Everyone can name a few people – local friends or family – who moved away, perhaps to Seattle, or Nashville, or Indianapolis.
My family chose Fort Wayne. We moved here from Iowa in 2011. But in that particular year, and in every year since 1990, Allen County had more residents move away than move here from other American communities. In fact, in 2011 alone, the county saw 1,057 more people leave than move in.
Reflect on that for a moment. Think of the resources to support, educate, develop and govern those thousands of residents, only to lose them.
Just a few weeks ago, the figures for 2018 were released. Our community posted a net gain of 691 residents, the best year on record for Allen County. The investments we are making throughout the county are moving the needle. Labor force and employment are at all-time highs.
But, beyond the economics, what are the factors that attract and retain people?
The Knight Foundation has studied community attachment extensively, specifically in Fort Wayne. Social offerings (events, opportunities to connect with people), aesthetics (how our community looks) and openness (how welcoming we are) are the top factors that drive how attached residents feel to Fort Wayne.
After living in Chicago, Atlanta, rural Iowa and Oregon, I found Fort Wayne to be uniquely welcoming. In the first year of living here, my neighbors threw me a baby shower. I joined Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana, a church and my neighborhood association.
This is remarkable, considering I didn't know a single person when we relocated. In my experience, it's just not that easy to get connected in a new city. But here, I felt included almost immediately.
Certainly, this is not everyone's experience. As our region grows and builds momentum, we must continuously ask ourselves: Are we, as a community, making an intentional effort to include all our neighbors in building a better Allen County? If not, we are squandering our greatest asset: our people.
How we approach civic participation says a lot about who we are as a community. To what extent do we value and prioritize connecting the under-connected, seeking out “new” voices and engaging the full spectrum of neighbors who make up the very fabric of Allen County?
One of the most fundamental aspects of openness is civic participation. Fort Wayne's new Summit City Match program is a best-practice example of this concept. It aims to boost entrepreneurship, specifically among women and minorities. Matching vacant buildings with small business owners, this pilot program on South Calhoun Street engages area residents and business owners, offering translation services in multiple languages.
Associated classes for entrepreneurs address common roadblocks to participation, such as child care and transportation. The Fort Wayne Black Chamber and the Greater Fort Wayne Hispanic Chamber have been crucial partners at every step.
Prior to working locally, I served as the research director for a national economic development consultancy. From the vantage point of working with dozens of clients, large and small, urban and rural, it is fair to say that different communities prioritize and value civic engagement differently. Some seek to broaden the umbrella; others may meet the minimum requirements outlined by law.
At a basic level, services such as 311, televised public meetings, opt-in newsletters and social media provide convenient avenues for updates and feedback.
Something as simple as providing organizational charts online informs residents about structures and programs. Alignment with diverse leadership programs can propel a community past a closed system of participation to one reflective of the community at large. Traditional budgets – lengthy PDF documents, with little context for how decisions will improve the lives of citizens – can be brought alive online to connect planning, budgeting and construction into interactive maps that personalize investments for residents.
Let us all find small ways to be more civically engaged and examine the soft signals our community sends about how open we are. Fort Wayne and Allen County have so much to offer, but without question, our greatest strength is our people. Every person in this community is an expert in where they live, and that knowledge (and the ideas that stem from it) is a valuable collective asset. Let's maximize it.
Ellen Cutter is vice president of economic development with Greater Fort Wayne Inc.