ELKHART — Passionate, risky and even a bit crazy are words that keep popping up in conversations about Dan Boecher and his decision to leave his banking job for what he considers a dream come true.
Boecher has heard the descriptions, including some echoed by his wife, because what awaits the former banker and father of three young children is anything but a cushy job with 9-to-5 office hours.
His decision earlier this month to leave his job at Lake City Bank to become executive director of Downtown Elkhart Inc. is filled with risk as the community development group moves in a new, bold direction involving residential resurrection officials believe will help bolster the downtown business district.
But this is not exactly new territory for the 43-year-old Boecher, who has been associated with DEI since its founding roughly 10 years ago. He served previously as director of EARN Elkhart Association of River Neighborhoods — and also worked for the city in the community development department.
As a volunteer with DEI, he spent much of his free time the past year shepherding a residential rehab project at 212 W. Jefferson St., which represents the first of nearly a dozen residential projects DEI hopes to embrace in the next year.
The housing renovation plan was developed by DEI and SoMa, the downtown revitalization group that Boecher is also closely involved with. Both groups believe that growth in the downtown business district is being stunted by adjacent blighted neighborhoods.
Boecher points to Goshen’s downtown and surrounding neighborhoods that are — for the most part — much more stable as part of the reason for that city’s thriving downtown.
Targeting residential clusters
The property on West Jefferson was purchased by DEI for $5,000. Built in the mid-1800s, the building has gone through numerous renovations. It most recently served as a law office, but sat empty for several years and had become a stench-filled home to about 10 cats, Boecher said.
The home is being fully renovated into a three-unit apartment building. DEI is using grant money from Elkhart County Health Department’s lead removal program to replace all of the windows do some painting. It also obtained $50,000 loans from the city redevelopment commission and a local lending institution.
Total cost of renovating it is expected to be about $140,000, Boecher said.
DEI chose the house because of its proximity to another rehab project at 209 N. Second St. that is being overseen by the city’s community development department. City officials are using federal neighborhood stabilization money to renovate the old nine-unit building into a six-unit complex with handicap accessibility.
Eventually, the building will be turned over to DEI, Boecher said.
Those projects are among nearly a dozen properties that Boecher calls the “worst of the worst” in residential areas that include the State and Division street neighborhood, along North Second Street and around High Street.
The renovations, Boecher said, will hopefully prompt a renewed outlook by other property owners.
“We need to stem the cancerous blight right now,” Boecher said while standing in one of the apartments on West Jefferson.
Boecher envisions a coordinated attack by working with the city’s community development department and LaCasa Inc., which is heavily involved in low-income housing projects.
“We are going to be much more of the house-by-house, block by block approach through the SoMa District. We want to know every property owner,” Boecher said.
Boecher’s hiring was preceded by a handful of concerns. Some people criticized the city’s decision to use $125,000 in tax increment financing to cover related expenses. DEI, which had gone nearly three years without a director, will use $85,000 to cover Boecher’s salary plus health insurance and retirement costs. Another $40,000 is available for support services.
Boecher said the use of tax increment finance revenues will be a one-shot deal and that revenues from the future rental properties owned by DEI will cover his salary and other expenses after 2014.
Others questioned whether he was too invested in the downtown because he owns several properties. Some complained that he was participating in a loan program designed for downtown property owners that he will now oversee and that the hiring seemed pre-ordained.
Boecher paid off the remaining $248,000 of a $375,000 Aurora Capital Loan ahead of schedule in September and he will be prohibited from using any incentive programs that DEI will oversee, according to Mike Huber, president of DEI.
DEI board members describe Boecher as driven, passionate and well-connected.
Crystal Welsh, the city’s community development director, said she thinks he’s uniquely qualified for the position.
“Who else has the practical experience of working for a not-for-profit housing provider? Who else in the community has the experience of doing the commercial development on Main Street and using the incentives? Who else has the financial background of working as a banker?” Welsh said.
“Not that he’s God’s gift to the earth, but he really does have a semi-unique set of skills that positions him really well to be able to handle the assignments DEI is going to have him doing,” she said.
Boecher is well aware of the concerns and what’s at stake.
As he enters the new year, Boecher has a long list of projects he and DEI will tackle. Many of the tasks have assigned benchmarks to help measure progress.
Despite some of the criticisms he’s heard and the challenges he faces, Boecher said he’s sleeping well at night.
“I know there is as much risk for me as there is for anybody here. I didn’t need any more motivation to do this job. I’m so excited to get started,” Boecher said.
“But I also recognize that if I don’t perform and DEI doesn’t perform, it’s going to be a pretty short-lived venture. That’s how confident I am of our success.”