ELKHART — After half a lifetime spent on Elkhart city boards and commissions, Steve Eldridge has retired. Not from his day-job. Just from the thousands of hours he put in over the course of four decades, in service of the city, without receiving a dime.
Eldridge’s service includes tenures on the Planning Commission, the Board of Zoning appeals, and most recently more than 20 years at the Redevelopment Commission, where he served as president.
“It’s like everything else that you get involved with; when you like what you’re doing, you just keep doing more and more and more, and you forget about the time. You never think about the pay, because you know from the beginning it pays nothing,” Eldridge said. “It’s being involved in watching good things happen in the community.”
Though born in Little Rock, Ark., Eldridge grew up in South Bend until his dad bought part of a business in Elkhart, moving the family in time for his son to start high school here in 1958.
Eldridge studied finance at Indiana University, Bloomington and received an MBA from Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., before moving to Chicago and Memphis, Tenn.
In the Memphis suburb of Germantown, Eldridge got his first experience with city boards.
“Because it was a brand new subdivision and community, I got involved with the Germantown Planning Commission on a volunteer basis, because it was just growing, starting. Literally it was a corn field,” he said.
And though city planning hadn’t been his field of study, Eldridge took a liking to making the most of a community. But four years later, in 1975, it was time to move back to Elkhart, leaving the commission behind.
“I didn’t get involved with anything right away, but then I ran into a mayor by the name of Pete Sarantos back in ’77, ’78, something like that,” Eldridge said.
When Sarantos learned of Eldridge’s planning commission experience, he struck, and Eldridge said yes.
“That’s where it all began,” he said.
Current Mayor Tim Neese, 40 years later, was so happy with Sarantos’ decision to invite Eldridge to get involved, that he pleaded for Eldridge to stay until the end of 2019.
“I have always known Steve Eldridge to be very professional, having the high integrity, being fair and always making an informed decision,” Neese said.
Eldridge stayed on the Planning Commission for nearly two decades, as president for almost half that time. Then he was asked to join the Redevelopment Commission, which was beginning to take a more active role in reshaping Elkhart.
And Eldridge said yes.
As Tax Increment Financing, which allows the city to spend increment property tax revenue on improving certain districts, became a tool for the commission, the RDC began buying, demolishing and renovating blighted properties.
No one who was one the commission when Eldridge came on board is there today. Most, he said, stayed for two or three years before taking their volunteering elsewhere or running for an office such as City Council. But Eldridge just kept going.
“I had the interest all the way and always had that. Still have today,” he said.
Around the same time Eldridge came back to Elkhart, maintaining a vibrant downtown became a challenge as super stores and malls became popular.
“That basically wiped out a lot of the retail on Main Street, just like it did every other small city like this,” he said.
Buildings that had once been highlights in the city, like the Bucklen Hotel, were eventually torn down as they went unused and became run-down.
Part of what helped downtown get back on its feet, according to Eldridge, was the donation of the NIBCO Water & Ice Park and the private development of an office building in the same area, bringing new people downtown. So did the renovated Lerner Theatre and new IUSB Elkhart.
“The downtown area has changed from all that,” Eldridge said. “Now, really we’re coming to the point where we’re going to see big changes in the next three years.”
One expectation is that the Flaherty & Collins apartments in the River District will bring new residents to a walkable environment, thereby helping local business. And that could begin a positive spiral, Eldridge said.
Yet, making these decisions can make a commissioner unpopular with some, as was the case this week, when Eldridge and a majority of the commission voted to have high-end condominiums rather than a boathouse and park in the former Alick’s lot on East Jackson Boulevard.
Having people criticize decisions is disappointing in a sense, Eldridge said, but he feels comfortable with the decision, arguing that most people haven’t spent the same amount of time as the commissioners researching the options.
And getting criticism is just part of reality for the commission.
“A lot of people stay away from volunteering their time because of things like that. But if I did that, then I wouldn’t be involved at all in the community, and a lot of good things that we’ve done wouldn’t have gotten done,” he said. “They have a right to their opinion, and I respect that.”
This is not to say that Eldridge hasn’t also gotten credit. A few times, the idea of running for mayor has been proposed.
“Other people have tried to get me to do it,” he said. “And I looked at it hard a couple of times.”
But Eldridge said no.
“He would have certainly been elected,” said Neese.
But in the end, running for mayor wouldn’t have been the right decision, Eldridge said, partly because he never truly subscribed to a political ideology.
With Neese being the sixth mayor Eldridge has served under, the longest of them serving for 16 years, one might argue that Eldridge with his 40 years on city commissions may have had the bigger impact on what Elkhart looks like today.
“It’s a phenomenal record,” said Neese. “None of these were paid positions. There were times that he was away from his family and his occupation. There were trips that he took, that he didn’t have to, away from the city just to make the city a better place.”
According to Neese, many people, including the mayor himself, have learned a lot from Eldridge.
“I’ve learned from him not to assume anything, that there are times that you think there is going to be a final meeting on the project, and there might then be three or four final meetings, because of some kind of a change. He was always very steady,” Neese said. “His experience was very obvious.”
In recent years, with new ideas and plans continuing to come to his table, the job began taking more time than Eldridge had to give.
Eldridge had considered stepping down in December 2018, but when he learned that director of development services Crystal Welsh would be moving to the private sector after 19 years in the development office, he decided to stay longer to make the transition from losing two experienced development leaders a bit smoother.
As he now is stepping aside, Eldridge is excited to see some change.
“I want to see a younger group of people come into the community and do the types of things that I’ve done and other people have done along the way,” Eldridge said.
At Tuesday’s Redevelopment Commission meeting, Neese gave Eldridge the Key to the City, calling the commission president a “franchise player.”
“Forty years doing anything is a long time,” he said. “Over the years you have played a valuable leadership role in many prominent projects designed to improve our city’s quality of place and facilitate economic development opportunities.”
Therefore, Neese proclaimed June 11, 2019, as Steven C. Eldridge Day, as a full Council Chamber got up and applauded the president.
There was one final reason that Eldridge decided to stay through the first half of 2019. He wanted to make sure that some big projects, including the Aquatics Center and the changes to the Martin’s Super Market in the River District, were all set.
“And those six months flew by, and it all culminated Tuesday,” Eldridge said. “It’s been a good ride.”
Follow Rasmus Jorgensen on Twitter @ReadRasmus