INDIANAPOLIS – A group of notable northeast Indiana executives took to the stage Tuesday to sell an 11-county plan to grow population and establish the area as a national brand.
The ambitious proposal starts with the core of Fort Wayne but radiates to smaller communities in the area, such as Wabash and Warsaw.
At stake is $84 million in state funding from Gov. Mike Pence’s Regional Cities Initiative. Seven proposals have been submitted from around the state for the cash. Presentations to a strategic review committee started Tuesday and continue today. The proposals also include local and private investment designed to make Indiana more attractive to talented young workers.
The ultimate decision will come from the Indiana Economic Development Corp.’s board of trustees in December.
Local attorney Tim Pape kicked off northeast Indiana’s presentation by saying Fort Wayne’s downtown was dying 10 years ago, and nothing was being done. Then the downtown baseball field and Harrison Square project kicked up a raging debate – and progress.
"We have what we call our swagger back," Pape said. "There’s a fire burning in northeast Indiana. We need some more fuel. You’re that fuel."
The seven submissions include more than 400 cultural and livability projects costing about $3.8 billion.
Northeast Indiana’s proposal includes 70 projects costing more than $1.5 billion in total investment across the 11-county area over the next decade. The most expensive project is also the most expansive: a $72.5 million regional trail network to connect all 11 counties.
The second-most expensive is the $68.7 million Fort Wayne riverfront development that could include a promenade with shopping and dining, a boat dock, a rock climbing wall and a railroad-themed attraction.
Mitch Roob, a member of the strategic review committee, asked specifically about the riverfront development plan during a question-and-answer session.
"I have trepidation about the timeline and cost of doing that," Roob said. "I’d love to be wrong."
John Urbahns of Greater Fort Wayne acknowledged that developing on the rivers is a delicate issue with regulatory practicalities.
But he said the city of Fort Wayne has turned its back on the rivers for decades, partly due to flooding. Now that many of those issues have been addressed, it is time to work with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Natural Resources to make the rivers an asset.
"Other communities have done this," he said. "We can do this."
The northeast plan focuses on four areas – arts and cultural assets; greenways and blueways; downtowns and community development; and education and industry.
Several of those participating focused on quality of place rather than traditional factors such as job growth and wage increases.
"We are building places where people want to be," said Ellen Cutter, a certified urban planner who heads the Community Research Institute at IPFW. "We believe these are bold and transformational projects that can create vibrant places and drive population growth."
Revitalizing rural areas, as well as downtown Fort Wayne, means people can choose the setting they want to live and work in.
"We want our residents to smile. To be happy and proud of where they live," said Zach Benedict, an architect and urbanist at MKM Architecture + Design.