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Expanded SoMa plans to be unveiled next week

Elkhart's downtown revitalization group, SoMa, is preparing to unveil its long-term plans.
Posted on May 12, 2013 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on May 12, 2013 at 3:57 p.m.

ELKHART — Suggesting that SoMa has expanded from its original vision would be an understatement.

So says Diana Lawson, chairman of the group that originally had focused its revitalization efforts on just a few blocks of downtown Elkhart along South Main Street.

After months of planning and input, though, the group is on the verge of unveiling a long-term plan that includes a much larger swath.

Indeed, the group has proposed expanding beyond the downtown business district as far north as Simonton Street and as far south as Prairie Street.

The SoMa study group, made of more than 60 people, will present its plans twice next week when it meets with the city redevelopment commission on Tuesday and then on Wednesday at the Lerner Theatre during ArtWalk in what is being billed as the SoMa Expo.

With a larger scope of attention, SoMa has also revised the philosophy behind its acronym, SoMa.

Until now, SoMa was short for South Main.

But the new emphasis is now underscored with the theme, “Supporting Our Main Assets.”

That change arrived months ago when members of the SoMa study group sat down and catalogued all of the downtown attractions and experienced what some call an “aha moment” when they realized the importance of marketing much more than just the arts and entertainment district.

In part, there was a growing realization that they needed to market the other amenities, including Wellfield Botanic Gardens, Ruthmere Museum and the Havilah Beardsley House, all of which are north of the Memorial Bridge.

“We discovered we had more assets than any downtown in our region within a one-mile linear trail,” Lawson said.

“What we need to do is bundle them, talk about them and create this awareness of what we have,” she said.

Other attractions south of the bridge include the RiverWalk, Time Was Museum, Lerner Theatre, NIBCO Water and Ice Park, Island Park, Midwest American Art Museum and a handful of art stores and galleries.

Lawson said the group envisions three districts. Those include a garden district to the north, the RiverWalk district and the Arts and Entertainment district to the south.

Another key part of the overall plan is development of the RiverWalk Culture Trail, which will guide pedestrians on a walking tour that highlights many of the arts, culture and recreational spots in the downtown. The tour will stretch from the botanic gardens as far south as the railroad museum.

Maps and signs will be developed and made available to promote the RiverWalk Cultural Trail, according to Mike Huber, president of Downtown Elkhart Inc.

An overview of the plan is also available online at the city’s website, www.elkhartindiana.org.

SoMa organizers are also seeking public input on the proposals before submitting a final plan to the redevelopment corporation on July 9.

As a result, the group will be seeking people to fill out short surveys during ArtWalk, which runs from 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday in downtown Elkhart.

Last week, Crystal Welsh, the city’s director of community development, attended the city council meeting and encouraged council members to look into the plans.

“We’re really hoping to get a lot of public input and move this implementation strategy forward,” Welsh said.

The SoMa Expo will also highlight real estate and residential opportunities along with its ideas for enhanced “gateways” and a management plan for the downtown.

After final approval by the redevelopment commission, the city would then begin to implement parts of the plan.

In addition to a finalized philosophical approach, SoMa will also look at funding.

The group has received financial support from the city, but much of the work has been a volunteer effort.

Information that outlined the group’s goals mentioned a funding request, but did not detail the amount or source of funding that may be sought.

Lawson said the city might have to look at adjusting it’s tax increment finance districts to pay for some of the improvements for the north gateway.

That may entail expansion of an existing TIF district to include the north gateway area.

Lawson said she believes entry points into the downtown need enhancing.

Revenues from a TIF district are a common source of money for infrastructure improvements aimed at economic development projects.

@Breakout heads 08:ArtWalk

When: Wednesday, May 15, from 5 to 8 p.m.

Where: downtown Elkhart

The festival is organized by Downtown Elkhart Inc., and will showcase 21 artists and will feature nine entertainers.

Organizers of SoMa will be highlighting their revitalization and marketing plans at Lerner Theatre.

SoMa will also open an art gallery, SoMa Studios, at 503 S. Main St.

A free movie, “A Jazzy Film,” will also be shown at the Lerner beginning at 8 p.m.

Many of the downtown businesses have also scheduled special promotions and sales during the event.




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