like there is a lot of movement and upward growth.”
She said they’re impressed with SoMa’s approach.
“They’re taking it piece by piece so that we as a community can see the needed improvement as well as the long-term process of improvements,” Quiring said.
Another significant move is also in the works. Within a few weeks, the offices of Downtown Elkhart Inc. will move from Elkhart Chamber of Commerce building to 112 Division St.
DEI’s move will require approval by the Elkhart Redevelopment Commission, but Huber expressed confidence that will happen.
Huber said the move parallels a change in the agency’s mission. “We envision DEI becoming the organization that assumes responsibility for implementing many of the longer term strategies and recommendations that come out of this.” Huber said. “We absolutely want to become more involved in those areas.”
After the summer showcase, the effort to revive SoMa will continue, Lawson said.
SoMa will focus on several prominent properties including the old railroad depot. She said they would also like to see aesthetic improvements to the post office on the west side of South Main.
Lawson said a plan is being developed and will eventually be submitted to the city redevelopment commission for consideration.
Such a plan would allow the city to tap into revenues from the downtown Tax Increment Financing district that includes SoMa.