City of Elkhart awarded $100,000 grant to remove low-head dam

Rendering of the Elkhart River after removal of the dam.

Rendering of the Elkhart River after removal of the dam.

ELKHART (October 30, 2018) – Mayor Tim Neese has announced that the City of Elkhart was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Lake and River Enhancement (LARE) Program. The grant will assist towards the City’s financial obligation for removal of the Elkhart River Dam.

Removal of the low-head dam will open the Elkhart River up to approximately 15 new species of fish and allow for additional recreational use of the rivers in downtown Elkhart. The junction of two rivers, the River District Revitalization Plan prioritized the removal of the dam in order to capitalize on this unique community asset.

Specifically, the plan includes river access at Junior Achievement Drive for kayaks and paddleboards, made possible by the dam’s removal. The overall project is aimed at developing a vibrant urban space that complements existing Main Street assets and creates a destination where people want to live.

“As we look at a number of quality of place amenities to attract additional residents and visitors to downtown Elkhart, the removal of the low-head dam presents an opportunity to capitalize on an asset many communities do not have,” Neese said. “In addition to these recreational benefits, the dam’s removal will also increase safety and improve the biological health of the river. As part of the River District Revitalization Plan, I believe this project will facilitate and enhance other development in the area. Combined, these projects comprise a significant investment in Elkhart’s future, and I want to commend the Public Works and Utilities Department for seeking opportunities, such as this, to lower the cost to local taxpayers.”

In 2011, as a then member of the Indiana House of Representatives, Mayor Neese authored legislation to allow LARE funds to be used for projects in rivers. Previously, LARE funds could only be used for lake projects, and Neese authored the change as a direct result of feedback received from constituents living along the St. Joseph River. The goal of the LARE program is to protect and enhance aquatic habitat for fish and wildlife, and to insure the continued viability of Indiana’s publicly accessible lakes and streams for multiple uses, including recreational opportunities.

The Elkhart project is one of two grants awarded by IDNR to address the removal of low-head dams. The $2 million total project cost will be shared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the City of Elkhart. With the grant from the LARE Program, the City’s share will be $430,000. This is significantly less expensive than the cost to repair current deficiencies in the dam.

The Elkhart River Dam is scheduled to be removed during the fall of 2019.

For the latest updates on the River District Revitalization Project, visit www.elkhartriverdistrict.com.

No better time than now

While the economy is strong, the City of Elkhart is working proactively to increase economic resiliency and develop a clear growth plan.

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ELKHART (October 5, 2018) – The City of Elkhart is known currently and historically as a manufacturing hub, contributing significantly to the regional and state economies. In fact, Elkhart’s base industries – which make up approximately 34 percent of the City’s employment – accounted for $14.6 billion in economic output and generated nearly $900 million in state sales and income tax revenue in 2017.

One week after a recent report by the New York Times deemed the state of the Elkhart economy as “decidedly ambiguous,” Elkhart-based Thor Industries became the largest RV manufacturer in the world. The annual Dealer Open House in late September reinforced the strength of the RV industry and a review of data collected by the City’s Building Department also shows that residential and commercial investments continue to rise. This Department, which plays a key role in the community’s economic development, is on track to complete over 4,000 inspections on new construction/renovation projects this year alone, a 58 percent increase over 2016. Through September of this year, the value of permits issued for these projects was just under $100 million.

This implies that confidence in the economy is still strong, but for many who have lived in Elkhart through various economic cycles, the sentiments expressed in the New York Times article were not surprising. Throughout the City’s history, the economy has been primarily driven by one industry at a time – pharmaceuticals, band instruments, manufactured homes, and now recreational vehicles. This over-reliance on a singular base industry has made Elkhart more vulnerable to fluctuations in the economy.

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Recognizing this, the City of Elkhart began working earlier this year on an economic growth case study. It was important to dig deeper to understand and quantify what many local officials and residents know to be anecdotally true. While the economy is strong, the City is proactively working to increase economic resiliency and develop a clear growth plan.

