ELKHART — Friday morning, Feb. 14, turned into a love fest for downtown Elkhart as SoMa officials revealed a series of new business moves that will provide a huge boost to the 500 block of South Main Street.
With many of the Elkhart’s community leaders gathered in the lobby of Lerner Theatre, officials made a string of announcements that all fit into SoMa’s "Live, Work, Play" mantra.
Business highlights included:
■ Restaurateur Kurt Janowsky plans to open an upscale eatery called Artisan, at 505 S. Main St., the former home of the Flytrap’s restaurant.
■ The previously announced future restaurant that will assume the space formerly known as Mad Anthony’s at 526 S. Main St., will be known as Cubby Bear Pizza. Brothers Steve and Frank Hill plan to open in April.
■ Employees of Ad Stream, StrataShops and Dragonfly Footbags are settling into their new offices that were recently renovated. The companies are owned by John Webber. The three entities share space at 515 and 513 S. Main.
■ Representatives of two companies who have shared rental space on South Main hope to be relocating just a few blocks to the south to a larger retail space at 503 S. Main that one of the owners hopes to purchase.
Owners of Elk River Upcyle and n.wirt design hope to move their combo business arrangement to 503 S. Main St., if the sale is approved. Nancy Wirt and her husband have made an offer on the property. If the plan is finalized, Nancy Wirt and Eric Zell, owner of Elk River Upcycle, plan to continue their unique business arrangement in a much larger store.
While most of the changes have been in the works for months, together they represent a significant makeover for what many consider to be the most troubled stretch of storefronts in the downtown business district.
The changes come just six weeks into a new era as the city begins to implement a series of initiatives proposed by SoMa, the revitalization group that’s been developing plans for more than two years. At the same time, Downtown Elkhart Inc. is in the midst of several plans under its new executive director, Dan Boecher, that dovetail with SoMa’s vision.
Arrival of the new businesses helps eliminate some of the largest vacant buildings along South Main, according to Boecher.
Numerous officials believe the city is on precipice of overcoming — to a certain extent — the problem of storefront vacancies that many communities encounter. They’re hoping the current activity spurs more investment.
Boecher expressed confidence that more good news in on the horizon and predicted remaining vacancies on that block can be cut in half in the next year.
"We’re not done. We still have issues within this block, but this is an affirmation, to some extent, that the vision that was cast is one that is believable and that has real legs to continue into the future,” Boecher said.
Diana Lawson, who chaired the SoMa initiative, said she believe SoMa has helped set the stage for growth and has delivered a message to investors that the city is ready to assist.
“If you have an idea and you think it’s going to contribute to what we’re doing in our downtown or our city, be here, because this is the time to be in downtown Elkhart,” Lawson said. “I can tell you, this is the time.”
The announcements, paired with a resulting new sense of energy, is something Mayor Dick Moore said he’s never seen happen in Elkhart
“I look at it as a new beginning,” said Moore, who launched SoMa during his first term in office.
And lest anyone doubt the significance of the announcements, city historian Paul Thomas, who attended the news conference, added his perspective.
“This is the first time I’ve been excited in my 90 years,” Thomas told Lawson and other SoMa officials.
“You’ve got a great group and you deserve every bit of credit – along with the mayor’s foresight. I knew him years ago and am surprised,” Thomas quipped with a light-hearted jab at Moore.
Eileen Welch, who has lived in the downtown for 24 years with her husband and operates Faces of Art and a yoga studio just north of the future Cubby Bear Pizza, said she believes the changes will add more foot traffic and help her businesses.
“I’m so happy that something is finally happening down on that end,” Welch said.
Officials also announced Aaron Neville’s inclusion in the Elkhart Jazz Festival this summer.
In terms of new residential offerings, Boecher announced four upscale apartments have been renovated above the The Black Crow On Main, 224 S. Main St., a relatively new business that features a wide variety of home furnishings.
The average rent of the apartments is above $1,000 and the units were filled initially without the need for any marketing, Boecher said.
The four apartments owned by Patrick Hopman, join nearly 80 market rate units that have been established in the past ten years between Jackson Boulevard to Middlebury Street, Boecher said.
Property owners, including Boecher, “Have transformed the housing stock … from what was considered kind of the housing of last resort to the apartments that command the highest rents in Elkhart County,” he added.
“People who have choices are choosing to live on Main Street,” Boecher said.
Cubby Bear Pizza will be a family-style restaurant that will include a separate bar for adults.
Steve Hill said he plans to retain the original red movie theater facade, but would like to add a scrolling LED sign.
Janowsky, a well-known name in the food service industry, said he's excited to be part of the SoMa movement.
Janowsky operates the Crystal Ballroom at the Lerner Theatre and owns a catering service in Elkhart as well as a restaurant and bar in South Bend.
Ad Stream brings about 12 employees to the downtown with changes brought about by Webber.
Ad Stream has relocated several times from different offices in the downtown area over the past half dozen years as the company has grown and Webber said he believes the companies have found a more permanent home.