Back in 2014, when the South Bend Area REALTORS® used a Smart Growth Grant to help fund a Better Block project along a run-down two-block stretch of Western Avenue, the pop-up event was a notable success and gave them hope for the future of the neighborhood. What they could not have anticipated was the infusion of investment that the event spurred – to the tune of millions of dollars over the course of the following five years – improving a total of eleven blocks of the commercial corridor and uplifting the surrounding community.
Association CEO Myron Larimer recounts the original Better Block event that started it all: “Western Avenue is the main artery coming into the city from the west, but it had seen better days. When we learned about the Better Block program, we partnered with organizations like La Casa de Amistad, a longstanding community center, and the Latin American Chamber of Commerce, and with the city, to realize – just temporarily – our collective vision for what a few blocks could look like, with a certain amount of investment and political will.” A Smart Growth Grant from the REALTOR® Party provided much of the necessary funding, but the ideas and the elbow grease came from a wide range of community stakeholders. Just for a weekend, the area was transformed with wider sidewalks, bike lanes, landscaping, live music, food vendors and a beer garden with outdoor seating. Though the weather was gloomy, there was a strong turn-out, including a visit from then-Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who remarked that the project would lead to safer streets and a more vibrant atmosphere for residents and businesses.
Larimer explains that at the time, the City of South Bend was developing its Smart Streets program, focused on redeveloping and sprucing up various strategic corridors throughout the city. A direct result of the October 2014 Better Block event, he says, was that the blocks it had highlighted were noticed – and targeted for substantial improvement. In three phases over the course of several months in 2015, 2016, and 2019, at a cost of about $2.5 million each, Western Avenue received infrastructure improvements to a total of eleven blocks, including a reconfiguration of traffic lanes, the addition of bike lanes and on-street parking, curbing, new street lights, and trees. The work provides better access to the businesses along the stretch, and the city also made grants available for improving their facades.
Sam Centellas, Executive Director of La Casa De Amistad, also credits the Better Block event with triggering the city’s investment. “The community had long advocated for improvements, but that event really coalesced the vision. And not only did it lead to permanently improved streetscapes, it brought community leaders and business owners together, creating a good consulting mechanism for the city and forging important relationships among those with the area’s prosperity and well-being at heart.” Today’s Western Avenue has a lot to offer, he says – several great Latinx restaurants, grocery stores, a dress shop, a boutique selling “really cool” cowboy boots – and it should be a destination. “One thing we learned during the Better Block planning was that the small businesses didn’t have strong marketing and communication platforms, so, again with the REALTORS®’ support, we’ve established the West Side South Bend Committee to help draw business and address any points of uneasiness that potential visitors might have, from parking concerns to a perceived language barrier.” The committee’s ‘West Side Wednesdays’ mid-day gatherings have been a popular success, recently attracting over 100 customers to a Western Avenue taqueria; it also hosts an annual summer event in conjunction with the city’s ‘Best.Week.Ever.’ festival. Another benefit of working with the REALTORS®, notes Centellas, is that his organization has become more aware of issues like the kinds of support small businesses need, and affordable housing. Awareness, he points out, leads to advocacy.
Larimer says that the two keys to the Western Avenue success were a REALTOR® member, Laurie LaDow, who championed the Better Block project, and strong partnerships within the community, with the City of South Bend, local community groups, and leaders like Sam Centellas. “For a project like this to be successful, you have to understand the needs of the local community from their perspective, not yours,” he says. “We found that some of our initial assumptions about what would make a successful project were wrong and our planning sessions within the neighborhood helped us adapt to the needs of the neighborhood.”
The Better Block Program pulled the local business community together, and showed the city the area’s potential, he concludes. “The result has been the city’s serious investment in making the vision a reality. And the community is rising to the occasion. That initial Smart Growth Grant proved to be very effective seed money.”
To learn more about how a Smart Growth Action Grant from the REALTOR® Party helped attract millions in economic investment to an underserved corridor in South Bend, Indiana, contact Myron Larimer, Chief Executive Officer of the South Bend Association of REALTORS® at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-289-6378.