What would Fort Wayne be like without riverfront development? How different would Northeast Indiana look and feel if its cities and towns weren’t connected by regional trails?
While many factors go into advancing the quality of life in our region, it’s hard to deny the impact of catalytic projects.
Along with changing the way people feel about their communities, altering health outcomes, and attracting and retaining talent, these projects often generate additional momentum and investments, too.
And while you can probably identify the catalytic projects in your city, you might not know that the progress you’re seeing is part of a regional trend. Across Northeast Indiana, communities are reshaping themselves into vibrant places that value the arts and culture, greenways and riverways, downtowns and community developments, and education and industry.
It’s all happening through the power of collaboration.
The regional trails system provides activities for all ages.
In 2016, the 11 counties that make up Northeast Indiana came together and formed what’s known as the Regional Development Authority (RDA) to apply for Indiana’s Regional Cities Initiative grant. Together, the RDA was chosen as one of three recipients to be awarded $42 million from the state to use for community development projects that would have a lasting impact on the region, as a whole.
When the RDA requested project plans, communities across Northeast Indiana submitted more than 70 ideas for consideration. Twenty-four projects were ultimately chosen to receive funding—ensuring at least one project in each of the region’s 11 counties.
These projects were not solely funded by grant money. Instead, they relied heavily on community support in contributions from local governments and private investors, too. As such, they’ve rallied a wave of local momentum in their communities in recent years.
As of 2020, nearly every RDA project has completed its first phases of development and many are already planning for additional phases of growth. The RDA has also reallocated funding from projects that finished under budget into four additional projects, bringing its total to 28 projects regionwide.
So how are some of the most catalytic RDA projects impacting their communities so far?
We sat down with leaders across Northeast Indiana to find out.
Riverfront Development in Downtown Fort Wayne
Riverfront Fort Wayne was the largest project funded by the RDA. Its first phase of development includes Promenade Park.
For generations, Fort Wayne’s relationship with its three downtown rivers has been complicated. Names like “Three Rivers” have been ingrained in local branding. But not many residents or visitors actually saw or experienced the city’s rivers on a regular basis.
While the St. Marys, St. Joseph, and Maumee Rivers converge in downtown, they were largely hidden from view by vegetation, preventing the city from realizing the natural treasure in its own backyard.
In the past decade, the City of Fort Wayne’s multiphase Riverfront Development project has emerged as an effort to reconnect the community to its roots on the riverbanks.
Since Fort Wayne is the largest city in Northeast Indiana, it’s no surprise that Riverfront Development was the largest project funded by the RDA. The grant contributed $5.17 million dollars to the project, and with the assistance of public and private investors, the first phase of Riverfront Development was completed: Promenade Park.
Promenade Park is a dynamic public space named after its sweeping waterfront promenade walkway that culminates on the south side of the river with an outdoor amphitheater, greenscape steps, bandshell, plaza, pavilion, gardens, and more. Walk the historic, pedestrian-only Wells Street Bridge to the north bank, and you’ll find a tree canopy trail, wetlands, docks, and a state-of-the-art playground.
When the Promenade Park opened to the public in August 2019, the community support for the project was palpable. People of all ages, abilities, and walks of life came out to see the new park and experience Fort Wayne’s rivers for the first time—or the first time in a long time.
The Park’s three-day opening weekend saw a turnout of 35,000 visitors, says Steve McDaniel, Director of Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation.
“The common statement I heard was, ‘I can’t believe this is in Fort Wayne!’” McDaniel says. “I think Promenade Park provides our community with pride. It illustrates that when we collaborate and share ideas and desires, we can accomplish great things.”
Director of the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation, Steve McDaniel, on the Tree Canopy Trail at Promenade Park.
So how has Riverfront Development changed Fort Wayne so far?
In addition to local pride, Promenade Park has provided the Fort Wayne community with a variety of new activities throughout all four seasons, giving citizens new ways to gather and connect.
