Bridging the urban-rural divide: In some ways, Allen County is a microcosm of Indiana

It’s no secret that cities across the county are seeing high levels of interest and reinvestment.

But while the urban aspects of downtown Fort Wayne—and Fort Wayne, in general—are often seen as the economic drivers of Allen County, some planners like County Commissioners like Nelson Peters and Therese Brown are taking a different approach to growth. Nelson Peters

Looking to the future of northeast Indiana, they’ve helped lead the charge behind a strategic decision to invest in the rural communities of East Allen County, as well.

“We recognize it can’t be one or the other—urban or rural,” Peters says. “People come to Allen County because they want to see the city, but they want to see rural communities and partake in all they have to offer, too.”

For about the last four years, a group called the NewAllen Alliance has met as a volunteer-driven organization in East Allen County, creating a detailed Rural Revival Regional Development Plan for the seven communities of New Haven, Woodburn, Harlan, Grabill, Leo-Cedarville, Monroeville, and Hoagland. 

Indiana Lieutenant Governor Suzanne Crouch says that, in a way, the NewAllen Alliance has set the standard for rural planning statewide. 

“We have seen the success of regional collaboration, and we wanted to model our Stellar Communities designation after that,” she says. Therese Brown

This year, the state’s Stellar Communities designation allowed cities and towns to apply as a region or group rather than as individuals. When NewAllen received one of these highly coveted designations in December, they earned access to up to $4.5 million from the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, $2 million from the Indiana Department of Transportation, $800,000 in Low Income Housing Tax Credits with additional housing loans, and $35,000 from the Indiana State Department of Health.

In addition, city, town, and county dollars leveraged these federal dollars from the state, creating an overall portfolio of approximately $65 million of investment in the East Allen County area. That’s where county commissioners came into play, directing dollars back into rural communities.

Peters says it’s important to recognize these dollars will not merely go toward routine infrastructure improvements, like street upgrades. Instead, most of the money will be put toward quality of place investments in East Allen’s parks, trails, and main streets—sparking renewed interest in the benefits of rural life.

While about 280,000 residents live within Fort Wayne’s city limits, more than 100,000 people live in Allen County and outside of Fort Wayne’s borders.

On a state level, rural residents make up roughly 40 percent of Indiana’s total population and represent a demographic that’s growing in importance, Crouch notes.

That’s the impetus behind the state’s Stellar Communities designation in the first place.

“Governor Holcomb and I believe rural Indiana is next great economic development frontier,” Crouch says. “We’re incentivizing rural communities to transform themselves, to develop downtowns, revitalize communities, and promote agritourism.”

Indiana Lieutenant Governor Suzanne Crouch, left, greets Stellar Communities designees.

Kristi Sturtz, a Rural Liaison for the NewAllen Alliance, explains that part of the push toward investing in rural communities is also making up for lost time.

While rural communities were once seen as the backbone of America, the country’s growing urban-rural divide largely came to light in the 2016 presidential elections, in which many rural citizens voiced feelings of being “unheard” or under-appreciated by their urban counterparts. Now the tides are starting to turn.

By investing in the NewAllen Alliance, Allen County is working to bridge the urban-rural gap on a local level, and it is strategically poised to set an example for the state.

As far as school systems go, Allen County’s demographics are very similar to state averages, Brown says.

“You’ve got the urban dynamic; you’ve got the rural dynamic, so Allen County is almost a microcosm of the state,” she explains.

The NewAllen Alliance was one of two recipients of the Stellar Communities designation in December 2018.

Even so, Peters notes that what makes Allen County unique and particularly interesting is that few places have rural and urban cultures living in such close proximity as they do here.

“You’ve got the big city center in Fort Wayne, and then you’ve got the people who don’t want big-city living right outside their backdoor,” he says.

While this dichotomy can create obstacles for county planners seeking broad appeal, it also offers the opportunity for greater understanding of “the other,” which could set an example for the rest of the country.

Trails in Grabill will eventually connect to Fort Wayne.

Efforts to bridge the county’s urban-rural divide are physically manifested in NewAllen’s plans, too. The largest project slated for completion in their Rural Revival Regional Development Plan is the Cedar Creek Trail, which will eventually connect Fort Wayne to East Allen County, running from Hurshtown Reservoir in Grabill, through Grabill and Leo-Cedarville, and connecting to Metea County Park in Fort Wayne.

As more projects come to fruition in coming years, Brown believes there’s a bigger lesson at hand in community planning.

“It’s an acknowledgment that this urban-rural diversity is what creates the fabric of our state,” she says.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara is a Fort Wayne native, passionate about her hometown and its ongoing revival. As Managing Editor of Input Fort Wayne, she enjoys writing about interesting people and ideas in northeast Indiana. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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