SOUTH BEND -- The River Park Business Association, aiming to join the Indiana Main Street program, is strengthening its organizational structure as it seeks to leverage opportunities around the growing campus of Indiana University South Bend.
"We'd like to become the next Broad Ripple," said Dr. Pat Case, the association's president, referring to the popular destination village on the north side of Indianapolis.
Case said the once-informal group has made great strides since he joined after opening the Active Health & Wellness Center chiropractic orthopedist office on Mishawaka Avenue in 1995.
"The association itself has been evolving and improving," he said. "We were a core group of people who met and tried to do things. We didn't have a constitution or bylaws or a mission statement or a board of directors or committees."
South Bend community development officials helped organize meeting procedures, and other improvements came across the years. Last week, the association adopted a revised mission statement:
"We're committed to the improvement, development and prosperity of the River Park businesses as well as enhancing our community by striving to maintain a desirable place to live, work, shop and visit."
"We want to become an Indiana Main Street," Case said. "We need to change and update some of these things."
The organization applied for the status in February and will meet with an official from Indianapolis soon to plan the next step, including a more structured budget process.
"If we have money we do stuff and if we don't have money, we don't," Case explains. "We have always looked at the treasury and if the funds were down, we would have a fundraiser."
River Park businesses participated in a city program for improvements such as new sidewalks and streetlights and a cost-share grant program for façade improvements, but money for such work is no longer available.
"By having the organized group, we were able to do all kinds of improvement in River Park," Case said. "Now we're trying to work on improving and keeping up our business community, try to keep our corridor a great place to shop, live and work."
The association has about 45 dues-paying member businesses from the Farmer's Market to Logan Street between Jefferson Boulevard and the St. Joseph River, with Mishawaka Avenue as the focus.
It sponsors a Spring Fling in April, a parade in May, a Friday Fest in July and, coming Sept. 15, a Saturday Pet Walk on the Avenue with 25 participating retailers.
"People go up and down the avenue with their animals and visit businesses and get dog treats and coupons from businesses," Case said. "We're trying to bring more visibility to River Park and keep our storefronts filled."
Despite a string of vacancies on the south side of Mishawaka Avenue east of Ironwood Drive, conditions generally are improving, he said. Main Street status would help boost awareness and activity, like the success of Downtown South Bend Inc.
"We're trying to emulate some of that by making our avenue a vital, happening place," Case said. "I think things are turning around. That's why we're doing this. You definitely feel the temperature is improving, the economy is improving."
The district is an affordable, attractive place for startup businesses like his, Case said, listing hair salons, pet grooming and auto repair as well as cafes and boutiques.
"Rent was so cheap here and it's inexpensive to live in River Park," he recalls. "It was perfect for a startup business. You can get a lot for relatively inexpensive. We'd love to have a Subway or some big franchise come here as well."