When Mayor Tom Henry reached out to the community for ideas on how to invest the city’s Legacy Fund in 2011, the project that rose to the top of the wish list was the development of Fort Wayne’s riverfronts.
A plan to reengineer the area surrounding the confluence of our three rivers is now in the offing.
Its purpose is to encourage private investments from retail and residential businesses, bringing in more jobs while giving residents more places to live and more things to do. The result will be a revitalized downtown, one that attracts great minds, and great businesses, from all over the country.
But first the city’s current residents have to be on board.
That’s where Megan Butler comes in.
As Program and Events Manager for Riverfront Fort Wayne, Butler’s job is to get people excited about the rivers. Her efforts focus on getting residents from different parts of the city downtown to enjoy activities ranging from Dragon Boat races to an adults-only Winter Cozy to movie nights along the river.
For Butler, the Riverfront project is about more than economic development. She sees the riparian lands downtown as key to making the city an all-around better place for everyone to live.
“And I don’t just mean in terms of attractions and bringing in private development and bringing in money,” she says.
Our three rivers are the reason Fort Wayne was founded here in the first place, Butler points out, and the confluence lies at the center of the city’s six districts. But the historical significance and central location are only a couple of the factors she believes make the riverfront “the most . equitable space that we can have.”
She goes so far as to call the Riverfront project “democracy in action.”
There’s just one problem, she says: "An underlying perception that Riverfront development isn’t for everybody.”
A perception of exclusivity
A perception of exclusivity in Downtown development stems from multiple factors.
Apartments like The Harrison and Cityscape Flats have high rent. Tickets to TinCaps baseball games at Parkview Field start at $5, but that only gets you a single space on the lawn. And the issue extends beyond the posh restaurants and high-end accommodations.
“When you look at our city and see Downtown is centrally located and it’s that 10- to 15-minute drive from anywhere, you feel like, bam, we did it, it’s inclusive,” Réna Bradley, a Community Development Director serving the city’s sixth district, explains. “But then you consider that a lot
of people in this community in particular don’t have access to transportation.”
Bradley works on behalf of Bridge of Grace Compassionate Ministries, a faith-based nonprofit that serves residents of the city’s Southeast. She once typed a downtown address into her phone as she was setting out from Bridge of Grace (just south of East Pettit Ave) and got an estimated drive time of 45 minutes.
It turns out, she’d accidentally switched the map function on her phone to the mode for bus travel. So, even if the buses are running and the riders can make it to their stop on time, their 30-minute round trip jumps to at least 90 minutes.
“That’s insane!” Bradley says.
But the aspect of Downtown development that often concerns Southeast residents isn’t that they won’t be able to make it Downtown to enjoy the new spaces. It’s that they won’t have a say in the discussions and planning for any of the projects.
Pastor Javier Mondragon, Bridge of Grace’s Founder and CEO, says he loves to hear that efforts are being made to get input from lower-income areas. But he says, “The question I always ask is who’s sitting at that table?”
Too often, he finds there are “great names, good people,” just “not from the Southeast.”
As Program and Events Manager for Riverfront Fort Wayne, Megan Butler is working to make the project more inclusive.
To highlight another concern, Mondragon points to downtown revitalization initiatives in places like Oklahoma City and Indianapolis. In both cities, highly touted economic gains were achieved through development projects like parks and new sports stadiums, but these gains occurred against a backdrop of worsening poverty.
“I’m for economic development, so I love what’s happening downtown,” Mondragon says. “And I can’t ask for the same kind of economic investment in Southeast as Downtown. But if the city continues to neglect the Southeast, there’s no question that the crime and all the issues that are happening here are going to continue.”
From 2000 to 2015, the poverty rate in Indianapolis rose from 11.8 to 21.3 percent as downtown development grew. Then in 2016, Indy cracked the list of top ten most dangerous cities in the country, this despite the city’s investment in Lucas Oil Stadium and its hosting of the 2012 Super Bowl.
Fearing Fort Wayne may be heading toward similar future, Mondragon wonders if directing some Legacy funds to the poorer areas might be an effective countermeasure.
“Maybe not equal,” he says, “but is there anything?”
Developing 'our riverfront'
Despite her own limited purview, Butler is determined to forge ahead with her mission of Inclusion on the Riverfront.
“It’s really easy for me to feel included in this project,” she admits, but she acknowledges others face barriers that would normally never occur to her. “So, it’s just figuring those barriers out, and you don’t realize them, so a lot of it is me researching, talking to people, learning about groups that I may not be a member of, and understanding where they’re coming
from and what they need.”
Bradley and Mondragon have no shortage of ideas she may want to pursue.
Since the Riverfront project will mostly benefit future generations and more than 45 percent of Southeast Fort Wayne's community is under age 25, Bradley thinks there's a strong case to include the Southeast in key discussions.
“If we want it to be all of Fort Wayne that’s experiencing that riverfront, including our high schoolers, are we going to the high schools, are we going to the Y? Are we reaching out to them where they are?”
This focus on the city’s youth bears on another theme both Bradley and Mondragon emphasize: A lack of resources doesn't mean a lack of talent.
“There’s so much talent here," Mondragon says. "What (the Southeast) lacks is opportunity, hope, confidence in themselves.” The city currently prioritizes making itself appealing to the best workers. “They talk about attracting talent and retaining talent,” Mondragon says. “Well, what about cultivating talent that is here already?”
“People support what they create,” Bradley explains. “What if there was a Riverfront competition that engaged all of our high schools with: ‘What are your ideas?’”
Butler affirms Riverfront has in fact already begun collaborating with schools on just this type of project.
But Bradley would like to see more programs to promote budding entrepreneurs. The Bridge of Grace project she’s most proud of had kids helping with the construction of a playground.
After completion, she heard one of the boys talking about what they’d built.
“It stuck in my heart that he said, ‘our park’,” she recalls. “It’s their playground, and they take care of it.”
So the challenge for coming years will be to encourage people from all the city’s districts to think of the rivers as “our Riverfront.”