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Regional Cities and Vibrant Communities are putting the Elkhart area at the forefront of new economic development
The way business gets done is changing at a global and local scale, and there’s no stronger sign of that in Elkhart County than the confluence of the Regional Cities and Vibrant Communities initiatives.
Regina Emberton, president and CEO of the Michiana Partnership, sees it in her daily work for the regional economic development alliance.
“It’s a national trend. The millennial generation is demanding more in amenities from the places where they live,” said Emberton. “There’s this transition to more of a work-life balance. Millennials are willing to switch careers and move to places (that are attractive
to them).”
Dallas Bergl, CEO of INOVA Federal Credit Union, says the question executives are asking when considering expansions is: “Does your community have the town my workers want to live in?”
Bergl is in the perfect position to know. Besides his position at INOVA, Bergl serves on the Regional Development Authority, which was formed in the midst of Regional Cities of Northern Indiana’s successful application for a $42 million economic development grant from the state of Indiana for quality-of-place improvements. He also is co-chair of the Vibrant Communities initiative in Elkhart County, which aims to identify new projects and programs while sustaining existing amenities.
While Regional Cities and Vibrant Communities are connected by their focus on quality of place, they function in vastly different spheres.
The Regional Cities of Northern Indiana’s proposal brought together proposed projects that have a regional impact within the Elkhart-St. Joseph-Marshall county region and are prepared to proceed in the narrow two-year window in which the funding is available.
Regional Cities projects must also abide by a strict funding formula that includes a 60-percent investment from private sources, 20 percent from local government entities and 20 percent from the $42 million pot of grant money.
Among the projects included in the RCNI’s proposal is the Market District development in downtown Elkhart, which features a natatorium/community center, athletic fields, retail and residential spaces.
Which projects will actually receive Regional Cities funding will be determined by a five-member Regional Development Authority. Bergl and Pete McCown, president of the Community Foundation of Elkhart County, are two of the RDA’s five members.
Emberton sees the Regional Cities as a “broad approach” to fostering development, with efforts such as Vibrant Communities employing a strong focus on each community.
The Vibrant Communities initiative is bringing together each of Elkhart County’s communities, from the cities to smaller towns to unincorporated rural areas, to identify the best parts of those places and envision what would be make them even better i.e. parks, arts programs, technology infrastructure, community events, etc.
Vibrant Communities launched January 26 with a countywide kickoff, but the real work will go on at Community Conversations planned in late February and continuing with focus groups. The aim is for Elkhart County’s cities, towns and incorporated areas to formulate plans that are best for each area but complement what’s happening around the county.
“That diversity, if well done, will be a strength for our community,” said Bergl. Just as Regional Cities encouraged collaboration between leaders of neighboring counties, Vibrant Communities hopes to bring neighboring cities and towns to be each other’s biggest boosters.
“People set up barriers in their mind, but we need to help overcome that,” said Bergl.
Vibrant Communities planning is especially critical as the Community Foundation of Elkhart County prepares to award quality-of-place grants. Helped by the sizable gift left by David Gundlach’s estate, the foundation anticipates about $100 million to $150 million in grant-making over the next decade, said McCown.
“It would be helpful to have a decade-long, multiple-constituent process to inform that (grant decisions),” he said.
The foundation, along with the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau, are the co-sponsors of the Vibrant Communities initiative.
“This is a unique opportunity for our community,” said Gina Leichty, co-chair of Vibrant Communities with Bergl. “We have the resources … to really bring about transformative change (in Elkhart County).”

Written by Terry T. Mark, director of communications at the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau

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