ELKHART — Not so long ago, Tom Housand talked about a transformative idea for downtown Elkhart. He’d then challenge the person sitting across the table — in the board room, in coffee shop, wherever — to dream even bigger.
He wasn’t the only one. Many set out to have their own one-on-one talks with community leaders, philanthropists, and anyone interested in working toward a fantastically wild concept.
“People probably questioned our collective mental health, and maybe rightly so,” he jokes now. “… We sought to get everybody involved. As we came together, the entire team felt it had to be the impetus in getting investment downtown. We had to be the starting point.”
Years in the making, the framework of the Elkhart Health Fitness Aquatics and Community Center is emerging along Jackson Boulevard. But the visible part of the $65 million, state-of-the-art facility isn’t the story. It’s really about a collection of modest — and, in some cases, still anonymous — people who simultaneously are celebrating local traditions while contributing to future economic growth.
After all, this will be a place for significant athletic competitions. Inside, local students will be taught lifelong skills and adults can find recreational possibilities.
Beacon Health System ($16.5 million invested), the Community Foundation of Elkhart County (up to $10 million through contributions and endowment match), Elkhart Community Schools ($6 million) are the significant players, and the Regional Cities Initiative came alongside with a minimum of $9 million.
Another $24 million and untold hours and meetings and behind-the-scenes work originate from private sources. Don’t expect to hear a lot about those folks like Housand, who himself is reluctant to talk about his personal role and really prefers to address the topic speaking only about the larger group.
“I really admire the modesty of these people for the hard work they’ve put in,” says Cien Asoera, an Elkhart financial advisor who serves on the Community Foundation’s executive board. “People looking at this building going up have no idea the effort, time and passion some in this community have had for this project. That attitude is built into this community.”
The journey toward the expected 2019 opening date was challenging. Housand and Asoera both served on the board of the Elkhart Youth and Community Center, formerly the Elkhart YMCA, when the facility was closed about three years ago.
“We made the decision (to close) two times prior before it actually stuck,” Housand says. “We had a concerning budget. We were facing dwindling membership and a crumbling facility.”
Asoera recalls that board vote as “extremely difficult and emotional … not a happy day, for sure. At the same time, we knew better days were ahead with the potential for this new project.”
The decades-old facility needed a minimum of $18 million in repairs to stay open. The first glimpses of what could be a new aquatics center were in the ballpark of $25 million.
And the challenge to dream even bigger was heard. The idea group visited a couple of Olympic-level facilities and sought the expertise of professionals. It wasn’t difficult to connect with one couple, in particular — Mike Mintenko and his wife, Elkhart native and Olympic gold medalist Lindsay Benko.
Tradition, after all, is a significant selling point for a 25-by-66-meter, world-class pool with seating for 1,200. Names like the Benko family, Gene and Karen Leeth, and more harken back to a rich swimming history in the city. The new building gets the next generation ready, Housand says, as the schools are committed to giving all students opportunities to learn to swim.
“This is in the fabric of our community,” Housand says. “Some people donated to this project because they participated at the Y and had lessons there and know first-hand the value.”
Beyond the pool, the facility also will have two full-size gyms, a track, rooms for exercise classes, the Elkhart General Hospital therapy center, and flexible meeting spaces. Fundraising is in the final stages, and the construction visible from the street or RiverWalk represents only about 20 percent of the building’s footprint.
The economic impact already has been huge. Housand says the city’s commitment to support redevelopment brought about the Elkhart Avenue apartments, the proposed remake of Easy Shopping Place and other downtown investment. Recent news of the Hotel Elkhart’s re-emergence “fell from the sky and is a great example of what the bigger picture is in downtown Elkhart. It’s just beginning.”