Vibrant Communities kicks off with a huge event, lots of energy

January 26, 2016

Vibrant Communities is here, and community leaders are excited about the potential the new initiative has to improve life in Elkhart County

As people poured in for the initiative’s kickoff at the Lerner Theatre Tuesday evening, it became evident area residents are ready to actively help shape the future of the communities they call home. 

With nearly 600 people in attendance, the theater’s Crystal Ballroom wasn’t big enough, and an overflow room was needed to hold additional attendees. 

“The turnout was amazing,” said Vibrant Communities co-chair Dallas Bergl. “I think it speaks volumes about the commitment our leaders have to the whole county.”

People from all walks of life were in attendance, talking about the needs of communities in the county. That is exactly what Vibrant Communities organizers hoped would happen when they began to tackle the bold initiative. 

“We came into this process with no preconceived notions about how it might turn out,” said co-chair Gina Leichty. “The listening process is so important to this whole initiative. People really love their communities, and I think tonight shows that they want to be involved in shaping them for future generations.” 

“For The Love of Cities” author Peter Kageyama delivered the keynote address at the two-hour event and encouraged community leaders to think small. 

“Solutions can come from people who you might not normally work with,” Kageyama said. “You need to ask, ’Where is the fun?’ when you are thinking about projects that could impact communities. Sometimes, you may have to break the rules to get to a place where you want to be. If the goal is to make a place better, then it is up to government to let people do what they can to make that happen.” 

Kageyama cited Goshen’s Ignition Music Garage and the Calendar Garden in New Paris as great examples of individuals coming up with creative ideas that transformed their communities. 

“You need spice to make a great dish,” Kageyama said. “You need that energy and enthusiasm in order to build a place that grabs you by the heart. You need to let people with creative ideas have a chance at doing some of those ideas. You need to be emotional about your communities.” 

Finances also came up during the speech, and, with a lot of communities tight on cash at the moment, Kageyama reminded them that some projects can be inexpensive, small and just as effective. 

“Things have value beyond just the financial,” Kageyama said. “It may be worth spending some money on a project if it benefits the community emotionally. You have to ask yourself what the costs of ugly and boring is? You also have to engage the younger generation, the artists, let them be creative and do the things that can make your community exciting. Find some way to shave off a sliver of funds to help them grow, and your community will benefit.” 

Small groups gathered together after Kageyama’s speech, and, at each table, the engagement between community members was apparent as they focused on projects they would like to see in their communities. No idea was too small or too big to be presented. 

“I am just so impressed at this whole event,” said Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese. “There are so many people at this event that have the knowledge and the experience to lead an initiative like this. I love the flexibility, the fact that there is no predetermined path and the receptive attitude they have toward ideas. I think it is very important to engage younger people, college-age adults who have ideas about what they would like to see in the community.” 

The Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Community Foundation of Elkhart County have dedicated time and money toward the project.

The Community Foundation is expected to contribute $50 million to $70 million over the next decade through quality-of-life grants, according to Community Foundation of Elkhart County President Pete McCown. Funding from the Indiana Regional Cities Initiative also will play a part: The Elkhart-South Bend area was awarded $42 million in December.

Community leaders are encouraged to listen to every opinion because the process grows stronger through the active participation of everyone.

Neese said some of the improvements he would like to see in Elkhart center on infrastructure needs and a community center. 

“I would like to see some of the money go toward building a wellness and community center,” Neese said. “I would also like to see Second Street built up like Main Street is and some money spent on job training for people who are out of work.” 

Those weren’t the only ideas presented at the event. In all corners of the room, large posters detailed action items that had not been completed from past initiatives, a starting block for the energy and focus of Vibrant Communities.

“I think it is very important for Elkhart County to be intentional about making small improvements to their communities,” Kageyama said. “This is about civic pride and the need to see people step up and take action.”

His sentiment wasn’t lost on Vibrant Communities leaders.

“We don’t need to spend big money to make changes in our communities,” Bergl said. “We just need to get people involved.”

The next step will be to hold smaller meetings, called Community Conversations, throughout the county. The Vibrant Communities Steering Committee will host the meetings as a way to engage community members in further discussion about small ways they can make their communities better places to live. 

Community Conversations begin the week of Feb. 22. 

Local action plans will begin to form by early spring, and ideas on how to transform individual communities will come into focus at that point. There is no timeline for when projects need to be completed; it will be up to priority lists created by each local community.