Next steps toward greatness

October 16th, 2018

By John Urbahns for The Journal Gazette

What kind of place should Allen County be? It's a big question, but one we need to answer if we want to reach our full potential. Should we focus on downtowns? Neighborhoods? Rural communities? Who should be involved? After researching other communities, our answer is all of the above, and everyone.

Our downtowns should showcase the best of our communities. As Fort Wayne's urban core has improved, so have perceptions about Allen County – for visitors and natives alike. What was once a ghost town after 5 p.m. is now a hive of activity with more businesses, restaurants, coffee shops, one of the nation's top ballparks and much more. The turnaround has attracted national attention from The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, and U.S. News & World Report.

Meanwhile, urban neighborhood commercial corridors and rural main streets also play a critical role in building vibrancy. Take Broadway, for example. Broadway is dotted with successful businesses, but it's also marked by dilapidated structures and a large vacant swath in the former GE campus. Despite being surrounded by the densest neighborhoods in Allen County (its 5,000+ residents per square mile is 10 times the county average), the area is both a food desert and a medically underserved area. This is unacceptable, and yet it is hardly unique.

As we aim to improve our neighborhoods and rural areas, investments in infrastructure and aesthetics are a good start. But, we must also invest in people – the entrepreneurs who make neighborhoods more livable for their residents. The small businesses they create are the lifeblood of their neighborhoods and residents are the heart. Their companies' success can be the key to neighborhood revival.

Detroit offers example after example of the impact that entrepreneurism, inclusion and a well-rounded strategy can have. That is why, with support from the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, Greater Fort Wayne Inc. led a 24-hour trip to Detroit for several local leaders who run programs supporting entrepreneurs with the goal of learning more about what works for the Motor City and what could work in Allen County.

Detroit's progress exceeded all expectations. Here's what we learned about their approach:

Inclusivity leads.

Eighty-six percent of Detroit's residents are people of color. With the city's painful and often divisive history, the community leaders and entrepreneurs we met were up-front about past challenges. It was refreshing to hear such honest, respectful and constructive dialogue, and inspiring to see a community focused on the opportunities ahead. Whether in a formal meeting or talking with locals, it was clear that inclusivity is a critical factor in Detroit's equation for rebuilding.

We have work to do on that front in Allen County. Our business community is robust, but we lag significantly behind national averages in the number of businesses owned by minorities and women.

Statistics from the Census Bureau indicate 8 percent minority business ownership in Allen County compared to 16 percent nationally, and 18 percent woman-owned compared to 20 percent nationally.

While there are many efforts under way to strengthen our entrepreneurial ecosystem, geographic and demographic inclusivity must remain a central focus.

Many types of capital help neighborhoods thrive.

In economic development, there tends to be a focus on hard capital – money and other traditional resources. In Detroit, social capital and creative capital are just as critical to their redevelopment efforts.

We witnessed dozens of residents maintaining Clark Park southwest of downtown, mowing and trimming the property. When city resources dried up, residents took it upon themselves to maintain this community asset.

Later, we saw the power of creative capital in the Motor City Match program, which takes a novel approach of pairing building owners with entrepreneurs. This formula results in buildings being rehabbed and entrepreneurs being sought out, oftentimes by knocking on doors and referring neighbors.

The city must have a vision for where it wants to go.

Detroiters understand the vision for their city: a thriving downtown, a diversified economy, strong entrepreneurs and healthy neighborhoods. More importantly, there's a feeling that everyone is pulling in the same direction. Political leaders empower grassroots efforts, and they rely on the social capital of neighbors to help lead and implement inclusively.

Yes, Detroit has its big projects. Packard Plant is a $300 million renovation of an abandoned factory that looks strikingly similar to Electric Works. Ford Motor Company is restoring a historic train depot into a center for research and development operations. But there are also dozens of smaller neighborhood improvement projects. It takes a mix of big and small initiatives to grow jobs, wages and the economy.

In Allen County, omnipresent orange barrels are evidence of a commitment to strong corridors and neighborhoods. It's also worth noting that the potential of the Electric Works project could breathe new life into more than just downtown Fort Wayne and the Broadway neighborhood. Its proposed public market would provide a local outlet for area farmers, its innovation district would provide fertile ground for dynamic education and startup businesses, and its Class-A office space would help attract the high-wage jobs of the future. Transformative projects such as Electric Works would build on the momentum of downtown and Riverfront projects and could serve as the launching pad for an economy that takes us to heights we haven't achieved in decades, if ever.

If something doesn't work, don't panic; just pivot.

The people we met in Detroit are fearless, creative and resilient as they rebuild their community. They've taken on new problems with new solutions – and not all of their ideas worked right away. But they used their short-term failures as learning opportunities on the path toward long-term success.

In our reflections after the trip, we discussed Fort Wayne's risk-averse mindset. We tend to stick to what we know, which can make us skeptical of new ways of thinking. Rather than responding to setbacks with “I told you so,” we should follow Detroit's example of learning from mistakes and using them to improve. Part of this is acknowledging that talent is equally distributed among people of all backgrounds, but opportunity is not.

Intentional inclusion and genuine relationship building among our diverse communities are key factors for a healthy city, a forward-thinking community and a thriving economy for all.

Building a better Allen County is a tremendous responsibility – one that no one can fulfill alone. That's why, today, our organizations commit to working together to create a thriving downtown, vibrant neighborhoods and rural communities, a growing base of woman- and minority-owned businesses, and transformational projects such as Electric Works, the Riverfront and the Landing.

By doing these things, we will unite to leave a lasting legacy: A community that gives everyone the opportunity to succeed. A community where fresh thinking is embraced. A community with unlimited potential.

Categories Regional Leadership