ELKHART — Looking at a map of downtown Elkhart on display Wednesday at the SoMa Expo, one could see the numerous green spaces interspersed around the Elkhart River and the St. Joe River.
But what Diana Lawson sees are endless possibilities.
“This community is positioned for the future — the way people want to live. They want to consume their downtowns, using outdoor recreation as the tool,” said Lawson, the chairperson of the SoMa study group, which has been developing a revitalization plan for the downtown during the past 18 months.
Lawson and others involved in the plan firmly believe the city can build upon its assets in the downtown area with a concerted, managed marketing approach.
The assets are there, and SoMa hopes to pull it all together.
“This is a big playground for our community,” Lawson said.
The map Lawson studied was one of several displays at the Lerner that were part of Wednesday’s Expo, which served as the public’s first chance to see the plans.
The expo was incorporated into ArtWalk in hopes of luring the many festivalgoers into the Lerner to check out the plans. The idea seemed to work as a large number of people passed through the lobby to take a look at the display.
Three distinct stations highlighted SoMa’s initiatives — marketing and management of the downtown, residential and commercial development and a third area defined as gateways and green spaces that Lawson had been discussing.
At each of the stations were a list of goals and ideas. People browsing the plans were then encouraged to prioritize their interests by placing stickers next to specific proposals. In less than an hour, some of the priorities began to take shape as stickers started stacking up in neatly lined up columns.
During the next few weeks, SoMa will continue to collect input from the public before refining the draft plan, which will then be sent to mayor Dick Moore for approval.
The final plan will then be presented to the city’s redevelopment commission for adoption.
The plans are vast and comprehensive.
SoMa has proposed establishing north and south gateways to the downtown, something that has never been clearly identified, Lawson said.
The plan is to establish the gateway on the north beginning on Simonton Street — near the Wellfield Botanic Garden — and on the south at Prairie Street where a new railroad overpass will be constructed beginning next year.
Organizers also want to tie together many of the recreational assets by marketing RiverWalk Culture trail that links parks and other amenities with new signs.
SoMa envisions developing and marketing three districts within the downtown. The garden district would include the Wellfield Botanic Gardens, Havilah Beardsley House and Ruthmere Museum. The RiverWalk district to the south would encompass the parks and rivers. Further to the south is the arts and entertainment district.
Organizers believe a coordinated marketing approach will help residents and visitors better realize the opportunities that already exist, Lawson said.
She said the city is already seeing some new investment with the recent arrival of two businesses in the downtown, Wine and Canvas and Ad Stream.
“Once investors believe that you have a theme that the community’s agreed upon ... they will invest,” Lawson said.
SoMa supporters will also soon seek to fund a paid staff, but have yet to determine a source of funding.
She said a proposal addressing that issue will likely be developed before the final plan is submitted to the redevelopment commission.
Another tentative plan is to improve the intersection of South Main and Middlebury streets with landscape that would pay homage to the adjacent railroad yard — a marketing idea that would also tie in appropriately with the nearby National New York Central Railroad Museum.
Details about SoMa’s draft plan can be found at the city’s website at elkhartindiana.org.