There’s also a growing local culture around water activities, like canal boating, kayaking, canoeing, and paddle boarding, which were not as easily accessible before. This interest in water activities has inspired the city to clean up its waterways, too, with developments like the MamaJo Deep Rock Tunnel project created to redirect sewage overflows and prevent flood contamination.
But perhaps what is the most powerful about Riverfront Development is the way it provides the city with a new opportunity to share common ground. During the planning phases of Riverfront Development, local leaders worked hard to be inclusive with the project and host lots of public meetings to gather input from people in all parts of town. They also collaborated with groups like AWS to ensure that the park not only met ADA standards, but was purposefully designed for maximum accessibility.
For instance, Promenade Park has features like gradual sloping walking paths, extra turning space for wheelchairs, and patterns in the pavilion floor to accommodate challenges associated with Parkinson’s Disease.
“Our goal in Promenade Park was to ensure it was a place for everyone,” McDaniel says. “The park is truly a destination for people of all abilities.”
Promenade Park hosts events at its pavilion all year.
Now that the project is complete, its success as an inclusive space is visible in the diverse crowd that gathers there regularly on warm days.
But riverfront development is more than just Promenade Park. Fort Wayne is currently planning Phases 2 and 3 of the project, which call for expansion of development along the St. Marys River on either side of Promenade Park. This will include new recreation areas, spots for the future development of restaurants, and additional paths and walkways, similar to the Parkview Tree Canopy Trail.
In downtown Fort Wayne, riverfront development is also driving new attention to many other attractions, including several funded through the RDA, such as the Embassy Theatre, the Skyline Tower, and the Landing.
Regional Trail System
The regional trails system allows residents to travel safely and get exercise.
Just as Northeast Indiana’s rivers play a key role in its identity, so do its trails.
Greenways and blueways together are one of the regional development plan’s focus areas geared toward growing Northeast Indiana’s population with new talent and retaining talent already here.
For years, regional leaders have dreamed of creating one long trail system to unite the area’s 11 diverse counties. So when the RDA was first awarded its grant, several groups submitted projects to advance this regional trail system, and the largest project was the Poka-Bache Connector.
When complete, this 81-mile connector trail will unite nearly half a million residents in four counties—Steuben, Dekalb, Allen, and Wells—running from Pokagon State Park in Angola to Ouabache State Park in Bluffton.
Thanks to funding from the RDA, 34 miles or 41 percent of the trail are complete and open to the public so far, and the benefits are many.
Northeast Indiana is home to more than 100 miles of trails—and growing
The Poka-Bache Connector is giving residents in rural parts of Northeast Indiana access to safe alternative modes of transportation, as well as free and easy ways to improve their health.
In many ways, the trail is similar to a highway, allowing people to travel through their community with ease. A highly connected network of regional trails gives residents anywhere in the region greater access to parks, schools, shopping, and more, so they can enjoy the best of what each city has to offer.
When thinking about the impact of the growing regional trails system, and the Poka-Bache Connector, in particular, Dawn Ritchie, Greenways Manager of the City of Fort Wayne, says it signifies Northeast Indiana’s growing emphasis on collaboration.
“It makes us a more connected community,” Ritchie explains. “The trail system has improved our quality of life, especially by giving us opportunities to enjoy community, re-connect with our natural environment, and improve our overall health.”
Dawn Ritchie, Greenways Manager of the City of Fort Wayne, on the Pufferbelly Trail where the trail crosses Fox Orchard Run.
While the Poka-Bache Connector is growing, it’s far from complete. This year, additional segments will be added in Fort Wayne and Allen County, continuing the trend of regional connectivity.
The Enterprise Center in Angola
The Enterprise Center is located at 907 S Wayne St. in Angola.
In Steuben County, local leaders are making it their initiative to promote economic growth in innovative ways, providing training, education, and housing for a rising workforce.
In 2015, the Steuben County Economic Development Corporation (SCEDC) purchased an old 70,000-square foot manufacturing complex with plans to turn it into an Enterprise Center, complete with a co-working space, training center, and business incubator.
The first phase of development for the project totaled $1.9 million dollars.