As details continue to be finalized on the economic growth plan, certain overarching recommendations have already emerged. Economic growth objectives addressing industry diversification, talent development, quality of life issues, land use planning, and investment in aging real estate are needed to ensure Elkhart’s future resiliency.

Industry diversification

By examining the current base industries as well as workforce requirements, the City will identify two to three industries that they would specifically target for future growth. These industries should complement the existing base, have different market demand factors, and have the ability to be filled by the existing and new workforce talent. These industries could include distribution, logistics, supply chain management, information technology, data analytics, advanced manufacturing, engineered solutions, healthcare and technical training and education fields.

Addressing workforce and quality of life issues

Young people today are relocating to communities that offer lifestyle opportunities. Job opportunities are a secondary consideration. If the opposite were true, we would expect to see significant population growth as a response to the demand indicated by Elkhart’s low unemployment rate. However, that has not been the case.

Nationwide, millennials and baby boomers represent the largest populations, and both largely desire to live in walkable, urban communities with a variety of opportunity for recreation, hospitality, social connection, arts, culture, and other activities. By working now to create these conditions in our community, Elkhart will be at an advantage in terms of future population growth and the ability to support local industry.

In addition to creating a signature destination along Main Street and the River District in downtown Elkhart, we are also working to create more livable neighborhoods throughout the City. One way of doing this is through investments in our community gathering places, our parks. A citywide Housing Strategy is also being developed to address how we meet current and future housing demands, which will be essential to welcoming new residents to our reinvigorated community.

Investment in aging real estate and infrastructure

As the City identifies the industries we will target in the future, we must also prioritize local investments in a way that appeals to these target industries. Around the country, effective community growth is occurring in cities that have built a brand identity and have reinforced that identity through quality of place amenities and strategic infrastructure developments. These intentional strategic investments will be outlined in Elkhart’s first economic development plan and will aim to resolve impediments to targeted industries relocating to Elkhart. This will be done through creating shovel ready sites or repurposing aging real estate to meet current industrial standards.

These goals and recommendations offer a glimpse into the dedicated work being completed by the City of Elkhart’s economic development team over the past year. As we continue to invest in ourselves, we must have a plan that demonstrates to new industries and workforce that we are organized, and we are open for business. As that plan comes to fruition, the City is looking forward to sharing that with residents and business owners so that everyone will be a part of a reenergized Elkhart.

>> Download release here.

The Elkhart River District: Vision in motion

Mayor Neese’s vision of the River District Revitalization Project is to develop a vibrant urban space that complements existing Main Street assets and creates a destination where people want to live.

ELKHART (September 21, 2018) – The Elkhart Common Council recently approved the second appropriation of the City’s commitment to the River District Revitalization Project. This overall public investment of $30 million is expected to leverage approximately $300 million in private investment over the next 10 years. With that will come growth to the City’s tax base, allowing for needed investments to continue throughout the City, as well as numerous construction, retail and hospitality jobs. Yet with nearly 9,000 job openings countywide, the vision behind the River District is about much more than diversified job creation. It is the beginning of a new approach to economic development, one that prioritizes attracting people.

To facilitate our needed population growth, the City looked at housing trends. Studies clearly indicate that both millennials and seniors prefer to live in urban, walkable communities. These two generations, representing our country and city’s largest populated demographics, prefer to live where they can be close to shops, restaurants, and offices. In response, the River District plan calls for mixed-use spaces that complement existing Main Street assets and create a destination where people want to live.

The renowned Zimmerman Volk and Associates completed an Elkhart housing market study for the River District Plan. The study indicates that a concentrated critical mass of walkable, urban housing will fuel the River District’s revitalization. The analysis projects, over a five-year timeframe, 680 to 880 rental and for-sale housing units could be supported. Assuming this rate of absorption continues for the next decade, there is enough existing market potential to fill the River District, as well as Main Street and the near downtown neighborhoods, with dense urban housing to welcome enough new residents to truly bring the city center to life.


