ELKHART — The visitors bureau hopes a comprehensive assessment of downtowns throughout the county will guide decision-making in the future.
The Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau has commissioned a study on what people think about the downtown area in the cities of Elkhart, Goshen and Nappanee and in the towns of Bristol, Middlebury and Wakarusa.
Jon Hunsberger, CVB director of destination development, said it’s an exciting project meant to benchmark and track growth in those places.
“Survey questions are both quantitative and qualitative,” he said, “and include such topics as: diversity, multifunctionality, design, housing, organizations/partnerships, retail development and demographics.”
Upcoming focus group sessions are scheduled for June 25 in Nappanee, June 26 in Bristol, June 27 in Middlebury and July 2 in Wakarusa. All meetings are at 5:30 p.m.
The Nappanee meeting is at Main Street Roasters, 105 N. Main St., and the Bristol meeting is at the public library, 505 W. Vistula St. The Middlebury session will also be at the local library, 101 Winslow St., as well as the Wakarusa session, at 124 N. Elkhart St.
Focus groups previously met in Elkhart on June 3 and Goshen on June 4.
Caroline Farrington is the enFocus fellow who conducted the recent meetings in Elkhart and Goshen. She said residents of both cities had positive things to say about their downtowns.
“Broadly speaking, at both meetings, we were interested in what makes a downtown successful,” she said. “We covered a wide variety of topics, including retail, housing, parking, design and aesthetics.”
In Elkhart, she said, people were happy with the mix of businesses in the city center, including a drug store and grocery store, with plans for a new Martin’s Supermarket in the works. They were also happy with the events that are held downtown, but thought there should be a few more throughout the year.
“They felt that the downtown has the things that it should have,” Farrington said. She added that participants also expressed interest in “making the riverwalk the best riverwalk it could be.”
In Goshen, participants said they were happy with things like downtown walkability, events and diversity. She said their list of wants included better business hours, better wayfinding and having more activities on the outskirts of the city.
Face to face
Farrington said the aim of the project is to develop a comprehensive assessment of the downtowns in the county, and to compare how they rate in a number of categories against downtowns in similarly sized cities. The downtown vibrancy report that comes out of the project will be presented to city leaders and the public, in the hope that it helps guide their decision-making.
Hunsberger said the CVB commissioned the study because it wants to understand the impact of not only the different programs and events that the bureau sponsors, but also the impact that businesses are having. He said the organization needs a snapshot of the downtowns now in order to make a comparison.
“So moving forward we can see the type of impact we’re having,” he said. “Are we doing better or worse? Unless you measure it, it’s difficult to say.”
He noted there’s some information already out there that can help answer that question, but the challenge was to pull it together into something they can draw conclusions and recommendations from. The study is relying on focus groups in addition to things like demographic data in the hopes of getting more candid feedback.
“Surveys are nice, they’re easier and you can respond to them at your leisure,” he said. “But when you get face to face with people, they share a little bit more.”