The notion of promoting tourism to an economically battered area like Elkhart County might strike some as wishful thinking, but the local visitors bureau is persuaded that it has a winning formula for doing just that: Quilt gardens.
Think of an individual piece of grandma's afghan, enlarge it to fit on a square or rectangular plot of land and replicate the design using plant flowers and shrub. Voila! You have a quilt garden.
Elkhart County has 16 of them, comprising about 80,000 blooming annuals, and is marketing its tour of the gardens as a getaway that is both economical – there is no admission charge – and friendly to the local economy. And because the views change as the gardens grow, creators say that some visitors make repeated trips.
"It's a unique attraction," said Sonya Nash, who manages the Quilt Gardens Tour for the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "There are 27 million quilters in the nation, and gardening is the no. 1 hobby in America right now, so between the two we have a huge target audience."
Many of the quilt gardens, which include traditional Amish patterns and original designs, are created by teams of volunteers, ranging from master gardeners to novice putterers. But businesses and local government also have gotten involved.
"It's the first I've seen all the little communities in our county come together on a creative project like this," said Mary Ann Lienhart-Cross, a staff member at the Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service who oversees the quilt garden at the county fairgrounds in Goshen. "It's a community effort and there's a real pride factor involved."
Nash said the bureau is marketing the quilt gardens via billboards and newspaper, TV and radio ads within a 150-mile radius, which includes Chicago, Detroit and Indianapolis. It also has been getting some national attention, including a recent four-page spread in Country Woman magazine.
"The phone has been ringing off the hook," Nash said.
Though Elkhart County is known as "The RV Capital of the World," it may surprise some readers that tourism is a significant driver, generating approximately $330 million a year in total spending, according to Diana Lawson, the visitor bureau's executive director. Most visitors come to tour the Amish country, but the RV/MH Hall of Fame, Das Dutchman Essenhaus, the busiest restaurant in the state, and county parks also draw considerable traffic, she said.
Since there is no admission charge to view the quilt gardens, it's impossible to say how many visitors are taking the tour. But Nash said that a survey conducted by Temple University indicates that visitors spent approximately 20 minutes viewing each garden and stayed in the area for 2½ days on average.
But she said the best way of measure the success of the tour is the positive feedback she gets from local merchants.
"We listen to our retailers and merchants, and they tell us that we have a winner going on here."
You can read more about the Quilt Gardens Tour in an Elkhart Truth article published in February.