As the City begins to pave the way for these private investment opportunities, residents can already see the primary streetscapes coming together. Jackson Boulevard reopened to vehicle and pedestrian traffic in August as a new divided boulevard lined with on-street parallel parking and ADA compliant sidewalks. The planting of trees along the sidewalks and in the medians on Jackson Boulevard is expected to be completed by year end.


While the new 10.5-foot lane width is different from what suburban motorists are used to on Jackson Boulevard, similar lane widths exist throughout the City where speeds must be reduced for residential living. Reducing the speed on Jackson Boulevard will increase safety for those walking, dining, and shopping in the River District and downtown, while still providing through-traffic and east-west connectivity via primary roads such as Johnson/Prairie Street, Beardsley Avenue, and Middlebury Street.

This year, additional placemaking projects include the Elkhart Avenue streetscape and a Riverwalk extension from INOVA Federal Credit Union to Junior Achievement Drive. Work will continue in 2019 with streetscape projects along Junior Achievement Drive and Lexington Avenue. The intersection of Jackson Boulevard and Junior Achievement Drive will be reconfigured so that the two are perpendicular, achieving a true grid structure. As a result, residents can anticipate Jackson Boulevard, from Easy Shopping Drive east to Johnson Street, to be temporarily closed again next spring. The reconfiguration will allow for a public green space to be developed on the southeast corner of the intersection and increase pedestrian safety. 

When the initial planning began, the River District Implementation Team (RDIT) knew they had to have a bold vision to win over residents for future growth. Yet, they also knew that Elkhart is far from the first community to take this leap. Peer communities were identified, and they have helped to inform the important design decisions that have been made thus far. One of these peer cities was Greenville, SC, a location that Mayor Tim Neese and the RDIT toured and met with local leaders about their success.

As the project expeditiously moves forward, property owners continue to approach the RDIT with interest in selling and redeveloping their properties. With construction well underway, the core infrastructure needed to develop this signature destination is becoming a reality and the positive energy is ramping up. Next summer, the completion of both the Elkhart Health Fitness and Aquatics Center and Stonewater at the Riverwalk will be upon us. In addition to the 205 housing units at Stonewater at the Riverwalk, the City anticipates an additional 300 will be under construction in 2019 - 500 of the plan’s targeted 1,000 housing units.

With this vision now in motion, public feedback continues to be encouraged. For more information on the Elkhart River District and redesign of Jackson Boulevard, visit www.elkhartriverdistrict.com

>>Read The Elkhart Truth version of this article here.

Intersection improvements to reduce backups around Elkhart’s River District

ELKHART (September 19, 2018) – Beginning Sunday, September 23, Elkhart residents will see a change in traffic pattern at a near-downtown intersection.

The traffic signal at Jackson Boulevard and Johnson/Prairie Street will be modified and new pavement striping will be added to allow for two right turn lanes from westbound Jackson Boulevard to northbound Johnson Street.

This improvement creates more capacity for the approximately 5,000 travelers who make this right turn each day, particularly during afternoon peak traffic hours. It also eliminates the need for a lane merge on Jackson Boulevard within the River District, which was recently reconfigured to increase safety and connectivity. Combined with the signal improvements completed last year at the intersection of Jackson Boulevard and Goshen Avenue, this change is expected to further reduce traffic backups in the area.

In addition to signals, pavement striping, and signage, lane delineators also will be in place for the next few months to help drivers navigate the new traffic pattern.

For questions or concerns, please contact Elkhart Right-of-Way Engineer Jeff Schaffer at 574-293- 2572 or jeff.schaffer@coei.org

Jackson Boulevard: Creating a destination for living and playing

Creating a destination for living and playing - not a speed zone

Since spring 2017, public meetings have shared the vision for the River District as a walkable, urban community that is designed and vetted by experts responsible for the success of building successful communities around the country.

