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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, December 16, 2018 1:00 am


Alliance proves value of rural investment

It was about a month into the General Assembly's 2004 session when anger over a local government bill boiled over in Grabill.

Nearly 400 residents – mostly from communities in east Allen County – packed the town's fire station to protest Senate Bill 225, which would have set the groundwork for consolidating city and county services.

“We're going to be the losers and common sense ought to be telling us that,” said then-Rep. Dennis Kruse, to cheers from the crowd. “Bigger is not better.”

Sen. David Long, the bill's sponsor, yielded to the residents, who believed they were about to be swallowed up by Fort Wayne. He quickly withdrew the legislation.

Announcement last week of the state's Stellar Communities designation for NewAllen Alliance represents the flip side of efforts to improve northeast Indiana – not a top-down, government-driven approach, but a collaborative path designed to preserve and enhance the best of the region. 

“Communities quite often have formed out of fear of what was going to be done to them,” observed Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue Fort Wayne.

“There's always been an enemy that people could rally around. And then, after you rally against the enemy, you begin to think about what real prospects there are for collaboration.”

NewAllen Alliance, which comprises Leo-Cedarville, Grabill, Harlan, Woodburn, New Haven, Monroeville and Hoagland, was established in 1991, but about five years ago the alliance began to consider how it could position itself for community and economic development.

Those efforts dovetailed nicely with the Regional Cities initiative to grow northeast Indiana to a population of 1 million.

“We can have the discussion about whether we like how the Regional Cities money is being spent, but it doesn't change the fact that – because of our easy ability to move around – regional is quite often the best way to think of things,” Downs said. “It means not every city has to have every amenity. You can have the small-town feel of a Leo or New Haven, and something larger in Fort Wayne. But if you want to live in a suburban area – you've got that, too, or rural. It makes you more broadly appealing to folks.

“If we want to find our way up to a million people in northeast Indiana – they're not all coming for the exact same things,” he said.

The new designation injects another $5.8 million in state funds for the $17 million in projects proposed by NewAllen Alliance, including housing, infrastructure, trails and a healthy eating initiative. Stellar Communities enhances quality of life in a large portion of Allen County, building on Regional Cities investments in the Fort Wayne riverfront, Embassy Theatre and more. Urban, suburban and rural residents all benefit.

From a tense and distrustful gathering in Grabill more than a decade ago, elected and community leaders found a way to hold up the best attributes from across northeast Indiana.

It's a wonderful example of pragmatism at the local government level, Downs noted – something we don't see from Washington.