This year's mayoral election offers a choice between an incumbent who has done a good job and an opponent who acknowledges some of that, but says he can do better.
That Fort Wayne is becoming a more attractive place to live and work is beyond debate. New buildings and a sensational new park are converting a traditional downtown into a Midwest jewel; our beautiful neighborhoods are beginning to get the attention they deserve; and those seeking recreation, entertainment or enrichment have more opportunities than ever.
Democrat Tom Henry is not the only visionary behind Fort Wayne's remarkable transformation, but he has led the effort for the past 12 years. He's seeking a fourth term to keep the momentum going and see some long-term projects to completion.
Republican Tim Smith points to the empty portion of Fort Wayne's glass, contending the city is not as safe or as financially sound as Henry's supporters believe. Smith says he could solve the problems Henry hasn't addressed and accelerate the city's progress with the business and management savvy he's acquired as vice president of operations and technology at MedPro Group, a national health care liability insurance carrier headquartered in Fort Wayne.
Articulate and enthusiastic, Smith is brimming with promises to make the public safer, support schools and improve neighborhoods. His ideas come with price tags, though – some of them potentially substantial. And some of his criticisms and proposals are just plain unrealistic.
Smith, a conservative who has never held public office, doesn't think tax increases would be necessary to implement his agenda. In the short term, he said, Fort Wayne could pay for new ventures by using “zero-based budgeting” to identify places to save the city money. Meanwhile, he would build the city's tax base by personally traveling to other places to lure more specialty-insurance companies here. It's already a $7 billion local industry with a rich pool of skilled workers who would be attractive to new employers – a “match made in heaven,” he said.
Smith is likely to find being his own economic development director more difficult than he imagines. And at best, attracting companies from that narrow sector of the economy would be only part of the key to future prosperity here.
Henry's broader-based approach to growing jobs is already on public display. He leaves the task of courting and recruiting companies to Greater Fort Wayne and the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, and concentrates on making the city the kind of place where employers want to move or expand.
“Look at some of the things we've done,” Henry told our editorial board. “(Sweetwater's) Chuck Surack wanting to bring in 1,000 new jobs ... Rural Sourcing, a company from outside Indiana, moving to downtown Fort Wayne ... Shingdigz, moving to downtown Fort Wayne and adding more jobs. Hopefully in a little while we'll be announcing the new national headquarters for Ruoff – when Mark (Music, Ruoff's CEO) gets here he's going to hire more people, and these are high-paying jobs.”
There has been much more progress – so much that it's hard to keep up. Another downtown hotel is being readied. The Landing is leasing residences. The mayor seems to have finally warmed to the vast potential of Electric Works. Just last week, the city reached a deal with an Indianapolis developer who wants to build another huge, mixed-use facility to be called The Lofts at Headwaters Park. The same developer has proposed a second residential and commercial project at Harrison and Superior streets.
The city's most dazzling recent achievement has been Promenade Park, which has drawn enthusiastic crowds since it opened in August, and planning continues on future phases of riverfront development.
Much of the work of making Fort Wayne a great place to live is less dramatic but no less essential. Big new road-quality and traffic-flow improvements have been completed in many corners of the city, and neighborhood infrastructure needs are getting the funding they deserve. The city has a nationally recognized water system, and the multiyear, multimillion-dollar effort to limit sewer-overflow pollution of our rivers is proceeding apace. An exception to the city's generally smooth-running services was garbage and recycling pickup, which became a huge problem after Fort Wayne switched contractors in January 2018. The mayor was rightly criticized for being too slow to react, but solutions advanced by a citizen-led group Henry created seem to be working and the problems have subsided somewhat in recent months.
Smith portrays Fort Wayne as drowning in a $1.2 billion bonding debt and notes much of the city's $2.5 billion in assets is tied up in streets and sewers. But a pay-as-you-go approach is reducing that debt, which officials say is in the normal range for a city our size. “We have an A++ (bond) rating, we have $20 million in the bank ... we have one of the lowest tax rates around,” Henry told The Journal Gazette's Dave Gong recently.
Smith and Henry have exchanged dueling figures on local crime rates. Smith says the violent crime rate has risen during Henry's years in office; Henry counters that “actually, our violent crime right now is lower than any year since 1988.” Smith contends we need to return to police walking beats; Henry says the department is using better strategies to build citizen trust and cooperation. The Henry-created Fort Wayne United is also working toward those ends, and regular citizen walks by United's Ten Point Coalition have encouraged residents of the crime-plagued Oxford neighborhood.
Smith says his plan to provide some leadership on education is not a matter of statutory responsibility but of the need for leadership on a core community issue. Some of his ideas are laudatory: lobbying the legislature for better teacher pay, for instance, and ensuring children have safe sidewalks on their routes to school.
But other of his proposals are impractical, including offering every public, private and parochial school two full-time police resource officers and using Legacy Fund dollars to buy school supplies. A Smith mailer out last week ups the ante, saying the candidate would “increase the number of public school teachers.” That pledge is either naive or disingenuous: the mayor's office has no control over how many teachers a school district has.
Smith deserves credit for the passion he has brought to his campaign, and for raising issues Fort Wayne needs to discuss.
But raising issues is not the same as getting the job done. Smith promises a better city; Henry is already delivering one.
We endorse Tom Henry.
Oct. 3: Huntington school referendums
Oct. 4: Fort Wayne city clerk
Oct. 6: Fort Wayne Council at large
Oct. 7: Fort Wayne Council District 1
Oct. 8: Fort Wayne Council District 3
Oct. 9: Fort Wayne Council District 4
Oct. 10: Fort Wayne Council District 5
Oct. 11: New Haven mayor
Today: Fort Wayne mayor
*Candidates in Districts 2 and 6 are unopposed
Find endorsements online at journalgazette.net/Opinion/Endorsements