Earlier this year, the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership launched an initiative asking residents to help them articulate a brand vision for our 11 counties as a tool for boosting talent attraction and regional pride.
Since I live in Fort Wayne, this got me thinking about the ways that our city, in particular, has often advertised itself.
When people talk about what makes Fort Wayne a great place to live and work, the answer is usually boiled down to two main things: It has a low cost of living, and it’s a great place to raise a family. Kara Hackett
But while these reasons are true, they have always left me feeling a little unsatisfied. Calling Fort Wayne “an affordable place to raise a family” doesn’t quite convey the breadth and depth of what’s happening here. It’s like calling Moby Dick a book about a guy and a whale. (Yes, but there’s so much more to it than that!)
That’s when I got to thinking: Maybe we’ve been talking about ourselves the wrong way. Maybe having “a low cost of living” and being “a great place to raise a family” aren’t so much an end in themselves, as they are a means to greater ends.
Let me show you what I mean.
Take the low cost of living, for example. First, it’s not technically accurate to say that Fort Wayne is an “affordable place to live" because the definition of what’s affordable changes for each person. So even though Fort Wayne is less expensive than other cities by some metrics, there are still factors that make it inaccessible for a portion of the population here, as well.
All that to say, “affordable” is a generalized, unreliable term. But if we want to go by what the national averages (and the lists on the internet) tell us, then we can say with some degree of accuracy that Fort Wayne has a lower cost of living compared to other cities in the U.S.
Fine. But let's take the conversation a step further.
Why do people want to live in “affordable” places? It’s often so they can use their resources in other ways—whether it’s putting food on the table for their families, saving up to buy a home, going back to school, or spending more leisure time with friends and family.
There are a whole host of reasons, but it’s really about access, control, and opportunity. Living in a (relatively) affordable place allows people to have more control over how they use their resources and gives them more opportunities to achieve their goals—whatever those goals may be.
So affordability is a means to the end of opportunity and a ton of other things we could enumerate here to articulate our city’s value.
Now, let’s take look at the “great place to raise a family” part of the statement.
Fort Wayne certainly has many family-friendly amenities like playgrounds, splash pads, a nationally famous Children’s Zoo, and PG entertainment options, like Tincaps games. But saying that these amenities are specifically for "raising families" limits their potential in some ways.
Today, more adults are choosing to wait until later in life to start families or are building non-traditional families for themselves with groups of friends instead, so calling your city a great place to “raise a family” shows a limited definition of what a family can be. And once again, it’s not really speaking to the end goal of what having a great place to raise a family is about.
More often than not, you don’t choose to live in a city that’s "great for families," just so you can say that it’s great for families. Instead, choosing to live in a family-oriented place like Fort Wayne seems to be more about putting the people you love first in your life and having ways to spend time with them.
It's about being part of a community, and if you're paying attention to national trends, then the time to start talking about this is now.
Like many other cities across the Midwest, Fort Wayne is experiencing a revival. Talent and young professionals are moving back to former Rust Belt towns, and a recent article by CNBC says their reasons for doing so run deeper than bargain prices or city amenities.
"There is a community-mindedness with millennials that attracts them to the smaller Rust Belt towns," says Peter Haring, president of Haring Realty in Mansfield, Ohio. "We are seeing an intense interest in participating in the revitalization of our towns and being a part of the community. It's palpable, and it's exciting."
Living in a place like Fort Wayne is the decision to be a part of something, too.
I’m not sure how you roll that into a regional branding statement, but if you could, I think it would better speak to the breadth of what this place is offering than the ways we have typically defined ourselves.