Taking the Road Less Traveled

By: John Sampson on June 1st, 2017

Investment in Riverfront is Key for Population, Wage Growth

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”  

My favorite line from my favorite poem by Robert Frost. That line expresses my main takeaway from Greater Fort Wayne Inc.’s City Exchange trip to Durham, North Carolina where 40 community leaders attended. 

Why Durham?  The Raleigh-Durham metro region surfaced in 2014 as one of several benchmarked communities in a study that led to Indiana’s Regional Cities Initiative.  This metro is basking in dramatic economic and population growth in recent years.  The City of Durham and Durham County stand out given similar size and history to Fort Wayne and Allen County.  

Notably in Durham, the original American Tobacco Company (ATC) site, once abandoned, now stands revitalized. It is credited as one of the major community projects fueling impressive growth and the resurgence of a community at one time in fatal decline.

This community exchange again emphasizes what has inspired our region in previous visits to Chattanooga, Tenn., Providence, Denver, Cincinnati, Ohio, Wichita, Kan., Des Moines and others.  There are many unique observations to attribute to our friends in “Durm,” as our hosts called the city.  

 

We have learned again that progress in resurging cities and their regional economies always begins with committed leadership overcoming huge resource deficits and resistance to change, achieving momentum and broad community support.  Consistently, these efforts have been accompanied by dramatic improvements in quality of place and higher wage employment.  

Despite our relentless search for success, we were reminded plainly, “There is no secret sauce.  This is all about hard work, persistence and commitment to the long term.”  The good news?  Hard work, persistence and commitment are characteristics with which Hoosiers are well accustomed.  After all, we are “the city that saved itself” from the floods of the 80’s. And we are the region of Indiana doing it again following the drought of the great recession.

The focus of this visit was a bold public-private partnership in the ATC and the subsequent development in public infrastructure and private sector investment in an amazing theatre of performing arts.  We were exposed directly to the stories of fledgling startups and serial entrepreneurs making the ATC home in an “ecosystem” conducive to risk-taking; embracing both the success and failure inherent to entrepreneurial ventures.  We listened intently as Durham leadership nurtured minority and women-owned businesses.  This is a community riding a tidal wave of momentum born out of a wasteland of adversity; relishing occasional failures as the mere splashes of a whitewater raft ride.

There is a very unique opportunity for us in the Durham journey.  The ATC has a specific relevance to our GE facility redevelopment.  While the GE campus, now officially named Electric Works, is in far better condition than when the ATC was recovered, there is no question that this will be a huge challenge to amass the courage, development partners and resources to dig into the project.  What we observed first hand in Durham was the amazing returns the community received for their investments in the ATC.

Ironically, while in Durham we could not overlook the front page news in Fort Wayne.  A coalition organized by the Americans for Prosperity announced their opposition to a Fort Wayne City Council proposed income tax increase.  The increase is designed to help pay for the next phase of a bold riverfront development project and future sidewalk and alley repairs.  

The income tax increase of 0.15 percent would amount to an increase of about $60 per year for an individual making $40,000 annually.  

Not mentioned by the coalition was the fact that the Allen County income tax rate is the second lowest of all counties in Northeast Indiana’s eleven county region. 

Even with the increase, Allen County would only be tied for the fourth lowest rate in the region.  Further, even with all tax revenues such as property tax, income tax, wheel tax, etc., total tax revenue for Allen County remains well below almost all benchmarked communities.  We would not at all threaten our competitive cost of living position with the increase.  Certainly, by any comparison the proposed rate increase is at its worst, modest. 

Is this really about taxes? 

No one wants to pay more taxes, including me.  But I have to admit, I am grateful for public servants like police and firefighters who keep our homes and community safe 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days each year.  I respect elected officials who step into the unique challenge of running for office and public service, and they deserve our support.  I also appreciate living in a neighborhood with reliable electricity, water and sewer and neighborhoods with streets, sidewalks, trails and alleys all in good repair.  I want to live in a city and region which is home to growing and prosperous companies competing in a global marketplace and make our lives better.  And, I agree to pay taxes to allow good government and private industry to work together to produce strong neighborhoods, great communities and a growing region and state.  

This is not about taxes, it is about choosing the type of community I am willing to invest my tax dollars to support. 

I believe the increased tax would be a valuable investment in the future of our region. To attract new talent and grow the region, achieving the goal laid out in our Road to One Million plan, we must think long-term. Riverfront Development was the first priority in our quality of place plan, and this funding may be critical to advance the project. 

For me, this is personal.  My wife and I are Hoosiers by choice.   We grew up in Washington state, bounded by the Pacific and the Rockies.  We moved here for work and chose to stay to raise our family.  I encouraged my son, daughter-in-law and their children to move here because I believe there is a bright future to be made in Fort Wayne and Northeast Indiana, not unlike what we experienced in Durham.  I have no regret about encouraging them to do so. I am betting my tax dollars and their future on building a better city and region than what we experienced in Durham.  

The Fort Wayne City Council will meet at 5:30 p.m. on June 27 at Citizens Square, 200 E. Berry Street, to discuss the proposed income tax increase to invest in the future of my home.  I will be there in support because, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Categories & Tags CEO Perspective