BRISTOL — What makes the town of Bristol special? Turns out its residents are pondering that question, too, and the Vibrant Communities Initiative is working with them, and other small towns across the county, to help answer the question.
Commentators during the public focus group – many from nonprofits and city departments – began brainstorming Wednesday evening ways that they could improve their community, and it included taking a look at what the small town has become.
“Because the river has never been the focus, all the businesses, restaurants, they’re all focused to S.R. 120,” Town Manager Mitch Mitchell said. “A lot of people don’t live on the river and this (coming to Bristol) is their opportunity to enjoy it.”
“We have all these parts, but they could all use enhancement,” Mitchell, who began as town manager in the summer of 2018, said. “We’ve got locations along the St. Joe River but no businesses take advantage of it. Construction of a riverwalk would enhance downtown’s appeal. If we had a pedestrian bridge to connect Congdon Park directly to the downtown, the dynamic of downtown would change completely from being focused on S.R. 120 to a second focus which would be the river.”
Park board member Linda Powell told the focus group of old plans when the parks department planned to build a riverwalk, but they never did.
“It never happened and they ended up with a fishing pier on the other side,” she said.
Mitchell added that rooftop and riverside seating at local restaurants would be an attraction, if it existed.
Many in the group also declared that the town needs more restaurants open at night.
Bristol’s downtown area suffers due to it being at the intersection of S.R. 15 and S.R. 120, residents at the meeting said.
Unfortunately, since both roads are owned by the state, town residents have in the past felt there was little they could do to improve the corridor, they added.
“It destroyed the downtown,” Kathy Black said, referring to the S.R. 15 and S.R. 120 designations.
Residents go out of their way to avoid the main street in town, because traffic gets so bad. During peak hours, which are also peak restaurant hours, residents avoid driving and eating out altogether, they said.
In 2017, the town began the process of building a truck route bypassing the downtown.
“We’ll have our main street back and we’ll be at a point where be might possibly be able to barricade it off and have festivals there,” Ron Norman said.
The group agreed that the bypass will be an asset to the busy roads of the small town.
Residents called the current parking downtown “treacherous.”
Norman added that INDOT has been in discussions with several towns including Bristol about returning main streets that became state roads to town management, and added that he wants the same for Bristol and others agreed.
“I love when you go to towns and they have fun Fridays and things for those locals to come together, but we don’t really have anything for locals to come to,” Town Clerk Jill Swartz said.
The group agreed that Bristol Homecoming’s fireworks and the town’s annual Halloween party bring many visitors to the town, but said that there’s a lack of many other notable events to support community togetherness. Residents agreed that weekly, monthly or quarterly get-togethers like last year’s Lunar Lunch are an ideal way to get involved.
Mitchell told the focus group about one of his engagement plans that’s already being put into action: Santa Claus Lane, a highly decorated area which will be along Elkhart Road during Christmas time.
The town will also be holding a golf outing to raise money for Bristol on the River this year at Raber Golf Course.
The focus group also brought to light several ways of current initiatives and possible future ones to improve the downtown roads.
“We’ve got entities now that are coming to Bristol on the River and we’re seeing collaborations that we have not seen in this town before,” Norman said.
Bristol on the River, a nonprofit geared at making use of Bristol’s access to the St. Joe River, was created just two years ago and is credited with helping to organize and collaborate with entities around town.
“We have a lot of lake people, we have a lot of Eby Pines guests, we have a lot of places where families come, if we only had something for them to come to downtown,” Powell said. “I think maybe they come to our parks, but we don’t see them out walking the streets.”
The town of Bristol has been hard at work making improvements to the downtown area over the past few years, some residents said. A new municipal complex, truck route, park improvements and opera house renovations are just a few ways they’ve been working toward bettering the face of downtown but residents said, much more can be done.
Discussions also focused around the need for volunteers in order to do more activities. Residents explained that often times they don’t even know what’s happening, let alone that there’s a need for volunteers. Text alerts, emails, notices and other forms of communication were discussed.
The meeting serves as part of a larger project to assess conditions of each downtown in the county. The Elkhart County Convention & Visitors Bureau commissioned the study and the focus group was facilitated by the enFocus initiative.