ELKHART — The two convenience stores on West Franklin Street are separated by four blocks, creating a stretch of roadway on Elkhart’s southwest side that was, until June 9, a magnet for activity.
The stores seemed to thrive and area residents could depend on quick access to cigarettes, toiletries and hot food.
But police raids on June 9 and a corresponding effort by the Elkhart County prosecutor to shut down a handful of stores over alleged illegal drug sales have diminished the social scene on that stretch of Franklin.
The Burger Dairy store and Marathon gas station now sit silent, both boarded up.
Also gone is the easy availability of synthetic marijuana allegedly being sold from behind the counters when clerks were prompted by customers who knew how to ask for it.
The raids netted 20 arrests in Elkhart and South Bend.
Elkhart store closings
Marathon station, 1859 W. Franklin St.
Burger Dairy/Phillips 66, 1403 W. Franklin St.
Conoco station, 1245 S. Main St.
Marathon station, 1226 S. Main St.
Sunnyside Foodmart, 1502 Benham Ave.
Marathon station, 1850 E. Bristol St.
Unlike circumstances in South Bend, through, Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill is seeking to shut down several Elkhart stores in an effort to cut off the supply and send a warning to other store owners.
Numerous people who talked with The Elkhart Truth said they’ve noticed a deadening effect in the neighborhood and are willing to sacrifice convenience in exchange for a crackdown on an elusive drug problem.
"It's sad. I hate to see it boarded up like that, but it has to happen. We have to protect our own," said Dana Hummer, who lives within view of the shuttered Burger Dairy store along Franklin.
Hummer frequented the Burger Dairy store, but didn’t like what she saw sometimes.
She said she repeatedly witnessed clerks selling packets of the illegal drug to customers and doing so with a sense of disregard.
"If you told him ‘you shouldn't be doing it,’ he just shrugged and ignored you," Hummer said.
Hummer said she found empty packets in a nearby alley and believes youngsters were smoking the fake pot in the mornings, before they’d get on the school bus.
"There's little kids out here smoking that stuff," Hummer said. “They get ready to go on the school bus and you see them dropping packages of that stuff down the alley."
And sure enough, crumpled 4-gram packets were easily found during a stroll through the neighborhood by a Truth reporter.
Two miles away, a similar situation has played out on South Main Street where an older Conoco gas station and a nearby Marathon store — opened less than a year ago — have both been idled.
For Cocheta Manion, the change is welcomed even though she no longer has a convenient place to buy soda and cigarettes.
Manion shares an apartment at Main and McDonald streets with her sister, Breanne Bennett, and three children. They live less than a block from the stores.
When she saw the raids unfold, she suspected it was related to synthetic marijuana.
The closings seemed to pull the plug on a steady stream of pedestrian traffic along McDonald Street as people headed to and from the stores, she said.
Alcohol sales, she believes, were one of the main attractions.
“We used to have traffic constantly. It didn’t matter what time, there always was somebody walking to the gas station,” Manion said Thursday afternoon.
The muted activity is further enhanced by a temporary street closing for a road project that has enveloped both stores.
Regardless, the store closings, she said, are a good thing.
“Yes, absolutely. It keeps the riff-raff away,” Manion said. “It’s really quiet now.”
Quiet is the same word used by Hill Tuesday in describing the impact of the closings.
“The quiet that exists at some of these locations that didn’t exist before, I think, is helpful to the neighborhood,” Hill said. “If you’ve got locations that are connected with alleged drug activity or any type of alleged illegal activity where people congregate, that feeds back into the neighborhood.”
City Councilman Ron Troyer said he did not like the idea of closing the stores.
The closings have caused an inconvenience, especially for people who don’t drive, he said.
“It’s a shame the way it’s affecting communities,” Troyer said.
Hill downplayed the importance of “convenience,” adding, “people will find a way.”
Jason Moreno, who lives a few blocks from the Main Street stores, said the neighborhood still has a small store on Indiana Avenue that is available for necessities.
Moreno watched numerous conversations about the raids online and said he believes most people support the moves by law enforcement.
“For the most part, people are pretty happy that drug dealers got shut down,” Moreno said.
Beyond cutting off a supply, Hill said the raids and closures were geared toward getting people’s attention and putting a spotlight on a drug problem that not enough people understand.
He’s hoping the closures serve as a reminder.
“I think the average person will appreciate that we’re taking some steps to show a little muscle to get these things taken care of,” Hill said.