I have been spending more time lately in downtown Elkhart, meeting for lunch or sometimes just driving through taking note of activity. On a recent visit, I was meeting with a downtown building owner to discuss the potential sale of her building. I was downtown early and it was a beautiful day outside so I decided to walk a couple blocks and look for a quick bite to eat. I was about 12:40pm when I stepped into the Pumpernickel Pretzel Bakery at 500 S Main St. Being my first time in the café, I discovered a cute and friendly café with a selection of sandwiches and soups. But what I was struck by was the fact that my coming in had doubled Pumpernickel’s business at that time. I ordered a bowl of homemade soup and for the 10 minutes I stayed in the café to eat my soup, the other diner and I remained the only two customers. Pumpernickel also runs a catering business and has a banquet room upstairs, but according to the staff that day, lunch business is sporadic.
With still some time before my appointment, I decided to walk south and check out the Cubby Bear Pizza. I had heard about it several times, driven by in, but had not yet visited. I stepped in just before 1pm and was greeted by the very friendly manager. I told her I was just checking the place out and she happily showed me the dining and the bar area. We chatted about business and I noted that there was only one table of guests in the dining area, albeit a group of 10. The manager admitted lunch was definitely a struggle. She explained the lack of lunch business as, “that’s Elkhart”. I really wasn’t sure what that meant, but I know that most of the economic strength of the city lies in the RV manufacturers in the industrial areas of the city.
In the previous couple weeks I had a business lunch a couple times at the 523 Tap and Grill. Lunch each time was good, but it was clear by the crowd they could be doing more business. I really began to wonder, where do the employees that work downtown eat their lunch? Do they bring their lunch from home or do they spread out further from the 500 block and visit other establishments. Walking or driving down Main St even on a beautiful day, there is seldom seen the hustle and bustle of pedestrians. There are several large businesses downtown including Patrick Industries, Key Bank, Barnes & Thornburg, Chase Bank and government offices, but where are the people?
Downtown Elkhart does have other restaurants and they are spread out over a 5-7 block radius including Michael’s Italian on 6th Street and McCarthy’s on Nibco Parkway. The density of the working population is not great, even compared to Elkhart’s neighbor to the west, South Bend. The Chase Building, one of the largest multitenant buildings in Elkhart, is only four floors. South Bend maintains a fairly lively lunch crowd in its downtown, but there are an estimated 20,000 employees in that downtown and the majority of them and the restaurants are in a 2-3 block street of Michigan Ave. Elkhart’s downtown working population is significantly smaller and spread out over a larger area.
As Elkhart works with SoMa to revitalize its downtown area, one thing that I believe would be beneficial would be to try and focus redevelopment in a small one block area and then move outward. Create small dining district centered 1 block around the Lerner Theater. Then find another entertainment venue a few blocks down Main St to provide another bookend to the Main St strip. Density of business between the two would be greatest and other destinations can spread beyond. Arts district can be focused in a particular portion of the downtown that is still easily accessible but a bit outside the major office and restaurant density. That is obviously easier said than done and requires the local population to support and the great entrepreneurs the county is known for to invest in the area. Downtown Elkhart has recently done some great things with improvements including street scaping, the plaza, the river walk and The Lerner Theater. To me, it really feels like there is great potential. In the meantime, get out and support the businesses.