When outgoing Downtown Improvement District President Bill Brown thinks of the changes Fort Wayne has undergone in the last 10 years, he is reminded of one of the city's nicknames: The City That Saved Itself.
Fort Wayne earned that moniker in 1982 after residents banded together to save homes and businesses from rising and encroaching floodwaters. But more than 30 years later, that concept can be applied to how Fort Wayne has redefined and reinvented itself for the 21st century.
“Downtown over the last 10 years has really gone places, post-ballpark,” Brown said. “I think this whole notion ingrained into our DNA is a bias toward work as the city that saved itself.”
When looking at downtown, Brown said it's clear to see that there's a cavalcade of evidence that indicates the city is on an upward trajectory as opposed to maintaining the status quo.
“There are small operators willing to come in and spend hard-earned money to start businesses,” Brown said. “Microbusiness concepts have been going from food trucks and hot dog carts to real brick-and-mortar businesses. And we've really started to embrace the rivers.”
There have always been early adopters in the Summit City, Brown said. The Deck at Don Hall's Gas House downtown, or Fort Wayne Outfitters are examples, he said, “of pioneer investment going in early 10 to 12 years ago and making a pretty bold business decision to embrace some key concepts.”
The City That Saved Itself concept can be seen in other projects, as well. The now-renovated Embassy Theatre was at one point two days away from the wrecking ball, Brown said. Now, it's fully restored and a pillar of Fort Wayne's entertainment market. Fort Wayne also helped save itself after International Harvester and other companies left and thousands of jobs disappeared.
“People pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and got General Motors to land here,” Brown said.
Fort Wayne is the heart of northeast Indiana's economy, John Sampson and Kate Virag of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership said.
Sampson, the organization's president and CEO, identified with Brown's idea that Fort Wayne has a propensity for hard work. That penchant for work has caused people and businesses to take notice. Fort Wayne's affordability and quality of life are especially noticeable, he said.
“We're not saying this is the cheapest place to live anymore, this is a place where people want to live,” Sampson said. “It's the kind of place where they can make a life, make a home, have a family, have a career here and afford to live.”
Communities that used to be considered part of so-called “fly-over states” in the Rust Belt are “the next frontier,” Sampson said.
“People are leaving major cities because of the cost and congestion and coming to communities like this where we have a way of life that people want,” Sampson said. “It's not about being for everybody, but it's about being this kind of a community and being the best we can be. People want to be a part of that.”
Anyone, young people especially through organizations like Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana, can have a voice in Fort Wayne, Sampson said.
“I think all those things combined are writing a story of a community that people want to be a part of,” Sampson said. “And you don't have to have grown up here. You don't have to have graduated from high school here to make this your own.”
The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership has spoken to hundreds of people in Fort Wayne and throughout northeast Indiana to develop what the organization calls its Make it Your Own brand. The community isn't perfect and has room to grow, but the organization has begun to dial in on an intersection of affordability, opportunity and quality of life. The Regional Partnership spoke with area natives, transplants and “boomerangs” – people who left the community at one time but have since returned.
“You can have a great career, you can afford to live well and you can also have fun and do great things in our community,” said Virag, the Regional Partnership's vice president of marketing and strategic communications.
It's the difference between existing and actually living, Virag said.
“I hear young people loving that they live here, and people are bringing their families back,” Sampson said. “People feel the momentum.”
About Fort Wayne
Population: 267,633 (2018 census estimate)
•Second largest city in Indiana.
•Named in honor of American Revolutionary War General “Mad” Anthony Wayne.