Through the planning process we found ourselves needing to be much more proactive in shifting from suburban thinking -- with strip malls and parking lots -- to the principles required to create a walkable, urban environment that people of all ages are relocating to.  These urban principles have worked in cities for decades, including the historical Elkhart and the current Main Street. During the planning process we tested these principles by visiting other cities and speaking with their staff about what they learned -- while walking their streets and measuring their lanes.  We hired experts who have completed successful projects in other communities.  We also worked closely with local staff, understanding what they have learned from past projects and our local conditions.  

With all the research and planning completed, the current changes to Jackson Boulevard were well-vetted, as they are integral to developing the core infrastructure required to achieve success as a signature community that is a safe destination to live, play and visit. Our goal is to make Elkhart a special place to live -- much more than merely a generic place to pass through. 

Following are the planning considerations that were completed with experts during the planning of Jackson Boulevard to date.  Further plans and adjustments will be made as development and construction continues in the area through 2019. 

 

FACTS ABOUT JACKSON BLVD. DEVELOPMENT

  • Deliveries and emergency access have been designed and reviewed with all property owners and the fire department.  The design was reviewed with all property owners for their truck access.  Truck deliveries were already being accessed from the rear of buildings and this will continue. 

    The fire department has reviewed the plan and the following design modifications were confirmed to meet their requests:
  1. Rear 20-foot alleys will exists for all buildings, not only for their daily deliveries, also for emergency vehicle access. Fires and emergency approaches in urban environments are accessed from the rear of buildings. 
  2. The median on Jackson at Nibco Parkway will be shortened 30 feet so that fire trucks can clear a left-hand turn if needed.  
  • Lane widths are standard. The original lane-width design on Jackson was widened from the standard 10-foot lanes to 10.5-foot lanes to accommodate any concerns for travel and emergency access.  Standard 8-foot parallel parking lanes are designated by concrete pads. Lane widths less than 11 feet exist throughout the city where speeds must be reduce for residential living. Narrow lanes are specifically designed to reduce speeds from state route speeds of 40 mph to 20 mph to accommodate the urban, walkable community that we are building.  

         >> Read why narrow lanes are safer as stated by AASHTO and NCHRP, Washington, D.C. 

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  • Snow removal plans have been developed.  No different than any other urban area such as Main Street, snow removal requires a plan for potentially the worst conditions. Edges with radius curbs for plows have been installed. Excess snow will be removed and disposed in the river as needed.  This first winter, overnight parking will not be permitted on Jackson, so that plows can pass, giving the street department time to consider the long-term options. 
     
  • Downtown streets are not truck routes.  While all downtown urban areas accommodate trucks for delivery to the many businesses that exist there, they are not truck routes. For instance, for years the truck route on SR 120/Jackson, from CR17, ends at Middleton Road and diverts truck traffic to Middlebury Road.  

    The intention of the downtown traffic plan is to divert through-traffic to primary roads such as Johnson/Prairie, Franklin, Elkhart Avenue, Beardsley, Middlebury, Bristol, County Road 6, and County Road 17. Our city is a network of roads with much easier and faster routes for through-traffic not intending a downtown destination. Main Street and Jackson Street are designed for urban living, walkability and commerce. Speeds must be slower and safer for pedestrians.  
     
  • Residential living is the focus.  Downtown, including the River District is targeting to build 1,000 urban housing units to accommodate our housing shortage to attract workforce and lifestyle amenities for new residents and industry. Approximately 500 of these units will start construction by end of 2019.  While it may be difficult to imagine now, the change is real.  The infrastructure changes that are underway are designed to support a thriving community and compete to attract people that we are otherwise losing. Designs for more diversified housing solutions in industrial areas are also underway.

 

About the River District Plan and Team

The River District Implementation Team is a private-public partnership involving private leaders and city leaders and staff who have united as a team and are working together to design the solutions presented to the public. These solutions involved and continue to engage significant investment of time, scrutiny, and commitment for us to work together in unprecedented ways.
 

>>Read the River District Master Plan

>>Read about why narrow lanes are safer