For 20 years, Mike Clendenon has worked in the Parks Department for New Haven and Adams Township, just east of Fort Wayne.
In that time, he’s seen what he calls a big change in how elected officials look at parks and recreational spaces in northeast Indiana cities. Mike Clendenon
“People used to think of parks as places where you put statues of dead presidents,” Clendenon jokes. “Now, more and more, elected officials are seeing the benefits that parks bring to a community’s quality of life and economic development.”
As proof, he points to the criteria that companies, like Amazon, are using to determine the next location of their global headquarters.
“They put a high priority on access to recreation,” Clendenon explains. And in New Haven and Adams Township, access to recreation has not always been easy.
Before the New Haven Community Center opened in 2017, plans for the space were in the works for nearly 20 years. When the area’s only fitness center closed in 2015, it left residents with few opportunities to get exercise and come together in the cold months of Indiana winter without driving to Fort Wayne.
So the Parks Department ended up converting an old auto auction facility into a mixed-use office space, fitness center, and community gathering space.
Today, the New Haven Community Center at 7500 SR 930 East has a 3,000-square foot event space that can be rented out for parties, an 800-square foot commercial kitchen, a 2,000-square foot aerobics room, and a 3,000-square foot fitness center.
“We’re a member of the Indiana Parks and Recreation Association (IPRA), and when we opened in 2017, we were awarded their Excellence in Facility Design,” Clendenon says. “We’re pretty proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.”
The Community Center gives residents a way to workout in the winter.
But the Parks Department is far from finished, he explains. They have an “aggressive” five-year plan for $6 million in projects to keep building on the Community Center’s success and the roughly 6.5 acres of land around it.
In Phase 2, they hope to add a locker room to the fitness center and other outdoor recreation spaces, including a playground, a football/soccer field, a basketball court, four pickleball courts, and two sand volleyball courts.
In Phase 3, they have plans for a fieldhouse with an indoor track, basketball courts, and pickleball courts to give residents spaces to enjoy in winter months.
“This is what we would like to accomplish and get people behind,” Clendenon says.
Clendenon says the fitness center has more than 800 members in its busy months.
But while the plans for these amenities are already drawn up, how quickly they will happen depends on how much funding the Parks Department can find, Clendenon explains.
One of the main funding sources for Phase 2 of the project could be the Stellar Communities grant that East Allen County is bidding for from the state of Indiana through a group called the NewAllen Alliance.
The Alliance, which has existed since the 1980s, has spent the last several years rallying rural communities in East Allen County around the concept of “rural renewal.”
Kristi Sturtz, a Rural Liaison with the NewAllen Alliance, describes it as creating a sense of local pride among rural residents and empowering them to develop their communities alongside their urban neighbors, in a way that fits their needs.
New Haven is the largest city that's part of NewAllen's bid for a Stellar Communities grant.
Clendenon notes that while the New Haven Community Center is outside of Fort Wayne’s boundaries, it still serves some Fort Wayne residents on the southeast side of the city because the New Haven and Adams Township Parks Department technically owns parkland in Fort Wayne that was later-annexed into the Summit City.
As such, he explains that the Community Center plans to grow as a common space for its neighbors who are urban and rural alike.
“We want to make sure we have recreational opportunities for everybody,” Clendenon says. “With our department, we’re urban, suburban, and rural. We cover it all.”
One of the benefits of the New Haven Community Center is that it is highly accessible for people, transportation-wise.
There is a half-mile of paved trail connecting the space to the surrounding Meadowbrook Community neighborhoods in New Haven, giving walkers and bikers easy access to the Community Center. It is also located on a bus route stop.
New trails will run through the Meadowbrook Community behind the New Haven Community Center.
Clendenon says that if the NewAllen Alliance receives a Stellar Communities designation in mid-November, part of the funds will go toward expanding the Community Center’s connectivity to area neighborhoods—and eventually to Fort Wayne—with a combination of plans for new sidewalks and trails.
“We currently connect to the Meadowbrook Community, but we’ve identified 1.75-miles of trail, which will go through the Meadowbrook Community, back to Moeller Road, and connect to the sidewalk there,” Clendenon says. “It will make it much safer to walk or bike.”
It’s all about making regional parks and recreation more accessible to residents to enhance their quality of life.
“The City of New Haven has been very good about connectivity and planning,” Clendenon says. “They’re putting priority now on the importance of these kinds of things.”