ELKHART — A cherished mural at the intersection of Main and Prairie streets is receiving an outburst of love, as some residents are worried that it may soon be history.
The mural, which was painted by the late local artist Kelby Love, is on the southeast-facing wall of 1045 S. Main Street, once known as Louie & Kelly's pub. But the building, which is owned by the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, is not in a good state, and the Elkhart Redevelopment Commission has shown interest in buying it. There has been some discussion about demolishing the building, though the commission and city staff recognize the value of mural itself.
Local entrepreneurs and activists Jason Moreno and Sam Callantine are concerned that the consequence of city involvement would mean saying goodbye to the mural that they feel is extremely important to the neighborhood.
"That building means a lot to a lot of residents on that side of town. We have very few resources as is, and we have even less cultural heritage," Moreno said.
He criticized previous city projects, including the Indiana Avenue underpass, the Prairie Street overpass and the construction of Washington Gardens, for tearing down significant landmarks in the area.
"We have a penchant for destroying things in this city, so we're a little bit protective of what we have there that has value and meaning to us," he said.
Moreno and Callantine said the mural has meaning for several reasons. Kelby Love was a resident of the neighborhood, not an artist from out of town. And when he painted the mural two decades ago, violence in the area appeared to decline, they said.
"The message is that there's a higher purpose than our own disagreements and grudges against one another," Callantine said.
Today, the building is in a bad state. It has been boarded up and is on a block that the Redevelopment Commission has shown other interest in. But Moreno and Callantine, who are co-owners of Progress General Contractors, said they believe the building can be saved.
"If we were able to save the entire building, we can actually repurpose it to benefit that particular community. Showcase some of the art and music of that community that doesn't get a lot of recognition - like in the downtown area," Callantine said.
They also suggested using the building as a not-for-profit incubator.
Giving the building a new purpose that embraces the neighborhood could re-activate what happened when Love finished the mural in 1996, the two believe. They said that crime is on the rise again because young people don't know about what was done in the 1990s.
But what would the price tag be? The entrepreneurs have a rough estimate of $350,000. After looking at documents provided by the diocese, Moreno and Callantine said that the building is not in as bad a state as one might think.
"Structurally, the building is 90% there," Moreno said.
Among the things that do need repair or replacement are the roof, floors, windows and part of the backside of the building.
They are not asking the city to make those investments, but rather to hold off while residents that care about the mural try to raise enough money to buy and repair the building. They hope to raise funds from private donors and one or more not-for-profit groups. They said that there are already some groups and individuals that have shown interest.
At the Redevelopment Commission meeting on Tuesday afternoon, the city's director for community, economic and development, Abby Wiles, said that Moreno and Callantine's Facebook group Save Kelby's Mural had spread some misinformation regarding the city's wishes for demolishing the building. Wiles read from the record of previous meetings, proving that staff has shown an interest in saving the mural, if not the building, in some way. Callantine apologized for any wrong information that the group had shared.
Love's mother, Glenda Love, pleaded with the commission to save the mural, saying that this is the last outdoor Elkhart mural by her son that has not been demolished. Kelby Love died in October 2018 at age 58.
"It is the only legacy that the city has of his," she said. "He has given so much to the city of Elkhart."
And saving the mural would really mean something to the city's minority residents, according to Love.
"I think the city owes this to the black community," she said. "The black community in Elkhart doesn't get the privilege of being recognized."
Members of the commission showed their support for saving the mural, explaining that all they are doing is exploring the option to buy the building, and that demolition is a long way out.
"Saving that mural and recognizing that mural is an important thing," Kyle Hannon said, adding that if the city buys the building, that would at least prevent the current owners from demolishing it.
Moreno, Callantine and Love's mother were joined at the meeting by roughly a dozen supporters, and a Facebook post about saving the mural has been shared hundreds of times. Hannon said that he appreciates that so many are showing that they care for the mural.
Redevelopment Commission President Sandi Schreiber emphasized that Tuesday's meeting and the vote about 1045 S. Main St. would not settle the mural's future.
"Today is just approving our staff to negotiate or make a purchase offer. Anybody who's attended most of these meetings knows that we cannot do anything quickly," she said.
She said that the mural means a lot to everyone in the community.
However, if the commission does buy the building, it may still be demolished. The commission discussed the possibility of recreating the mural in some way if demolition is the ultimate outcome.
That was not enough to please all of the mural's supporters.
"There's a difference between recreation and preservation," Moreno said.
The commissioners voted unanimously to let city staff begin the purchase process.
Moreno and Callantine are continuing their efforts to buy the building without the city.
Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus