Michiana 2027: South Bend's vision in focus

SOUTH BEND, Ind.—From decades of efforts to restore historic sites, to investment in new developments across town, ABC 57 News is looking into why some say South Bend is on a path to becoming the metropolis of Northern Indiana.

“People who are under 50 or under 40 don’t really know what South Bend was like in the ‘50 ‘60s or ‘70s,” said photo historian Lou Sabo. “We really aspired to be a great city. We thought we were a great city; we actually lived like we were. There were no limits on what South Bend can do or would do.”

That passion is what inspired Sabo to pick up a camera many decades ago.

“So I said, ‘hey, this is my town, this is great. And I want to do everything I can to help it.”

He uses vintage gear to capture shots of a city he fell in love with a long time ago.

“You got to have that love of your hometown; you got to have that love every day,” He said. “Everything that you do, it drives the growth and the development.”

Growth and development for Sabo means stepping out of retirement every now and then to give seasonal history lessons at the St. Joseph Public Library.

Hundreds of his photos are chronicled there under the Lou Sabo Collection.

Today, Sabo runs a modest operation out of his basement.

It’s many years removed from the professional set up he once had during his time as a photojournalist for the South Bend Tribune.

Although he’s out of the game, he says he enjoys photographing the city too much to ever truly give it up.

“It’s really a dream come true, not like I won the lottery kind of dream, but a small-scale dream come true so, that’s what counts,” said Sabo.

With each new snapshot, Sabo gets a new look at where this city is growing and where that growth has seemingly stopped.

“In most cities a developer would say, ‘I want to build a 12 story building,’ and the city would try to talk them into building a 15 or 18. What happens in South Bend, unfortunately many times through a variety of reasons, our buildings are actually reduced in size,” he said.

Sabo pointed to the makeover headed to the Commerce Center.

A six month back and forth between the developer and the city led to a compromise that would see a new high rise downsized by about three stories.

“Building up is not necessarily the right answer,” Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

The mayor’s office is taking a swing at human scale development instead of scaling buildings.

That means expect more changes at the street level, rather than ones overhead.

But it’s not totally off the table.

“But who knows as this downtown gets more energized more dense and more valuable, I think you’ll continue to see new ways of using the space and building on it,” said Mayor Buttigieg.

Pictures of the past show many spaces down Michigan Street are now transformed.

Bars and restaurants replace retail and more places offer mixed commercial and residential uses.

The way Sabo sees it, that’s a big draw nowadays.

 “15, 20 years ago, people were leaving downtown and leaving South Bend still and I think now people are saying, ‘Hey, this is a nice town to live in, there’s stuff going on, there are nice apartments, but we’re at a tipping point.’ We got to keep it up,” said Sabo.

The city was once at a tipping point with the historic Morris Performing Arts Center as well.

More than two decades ago, the city decided to take on the task of restoring a theater that was in danger of becoming an eyesore.

“When the Luecke administration got the Morris, looking as good as it does now, it created this great sort of this top of downtown. And it’s a great way to arrive in downtown.”

Then-Mayor Stephen Luecke helped with a turnaround effort that saw the theater reopen in 2000.

“Certainly it’ been a great anchor here and really part of our arts and entertainment district. You think of South Bend civic theater not too far away, all of the restaurants and all of the other entertainment opportunities that have really brought new vitality and life,” said Luecke.

The city’s longest-serving mayor sees that energy spreading down Michigan Street.

However, today, it comes up short at Monroe Street.

“It’s probably the worst section of downtown South Bend, a lot of people probably don’t even consider this downtown anymore,” said Sabo.

This community feels the former Fat Daddy’s building has stifled development in this corridor.

“We’ve got do what we can to light the spark and then let the private sector come in and do what it does best,” said Mayor Buttigieg.

A statement supported in the city’s 2018 budget.

Millions will go to restoring the façade while the developer plans to turn the buildings into retirement apartments.

It’s a big step in keeping folks in the area.

“If we can circulate some of that traffic down Michigan Street again and light that up and make that a brilliant shopping area, like Time Square, New York, or State Street or Michigan Street in Chicago, you’d have a 24 hours, around the clock city that never sleeps right here in South Bend,” said Sabo.

No community is without challenges, but leaders in this one say most are behind it.

“I envision South Bend will continue to build on this reputation of the little city that could, the community that punches above its weight class, does things that people didn’t think is possible for our size or possible for our economy,” said Mayor Buttigieg.

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