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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, August 19, 2018 1:00 am

Been there: It was 1st trip back in '05

Among the ideas the tour inspired was O'Donnell's

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

Local civic and business leaders began visiting comparably sized cities 13 years ago, searching for secrets to their success.

That first destination, like this year's, was Greenville, South Carolina.

At that time, Greenville officials had invested about 15 years in reviving the city's downtown. Their efforts included planting trees and flowers, posting signs to guide visitors to local attractions, widening sidewalks to allow restaurants to offer outside dining, investing in public art and attracting unique boutiques and restaurants.

Meanwhile, Fort Wayne officials were only in the planning phase of downtown revitalization, said Cheri Becker, Greater Fort Wayne's vice president of investor services and programs. She has championed the Inter-City Visit program and suggested Greenville as a good place to start.

“One of the things we learned in 2005 was that little things make a big difference,” she said.

Scott Glaze, CEO of Fort Wayne Metals Research Products Corp., was on that first trip to Greenville. Glaze credited the experience with spurring him to open JK O'Donnell's Irish restaurant, a downtown destination that opened in 2007.

Karl Bandemer, Fort Wayne's deputy mayor, said Inter-City Visits give local officials new ideas for projects. The trip to Wichita, Kansas, showed Bandemer and others how a riverfront can be developed.

The trip to Des Moines, Iowa, revealed the benefits of a strong partnership with the community foundation, he said.

And the trips can do something more, Bandemer said.

“It often solidifies what you've been doing,” he added.

Nelson Peters has found the same thing. He is among those registered to visit Greenville, his fourth trip with the group.

The Allen County commissioner said local officials were able to take away ideas related to our riverfront after visiting Providence, Rhode Island. And they walked away from Wichita with a confidence boost.

“We were actually ahead of a city we were trying to compare ourselves to on a number of fronts,” Peters said, citing public-private partnerships as an example.

After the Denver visit, which Peters didn't make, northeast Indiana mayors formed a caucus and started meeting regularly to discuss legislative priorities, best practices and benchmarking – or comparing communities using measurable data.

Peters is interested comparing local benchmarks with Greenville. He wants to find out whether Fort Wayne has closed the gap identified between the two cities during the last visit to Greenville.

“What exactly are they doing that they weren't doing 15 years ago that has allowed that growth?” he asked. “They've been able to turn the tide on some of that reluctance of public-private partnerships.”

John Sampson, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, has similar questions about the momentum of Greenville's downtown revitalization, which has progressed beyond local efforts.

“Will that help us set our sights higher than what it is today?” he asked.

Sampson missed the first Greenville trip, but plans to go this year. Other Inter-City Visits he's taken were to Chattanooga, Tennessee; Providence; Cincinnati; Denver; and Des Moines, Iowa.

“Every single one of them, I learned things I did not expect to learn,” he said.

Before a local delegation visited the American Tobacco Campus in Durham, North Carolina, public-private partnerships weren't on the local radar, Peters said.

Seeing the success of the American Tobacco Campus redevelopment set the stage for people to support the Electric Works project that calls for redeveloping the former local General Electric campus, he said.

Without that experience, Peters said, local leaders probably would have told Electric Works supporters that they're crazy to think the project could be profitable.

Nancy Townsend, Fort Wayne's redevelopment director, has visited numerous cities to pick up tips. Only one of those trips was through the Inter-City Visits program. Townsend intends to visit Greenville.

“For me, it's about how they were able to get it done,” Townsend said, referring to financial packages.

Although she's open to learning about Greenville's experience with public-private partnerships, Townsend believes Fort Wayne already has a strong track record in that approach.

Local public-private partnerships were used to fund downtown construction of Parkview Field, The Harrison, Ash Skyline Plaza, Skyline Tower, the Courtyard by Marriott, the Hampton Inn and the boutique hotel planned by Oregon-based Provenance Hotels and Vera Bradley co-founder Barbara Bradley Baekgaard.

The partnerships were also behind renovations of The Landing, Superior Lofts, Randall Lofts, the Metro Building, the former Anthony Wayne Building and the former Cambray and Associates building, which the Hall family plans to turn into a restaurant near the under-construction Promenade Park downtown. 

“We're not known for our failures,” Townsend said. “We're known for our successes.”

The cost of participating in the Inter-City Visits has ranged from $900 to $2,100 per person, depending on the destination, transportation, hotel, food and other costs, Becker said. This year's price tag is $1,990, paid by the individuals or the groups they represent.

Delegations from at least a dozen cities visit Greenville each year, searching for inspiration and direction, according to Hank Hyatt. He's senior vice president of economic competitiveness for the Greenville Chamber.

Greenville leaders take similar trips every couple of years to push themselves to the next level. Cities they've visited in recent years have included Pittsburgh; Austin, Texas; and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.