What is northeast Indiana’s plan to reach 1 million residents?
By Ali Brand | Input Fort Wayne
Northeast Indiana is in the midst of a transformation. Construction sites can be spotted in every county of the region. Trail networks are expanding and connecting, and dream projects that have been decades in the making are finally coming to fruition.
But the timing of these projects is more than serendipity. Many of them are the result of an initiative called the Road to One Million, a regional development plan aimed at funding and promoting key projects throughout the 11-county region. Its goal is to increase northeast Indiana's population from an estimated 789,015 residents to 1 million residents, ideally by the year 2031.
The reason for this population growth came out of a need.
From 2012 to 2016, northeast Indiana experienced a negative domestic migration rate as people left smaller towns of the Midwest to move to larger cities. As the baby boomer generation retires from the workforce without new residents moving to the area to replace them, regional leaders saw that northeast Indiana could undergo a big gap in employment, too.
These leaders knew that to turn the tide of domestic migration, they needed to build a community that provided a higher quality of life for its residents. This includes investing in quality-of-place assets that interest talent, like downtown vibrancy as well as recreational and cultural amenities.
“We want to convince people that staying here, or coming back here, or moving here for the very first time is a really good decision,” says Michael Galbraith, Director of the Road to One Million.
According to the plan's Executive Summary, growing northeast Indiana's population to one million residents would mean "the addition of over 120,000 workers into the economy, a full doubling of our real GDP, an additional 40,000 children (ages 0-17) and 94,000 young adults (ages 25-44), 143,000 more housing units, 119 percent growth among adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 30 percent growth in arts patronage."
Since launching the initiative, regional leaders have found that achieving these milestones is rooted in collaboration.
The Road to One Million initiative is the first program created by a group called the Regional Development Authority (RDA). Due to a change in state laws, cities and counties throughout northeast Indiana have been able to come together to form a partnership and create the RDA to apply for state funding.
Through the Road to One Million, the region applied for Indiana’s Regional Cities Initiative grant, and in 2016, it was chosen as one of three recipients to be awarded $42 million to use for its development projects.
When deciding how to best put these funds to use, every county in the region was given an opportunity to compete and propose projects they see as transformative—not only to their local community but also to the region as a whole.
Galbraith says the idea is to help the 11 counties of northeast Indiana rise together, from the urban core of downtown Fort Wayne to the vast fields of farmland in LaGrange.
“The collaboration of northeast Indiana is the most important part of economic development,” he explains.
More than 70 projects were presented to the RDA, but in the end, only 24 projects were chosen. Each of the 11 counties has at least one project; eight are in Allen County, and the remaining 16 are scattered throughout the region.
With a combination of funding from the RDA, as well as from local governments and private contributions, nearly half of the original 24 projects have already been completed, and their impact is far-reaching.
In Fort Wayne, residents can attend concerts at the Clyde Theatre, or enjoy events at the Embassy Theatre's updated ballroom and rooftop thanks to Road to One Million funding. In Angola, classes in welding or CNC training are held at the newly-completed Enterprise Center. And as summer approaches, anyone can enjoy the completed trails in Huntington or Noble, which are the first of many routes being developed to connect the region.
“This initiative has really added speed to the momentum we were already experiencing in northeast Indiana," Galbraith says. "And there’s no reason for us to slow down.”
One project, in particular, that has had a major impact on the community is the Russel and Evelyn Fahl Aquatics Center in Columbia City.
Columbia City’s public pool had been around for about 60 years, but it was in need of maintenance, and attendance had been in sharp decline, Galbraith explains. With funds from the RDA, the city was able to transform the pool into an outdoor facility with two water slides, lap pools, a pavilion, and more.
The new aquatics center opened on July 7th, 2018, for about six weeks with a record attendance of 14,000 people.
Now, the city already has plans to expand the facility, adding an asphalt pad that can be used for pickleball and basketball during the summer. In the fall, it will be transformed into a synthetic ice-skating rink to make the center a multi-seasonal facility.
“Without things like the aquatic center, this community would not be what it is today,” says Mayor Ryan Daniel of Columbia City.
Columbia City is just one of the few cities already expanding on their newly completed Road to One Million projects. Angola plans to construct affordable housing for artists and entrepreneurs on the same campus as its Enterprise Center.
According to John Urbahns, President and CEO of Greater Fort Wayne Inc., when the Road to One Million applied for the Regional Cities Initiative, they presented an entire portfolio with more projects than they could ever hope to develop for a special purpose.
Since its inception, the Road to One Million was meant to act as a catalyst, generating momentum for additional projects and investment as it progresses. By showcasing a whole litany of plans for ongoing projects, such as The Landing and the Riverfront, it's seeking to attract outside investors.
“We want to make sure we are creating opportunities for people to invest their capital here,” Urbahns says.
For instance, the Riverfront in Fort Wayne was considered a vision project, or the type of project that the Road to One Million hoped to install within the next 10 years. Phase 1 of the project was funded through the initiative, but due to the enthusiasm behind the construction, investments and private donors came in to help fund Phases 2 and 3.
In other words, the community involvement behind projects, such as the Riverfront or the Fahl Aquatic Center, has been able to propel them beyond what the Road to One Million could accomplish on its own.
“I can’t do what I do without the support of our residents,” explains Mayor Daniel. “Our residents are always looking toward how can we make this community better for my kids, my grandkids, and future generations.”
With several projects completed and underway, the region is already starting to see a slow growth in its population. In 2018, Whitley County, the home of Columbia City and the Fahl Aquatics Center, was determined to be the fastest growing county in the region. Greater Fort Wayne Inc. reported that 2017 was the first year Allen County saw positive domestic migration, as 21 more people moved to the region than those who left.
According to recent Census Bureau statistics, the trend continued in 2018 when Allen County added a record net 691 new residents.
Commenting on the migration data, Urbahns says, “The secret’s out: This a community on the rise.”