ELKHART — Two community-inspired plans for a revitalization of the Tolson Center have been presented to the public, with a formal pitch to the city expected after the municipal election.
After four community meetings to gather input, the Community Foundation of Elkhart County and the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce have worked with park and engineering consultants to make tentative plans that would double the size of the building and add amenities inside and out, including an additional gym.
Those plans were presented Thursday evening at the center’s existing gymnasium.
“We imagine a new facility, but we also imagine a completely reenergized, revitalized park that gets used in the city by all the citizens but also benefits, clearly and most obviously, the folks that live within walking distance,” said Pete McCown, president of the Community Foundation.
The plans were made with the help of the about 100 people who attended previous community meetings, as well as a steering committee made up of stakeholders that include members of City Council and interested community members.
After gathering input from another 100 people who showed up on Thursday to discuss and write notes, the steering committee, the Community Foundation and Chamber of Commerce will adjust the plans to present one concept to the mayor-elect after the Nov. 5 election, McCown said.
Both mayoral candidates, along with several members and candidates for City Council, were present at the Thursday meeting.
The two concepts presented would both tear down every part of the Tolson Center other than the gymnasium, despite an investment of roughly $80,000 to get the building ready for the Parks & Recreation Department to move in just months ago.
“That portion of the building can just go to hell, am I correct?” asked Jerome Gill, arguing that this plan would waste taxpayers’ money.
According to McCown, who said Gill’s assessment of where the building can go was truthful, the total cost of revitalizing the center would cost about $4 million.
The creation of the current concepts have been paid for by the Community Foundation, but the city, which owns the center, would have to find at least some of that money.
McCown said the Lilly Endowment, which holds more than $10 billion, has encouraged the city to apply for funding. But Community Foundation funds may also be available.
“We are willing to help with that,” McCown said.
One of the reasons for the proposed expansion of the center is that the building currently cannot host multiple events of a certain size.
“Guess what’s not happening right now because we’re sitting in this room,” said Chamber of Commerce president Levon Johnson. “What if we could still have this meeting and know that there are still activities going on and we didn’t shut the young down.”
Outdoors, the presented concepts suggest a multisport turf field, a softball or baseball diamond, basketball, futsal and pickleball courts, a splash pad and an inclusive playground. These would not all fit, and so choices have to be made before one plan is presented to the city.
An apparent hot-button issue is who exactly will run the Tolson Center in the future.
“I think all of the City Council people that are in this room would say – I’ve heard them saying it – they didn’t run the Tolson Center well,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to get the Tolson Center out of being a political football.”
Community member Gary Johnson argued that more power should be given to regular residents.
“Will the people from this community not only have some token advisory role, but will they be in on the governing board that is going to run the center?” Gary Johnson said.
Levon Johnson said a specific plan for governing the center had yet to be made, because leaders wanted public input on the issue and because governing was not the next step.
“I’m saying to you that if we can’t get some kind of an idea before the plans are accepted or what have you, we ain’t going to be for it. I don’t care if you put $20 million in it,” Gary Johnson responded.
According to McCown, the next step is creating a budget, determining how much it will cost to staff the center and keep it running.
“What does Tolson look like, then what does governance look like,” he said.
Nekeisha Alayna Alexis, one of the community members on the steering committee, said she has hope for the Tolson Center’s future.
“By the time that I got into it there were a lot of disappointments and a lot of letdowns and a lot of frustration, but I think this is the right mix of people, it’s the right mix of passion. The folks that are part of this process want to continue hearing from the community,” she said.
This meeting was particularly important, she said, because it presented concepts based on what people had said at previous meetings. That means community members can now see that they are having an impact.
“We’re at a place where people have to see to believe, and that’s why I think this is so important. It wasn’t, ‘Let’s get another meeting where we talk about what we’re dreaming about.’ There are concepts, there’s something to respond to,” she said.
Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus