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Michiana 2027: Elkhart's past, present and a look ahead to the future

ELKHART, Ind.- Elkhart is home to a place that archives the city’s past, acknowledges the present and hopes for the future.

Time Was Museum has everything you need to know about Elkhart's progression.

Elkhart hasn’t always been known as the RV capital of the world, in the 1830s boats used to be the economic driver.

“Beardsley laid out Elkhart and it was from Washington Street, to Lexington Street, in those days it was called Pigeon Street,” says Elkhart Historian Paul Thomas. “We were a river town.”

Elkhart used the St. Joseph River to import and export goods. Thomas says he opened up the museum, not only to track progress. “I decided to open up the Time Was Museum at the request of my wife because she didn’t want me home for lunch or on Saturdays.”

A lifelong resident, he’s seen his fair share of change. “High school which has been torn down, attended a Methodist church which has been torn down, so everything has been torn down but me.”

He also welcomes others into this gateway into the past, “As you looked at this window in the early 1900s, you can see all these buildings,” explains Thomas. “And the only thing we have left now is the museum.”

Cities often reinvent themselves and the story lines change, sometimes even when it's not expected.

“Elkhart is a very unusual town, like when we had a downturn in the economy, Elkhart was one of the first ones to go in the tank, but they’re also the first ones to come out,” remembers Thomas. “We don’t give up, Elkhart just doesn’t give up.”

And that sense of perseverance is what Mayor Tim Neese is banking on.

“It’s a competitive community we’re very diverse that makes us I think unique…a community that is less concerned about finding fault, but finding improvement. And then making what we know is good even better.”

And by “even better” perhaps that means further diversifying the city’s big businesses.

“I’ve had one conversation with individuals about having one sports facility that would be here in Elkhart that would be a 10 million dollar investment,” says Neese.

“I’d like to contact then, the national basketball association a D-league or a developmental league as kind of a farm system. I know we can’t support a major sports franchise, but I think we probably could maybe on a minor level.”

It’s big ideas like that could help set Elkhart apart. “I want us to be the most competitive city in the state,” says Neese.

“I want Elkhart to be the location that is the priority when they come, because this is the pinnacle.”

While it could take decades to pin down a sports franchise, luring in other companies could happen much more quickly.

“I spoke with two potential businesses just this week that could potentially create a lot of jobs. When you do that I think sometimes people lose sight of the fact that a not only is a full time job for an employee, but a new business or renovating an existing structure means construction jobs,” adds Neese.

The mayor didn’t want to reveal too much about the potential deals, but admits he’ll also need to help entice employees to the city.

Right now, Elkhart’s unemployment rate stands at three per cent. There are so many open jobs, many can’t be filled.

“Right now we’re roughly 20,000 employees short in the county in terms of wanting to have businesses at full capacity, just simply because we have a shortage of people.”

According to the U.S. Census, it’s estimated that about 52, 220 people live in the city.

That’s only about 580 people less than a decade ago. So, the future Elkhart may be filled with hundreds who are transplants.

“Every town tries to have something to bring the people in,” says Thomas. “Things are just happening.”

Thomas adds the city is continuously evolving and he’s seen it working toward a stronger and longer heartbeat.

“Right at the present time it’s so vibrant; I think you’re going to see a big change in the city of Elkhart.”

Mayor Neese says the Elkhart County Development Corporation is placing billboards across the county in hopes of bringing people to take these available jobs.

There are new multi-million dollar apartment complexes being built, so that those people can have somewhere to live.

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