Like Fort Wayne, Grand Rapids, Michigan, has no mountains. Like Fort Wayne, Des Moines, Iowa, has no seashore.
But both cities have something else – a vibrant arts and cultural scene fueling economic growth. Grand Rapids was named among cities in Italy, Greece and the Czech Republic on the New York Times list of "52 Places to Go in 2016." Des Moines’ 80/35 Music Festival draws more than 30,000 indie music fans each July. The Iowa capital’s three-day Art Festival won the International Festivals & Events Association top award for the second consecutive year in 2015, recognized as "the best festival in the world."
Employers and job-seekers have taken note. Grand Rapids finished behind only Denver and Houston last year in a ranking of cities creating jobs and "nurturing sustainable economic development." Area Development magazine noted that population growth in Grand Rapids "exceeds expectations as the booming downtown helps retain more college graduates."
Des Moines boasts a long list of accolades, including "Best City for Jobs in 2015," "Best City for Young Professionals" and "Emerging Startup Cities of 2015."
The creative energy driving success in those Midwestern cities already exists here. Community leaders closest to it have taken a big step to leverage that energy – starting from the Platform for Cultural Advancement.
The Platform will be officially unveiled Tuesday at Arts United’s annual awards celebration. It’s a step-by-step plan that "gives northeast Indiana’s creative sector a strategy to evolve into the vibrant, progressive, inclusive and prosperous community that we long to be."
Andrew Boxberger, chairman of the Arts United board of directors, served alongside Sweetwater founder and President Chuck Surack in convening about 40 community members as the Cultural Advancement Committee. The panel worked with Raven Consulting Group of Greensboro, North Carolina, to create the plan. It is shaped by responses from a regional survey, focus groups, interviews, committee meetings and town halls. In all, more than 2,000 northeast Indiana residents contributed thoughts and ideas.
"It’s important because it really helps us clarify what the desires of our community are as it relates to arts and culture," Boxberger said in an interview last week. "Overwhelmingly, the community desires to have Fort Wayne and northeast Indiana become a national cultural destination."
The plans outlined for cultural advancement parallel northeast Indiana’s Regional Cities program, the 11-county initiative to develop quality-of-place projects designed to attract and retain residents and to raise per-capita income.
"A lot of their projects are cultural in nature," Boxberger noted, "They really align well. Ultimately, there are a lot of different aspects to economic development. A vibrant cultural environment is one of those."
Arts United President Susan Mendenhall said the decision to hire Raven Consulting was based on the company’s experience with nonprofit arts councils like Arts United. They are a fairly unusual model, with most communities having publicly funded commissions to support local arts organizations.
"We also wanted to have a partner that would serve as tour guide, not come in with preconceived notions," Mendenhall said. "We feel like we had a great partner with Raven Consulting."
She said a compelling part of the process was determining the aspirations and successes of the arts communities’ many participants and taking that information to the Cultural Advancement Committee to shape the Platform.
"When the committee got together, it wasn’t difficult to pick out the themes. We knew we were already recognized within the region for our cultural assets, so we realized we want everyone else to recognize that. We need to be more effective in telling our story, in using our cultural advantages for talent attraction and general marketing toward our strategic goals."
The Platform shows just how those goals can be achieved.
It sets priorities, identifies strategies, defines success and sets out specific tactics for achieving it. For achieving a goal of making the creative sector a regional priority, for example, the Platform identifies strategies that include advocacy for the arts, achieved through ongoing meetings with regional leaders.
Mendenhall said she wanted people to know that creation of the plan was a true collaboration. Literally thousands of residents had input.
For those skeptical of northeast Indiana’s prospects for emulating a Des Moines or a Grand Rapids, Visit Fort Wayne President Dan O’Connell points to an event this weekend. Thousands of students, parents and teachers are in the city for the annual Indiana Music Educators Association annual meeting.
The event was lured from Indianapolis four years ago, he said, because Fort Wayne could offer ideal downtown venues for music performances, including the Embassy Theatre, Allen County Public Library auditorium and central city churches.
"This is where they come to learn best practices with their educators," O’Connell said. "They love it because of the proximity to all of these great performance spaces. They can’t do that in Indy. We were a really good fit – it’s an introduction to a creative universe for these students."
Northeast Indiana’s arts and cultural advantages can make it a good fit for residents, too, particularly millennials who are known to first choose where they want to live, then where they want to work. Communities that recognize and support their creative talent are increasingly where young people want to live, work and visit.
Karen Francisco is editorial page editor of The Journal Gazette.