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Downtown South Bend Works Towards Significant Rebuild

South Bend's downtown area is being revitalized through redevelopment.

For several years, South Bend's downtown area had a lot of empty storefronts. But now, the city is reshaping its identity through redevelopment, and it's happening quickly.

"There’s a lot of development going on right now,” says Jeff Harrison, the owner of Vegetable Buddies, a restaurant, bar and live music venue bundled into one. It sits right in the middle of downtown South Bend.

"If you lived here when you were growing up, you just wanted to get out of town. But now, we're starting to see a shift where people are coming back and moving back in town."

“We have development going all around in this block alone," Harrison says. "There’s two apartment buildings, old buildings that are being renovated into apartments on this side of the block, there’s another one over here on this side of the block. Just nice, historic, old buildings turning into apartments and condos."

And the same is true for most areas downtown.

“If you lived here when you were growing up, you just wanted to get out of town," says Mike Franz, communication manager for Visit South Bend. "But now, we’re starting to see a shift where people are coming back and moving back in town."

At first, he didn’t see himself staying in the area for very long. But after exploring the community, he couldn’t picture living anywhere else.

“The number one thing we have is arts and culture," Franz says. "We have a ton of opportunities for that, many different museums in town.”

Reshaping A City

For decades, the town struggled with a decline in population and revenue. South Bend took a major hit when Studebaker stopped manufacturing cars here in the 60s. The city struggled for decades to find its footing in the ever-evolving economy.

But, for the first time in 15 years, South Bend is seeing a substantial increase in population, and it could be due, in part, to the town’s young mayor, Pete Buttigieg.

Mayor Buttigieg is considered by many to be a rising star of the Democratic Party, so much so that he announced earlier this month he’s running for Democratic National Committee Chair. The DNC will elect its new leadership next month.

Buttigieg's strategy is to rebuild industry hubs in South Bend, but with an emphasis on technology instead of old-school manufacturing.

“Basically, what he wants to do is bring in all these new technology businesses, bring business and more employment opportunities to the area," Franz says.

Buttigieg also pushed through a “smart streets” campaign, where the city converted one-way roads to two lanes, and bike lanes were added for a better cross-town commute for residents. It also makes it easier for people to stop and patronize downtown businesses.

“We’re just street-scaping and making everything more appealing, making the sidewalks a little bit longer," Franz says. "Obviously, we saw the snow coming so they had to end construction for the winter months. But you can see the all construction and how we’re bettering down town South Bend."

Because of the population boost, there’s an increased demand for housing. South Bend’s skyline is evolving, with the addition of town homes and historic buildings turning into apartments.

But there is some push-back. If the cost of living becomes too high with newer, upscale town homes, potential buyers may shy away. But still, Franz says it’s good for the city.

“If these are so expensive, you know, they did their research, they did their studies, they say what kind of economy we had in town," he says. "So if these are so expensive, that’s a good sign that the incomes are there to pay for them."

Back at Vegetable Buddies, the energetic mood reflects what’s happening on the streets of South Bend. There’s momentum like the city hasn’t seen for years. And many people want to stick around to be part of it.

“So I think people are coming back to the idea that, you know downtown, you got museums, art and culture, and it’s a little hipper than going out to the Bar Louie at the mall, ya know?” Harrison says.

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