GOSHEN — County planners hope to soon begin a study of the Prairie Creek Run neighborhood that can help guide long-term planning in the unincorporated area north of Elkhart.
A water connection project led by the county is already underway, but the study would focus on other possible improvements for the neighborhood. The community of more than 400 homes north of East Bristol Street and east of Johnson Street is surrounded by Elkhart City boundaries but governed by Osolo Township.
The study brings together the county, LaCasa Inc. and social research company Dovetail Projects. The Community Foundation of Elkhart County was also recently asked to sign on.
Elkhart County Council approved $50,000 for a one-year study in November, but that was only half the time and money sought by the Elkhart County Redevelopment Commission. County Redevelopment Program Coordinator Natasha Kauffmann gave the commission an update at its May meeting.
She said while it’s still going to be a two-year project, the scope has changed. The RDC will focus on the neighborhood redevelopment plan while LaCasa and the foundation will work independently to foster the kind of community engagement that she said such projects need in order to work.
“I’ve been working with LaCasa over the past few months, trying to figure out how we can re-pivot, so to speak, with that kind of current amount of funds and make sure that we have a product at the end that makes sense,” she said. “We’re finally ready to move forward with some contracts in a scope of work that makes sense for us.”
In February, she met with Community Foundation Chief Program Officer Candy Yoder along with some representatives from LaCasa and Dovetail owner Andrea Milne. One of the reasons the study can move forward is because the other organizations agreed to make more of the project their own, Kauffmann said.
“Now that social support to make it worthwhile is being taken on by an independent partner project by LaCasa and the Community Foundation, because they believe in that community as well and it falls in line with some other things they’re doing in other communities around the area,” she said.
Yoder said Prairie Creek Run is one of several neighborhood initiatives the foundation is working on. She said the organization wants to invest time and resources in a number of neighborhoods, to explore what opportunities might be there.
She said the foundation is negotiating with Lilly Endowment on community leadership efforts.
“Part of the initiative will be to understand the best way to use those finances and to see what other opportunities there might be,” she said. “We want to help engage the community in a dialog about those opportunities.”
Kauffmann told the commission she hopes to have contracts for the report signed soon and for people to start going into the community shortly after that. That would still follow the timeline they had hoped to see in December, she said.
Redevelopment Commission member Rick Gentle asked what the end goal of the neighborhood report is.
She said the aim is three-fold: To gather community input before organizers do anything, to make sure they have a clear plan moving forward and to put them in a better position to ask for funding for future projects in the neighborhood.
“We want to make sure we have community input before we move ahead and do anything, just in the sense that that’s how we find out where the community is at and how much they want to engage with us,” she said. “As we said to council last fall, if it ends up we go around knocking on doors and holding community meetings and no one wants to show up and no one wants to engage, then there’s not a big reason to really do a lot of work in that community, because if they don’t want to be a part of it or they don’t want it to happen, then we would want to respect their wishes of not wanting to be involved.”
Osolo Township Trustee Lisa O’Lena said Friday that Prairie Creek Run residents have expressed an interest in seeing the neighborhood improved.
“In general, the residents may need to have the area updated and cleaned out,” she said. “The residents there are very interested in having clean water and getting connected.”
The county has also taken on the task of tearing down blighted properties in the neighborhood. Building Commissioner Kevin Williams told the Redevelopment Commission that three houses have been demolished so far and a few others may be on the list in the next few months, while one property was taken off because it was remodeled.
He noted that the houses being torn down are generally vacant ones that have been declared unsafe.
“It does not have to be vacant, but in Elkhart County, we go after the vacant ones,” he said.
Kauffmann remarked that another reason to have a long-term plan is so the county doesn’t find itself doing a series of random, one-off projects in Prairie Creek Run after the water project wraps up.
The water project is in the second of three phases. The goal is to help households with smaller lots and older septic systems move away from using private wells for their water.
The first phase connected homes on Lilac Street to a nearby Elkhart city water line and the second phase involves some of the next-closest homes to water lines. The third phase will expand the connections even further.
In November, the county council approved $140,000 in funding to help pay for the second round of home hookups. Engineers will calculate right-of-way costs this month, which will be presented to the RDC in June, but the timeline beyond that depends on contractor availability, according to Kauffmann.
“Encouraging folks to connect is kind of two-fold,” she said. “One is that idea of, when we know that there’s a possibility of well contamination, either from failing septics or things of the like, we would prefer for them to hook up, obviously, to help protect themselves. Two, long-term, it makes sense for a congested area to just be on utilities in general.”