Government Should Empower Citizens to Dream
October 9, 2019

By David Henke

3rd District, Elkhart City Council, Elkhart, Indiana 

Sometimes government is the barrier. I have been a city councilman in Elkhart, Indiana, for 16 years and chair of the Finance Committee for most of those years. Few of us are experts in finance, community or business development. Yet these attributes are essential if a community is to grow.

What happens if we help private-public partnerships navigate regulations, codes, inspections, public notices and public presentations? What if we invited the private sector to create and lead a bigger vision?

This model has played out in Elkhart. While watching our YMCA and nearby buildings fall into disrepair, a group of private citizens began dreaming of a state-of-the-art health and fitness center on the YMCA property. To do this, they would also need to address several blocks of under-performing real estate. The former YMCA site and surrounding area became known as the River District redevelopment area. 

The vision grew as our public sector leadership better understood the barriers keeping the private sector from transformative investment. We developed a data- and outcome-driven action plan, then organized the River District Implementation Team, of which I became a member.

I helped manage around the municipal regulatory and financial impediments and listened while successful private-sector leaders connected with land-use experts, designers and financial institutions to create and implement a comprehensive development plan.

The $63 million Health & Aquatics Center is now complete. Meanwhile, 500 apartments are being built with expanded parks and room for green space, and a total of $200 million of new private investment is in the works. Not bad for our first major redevelopment private-public partnership.

Sometimes government needs to define its role in order to empower citizens to dream. Maybe we elected leaders should break municipal barriers and attract others to use their experience to invest in our community. After all, elected leaders are strengthened by the collaboration, communication and outcome of their citizenry.

David Henke represents the 3rd District on the Elkhart, Indiana, City Council. He is a strategic financial planner and developer in the field of health care.