ELKHART — Jackson Boulevard is now open, after more than a year of construction and detours of one of the city's main thoroughfares.
Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese officially opened the street by driving through a ribbon in a convertible car with the roof down at the end of a 30-minute ceremony celebrating the conclusion of the $5 million project that began in March 2018 and since has meant the closure of portions of Jackson Boulevard and Elkhart Avenue at various times.
About 100 people, many of them involved with the project in some way, showed up to celebrate.
"Today's excellent turnout is symbolic of the growth that has come about our city in the last few years," Neese said.
He said the excitement for the project is the result on unprecedented cooperation between public and private entities, and a willingness to make bold investments.
In numbers, the project has added 10,000 feet of new sidewalk, 28 bike racks, 28 benches, 98 street lights, 87 trees, 6,300 plants and 200 parallel parking spots. Below ground, one mile of new water main has been installed along with a new storm sewer and buried electric, cable and communication lines.
The above-ground additions are intended to make the River District more attractive and walkable, creating a modern mixed-use downtown area, officials said.
Construction has been done in phases, leaving parts of Elkhart Avenue and East Jackson Boulevard open at all times. The last section to open was the stretch of East Jackson Boulevard in front of Martin's Super Market.
Jim Boyles, Selge Construction vice president, spoke on behalf of the company that has had a major involvement in the work.
"We love to work in Elkhart. As an organization, we look at Elkhart as one of our home towns," said Boyles, who recently moved to the city because of projects like this one.
He acknowledged that the construction has been disruptive to some companies in the area and thanked the businesses for their cooperation. He specifically mentioned Subway and Pizza Hut, where the staff has gotten to know the construction workers when they come for lunch.
"We try to help them out as best we can," he said.
Shelly Moore, president of Insight Strategic Concepts Inc., and one of the private-sector leaders in the River District Implementation Team, said this phase of the River District revitalization has taken the hard work of a large number of people.
"We all joined arms, really, to execute a master plan from its formation," she said.
She said people should imagine how the trees that now separate the lanes of East Jackson Boulevard will grow to become a canopy for the street.
"They will frame activity of families and visitors who frequent here to enjoy events, recreation and living," Moore said.
Some have criticized the revamped streets — cut from four lanes to two and a left-turn lane — for having too few and too narrow lanes, slowing traffic and putting drivers at risk of hitting parked cars or the curb. But officials said the changes were by design.
"It's about slowing down traffic. It's pedestrian friendly," Neese said. "It's about shops, it's about people coming here to the City of Elkhart, about getting out and going into these shops."
With the left-turn lane, Neese said, drivers won't have to sit behind vehicles that are turning, and so traffic shouldn't become jammed.
There has also been public speculation as to whether a fire truck or snowplow will be able to fit through the street. But Neese said not to worry.
"I guarantee them that we can. I've been in a snowplow when it went through here, and I've been behind a fire truck," he said.
The ceremony was held at an empty plot of land between Pacific and Clark streets, and Neese said the next step in the River District revitalization will be putting up shops in that area and in front of the Elkhart Health & Aquatics Center one block down.
"We have one business that's across the street that has already expressed an interest in coming on this side of East Jackson," he said. "All of this area will complement the nearby Aquatics Center."
He said redevelopment of the River District will have a significant economic impact on the city.
"It's about jobs," he said.
Though it may have felt long for residents and business owners in the area, Neese said the time span of two years from the first talks to the conclusion of the street project is "unheard of."
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