SOUTH BEND — The Rev. Canneth Lee has been working to improve the spiritual and economic lives of people on South Bend’s near northwest side since the Kingdom Christian Center ministry arrived on the corner of Elwood Avenue and Johnson Street 16 years ago.
The church provides a nurturing place for children through the daycare it runs on the corner of Elwood and Huey Street, and Lee is a constant presence in the neighborhood — whether he and members of his congregation host summertime hot dog cookouts or the pastor is comforting those affected by violence.
It often seemed like a lonely fight, but Lee was not working alone. and in aftermath of the demolition of the old Drewrys brewery building and concerns about the future of the former Martin’s Supermarket on Portage Avenue, the city of South Bend is taking a more active role in revitalizing the area.
“There are probably about eight or nine pastors and other people from the Near Northwest Neighborhood and Far West Side associations that have been working,” Lee said. “We kind of came together when we found out that Martin’s was changing the name (to Portage Meat & Market), and we have been working together and engaged in a process since that day.”
The city has since hired Berkeley, Calif.-based Opticos Design Inc. to lead a community effort to find a vision and plan to revitalize the area. The focus is to improve three landmarks in what is called the Portage and Elwood Neighborhood Center — the shopping center where Portage Meat & Market is located, the old Drewrys site and Muessel Grove Park. The first meeting took place last week at the Near Northwest Neighborhood Center.
Tim Scott, who represents the neighborhood on the Common Council, agreed that residents and community leaders have been discussing ways to redevelop the neighborhood for years, but changes at the supermarket added urgency to those efforts and got the city even more involved, especially after Martin’s sold the plaza to a Texas-based developer on April 6.
“When Martin’s sold the plaza,” Scott said, “that kind of ramped it up and got the city involved.”
Kathy Schuth, director of the NNN, said that while the city is leading the current process, the NNN was one of many groups on the northwest side working to make sure that community was not forgotten.
“We have been reaching out to the Far Northwest, Keller Park and other areas in the northwest quadrant of the city because we realize none of these communities can be forgotten,” she said.
About 50 people met to give Opticos Design input on Portage and Elwood Neighborhood Center’s future. The meeting began with Megan Reineccius, designer for Opticos, asking each attendee to write their impressions of the plaza on one Post-it Note, and then use another to describe their hopes for the area.
Attendees then split into groups where a map of the neighborhood was placed on each table and participants discussed how best to revitalize the area.
The ideas ranged from the practical to the inspirational, but the common thread was placing housing at the Drewrys site, making the park more family friendly and bringing restaurants to the Portage Meat & Market plaza.
Neighbor Holly Swanson said she believes that practical, quality-of-life issues must be addressed if the more aspirational vision can come to pass.
“We need to do something about the smokestack (at the Drewrys site) that is ready to fall or the liquor store,” she said. “We need to do something about all the loitering.”
Steve White said improving Muessel Grove Park is a priority. “I’d like to see them upgrade the basketball courts and softball diamonds to attract recreational opportunities,” he said.
White added that he would also like to see a community center at the park for people interested in indoor activities, such as table tennis or weight lifting. New restaurants, he added, should offer healthier choices and leaders must ensure minority contractors and workers get some of the work in a neighborhood that has a high percentage of black and Hispanic residents.
“I think that it’s important to focus on those who are already here,” said Stephanie Ball, who is director of homeownership at the South Bend Heritage Foundation. She noted that housing should focus both on the needs of young families in the area looking for affordable, single-family homes, as well as older residents who want to remain in the neighborhood but don’t want to remain in their house.
Reineccius said that last week’s meeting was the first part of the process that will continue when she returns to help the community refine its vision during a series of meetings May 6-9.
“The community is invited to come and design with us and create a vision for the neighborhood center,” she said. “I think this neighborhood has a lot of potential. There is some great structure to that neighborhood, but there has been some disinvestment.”
Tim Corcoran, South Bend’s director of community development, said the city’s next moves will be determined by the recommendation that comes from the community meetings.
“We will continue to engage with both the neighborhoods and the property owners to see what ideas developed in the workshop can be implemented,” he said, “what are achievable and what partners we need to bring to the table to revitalize the neighborhood center.”
– South Bend Minister Works with Community to Revitalize Northwest Neighborhoods