By November 2016, the SCEDC raised more than 64 percent of the funding for the project from private sector contributions as well as 19 percent from local governments. They presented a request to the RDA for the remaining 17 percent of funding, which allowed them to complete the project with a training facility.
The Enterprise Center serves start-up and emerging businesses engages in manufacturing, wholesale trade, distribution, e-commerce and other information technology firms operating in the Steuben County area.
Construction on Building A of the Enterprise Center started in January 2017, including the addition of classrooms and office space to house Indiana’s WorkOne regional office. Together, the classrooms offer 23 computer workstations, four CNC simulators, as well as audio/visual equipment, allowing the community and region to respond to in-demand training and certifications across multiple industries and trades
In particular, the center’s four CNC Machines (two mills and two lathes) and 10 welding stations will contribute greatly to important local and regional manufacturing jobs.
“These two industrial trades historically have been at the top of the list for desired trained workforce in our region,” the SCEDC’s website says.
The Enterprise Center offers entrepreneurs equipment and space.
With additional funding through the RDA and contributions from the community, the SCEDC is now considering expanding its variety of classes and courses available.
Isaac Lee, Executive Director of the SCEDC, says watching the first phase of the project come to fruition has been a powerful experience for the Steuben County Community.
“This space will allow Steuben County to develop its own potential, keeps its talent local, and grow from within,” Lee says.
Shortly after the construction of the Enterprise Center was complete, the SCEDC applied to the RDA for phase two of the project: Expanding the campus with an affordable housing development called Enterprise Pointe.
Enterprise Pointe is geared toward aspiring artists and entrepreneurs in Steuben County.
Angola’s Mayor Richard Hickman and his administration say the project is geared toward aspiring artists and entrepreneurs in Steuben County.
Hickman believes Enterprise Pointe will provide the necessary housing and opportunities within the City of Angola for creatives eager to hone their craft and create their own job, but are not yet self-sufficient.
The housing development is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2020 and will expand the city’s existing Enterprise Center campus, replacing its currently unused buildings with 50 units—10 of which are ADA Type-A compliant.
It’s all part of a growing push to advance Steuben County’s upward economic trajectory.
For the last four years, Steuben County has reported growth in its local labor force and low unemployment, Lee says. The Enterprise Center allows the county to continue this growth. It has already experienced increased support from the private sector since opening, as well.
Overall, the Enterprise Center campus is changing Steuben County by creating an environment where entrepreneurs can develop their business and product at a low cost, as well as providing them with access to the amenities, training, and connections they need to support themselves and thrive.
UB Block in Huntington
Once-slated for demolition, UB Block is being repurposed into 37 market-rate apartments and more. (By Joey Spiegel)
In 2015, Huntington’s United Brethren (UB) Block of historic brick buildings dating back to the late-1880s was vacant and in disrepair.
Its deterioration and public safety issues landed it on Indiana Landmarks’ 10 Most Endangered list, and it was expected to be demolished. But Anderson Partners LLC, an Indianapolis-based developer, worked with the City of Huntington and Indiana Landmarks to preserve the local historical site instead of tearing it down.
The trouble was, the project came at a steep price for a small community, requiring about $9 million in renovations. Even after the City of Huntington committed to using the funds intended for the demolition of UB Block toward its reconstruction, the project still didn’t have the revenue it needed to move forward. At least, not until the RDA grant was announced.
UB Block includes three buildings, two that originally belonged to a fraternal organization known as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and the third was home to the United Brethren Church’s publishing business.
Since repurposing a historic, yet deteriorating part of Huntington’s downtown into a thriving community asset aligned with the RDA’s mission, the UB Block project received the $1.6 million it needed to begin construction.
In 2019, the UB Block was transformed into 37 market rate apartments in downtown Huntington with the ground floor leased to Pathfinder Services and Huntington University’s Center for Entrepreneurship
“Over the past two years of development, we have discovered that UB Block has provided much more to the Huntington community than just a bricks and sticks renovation of an endangered building,” explains Jonathan Anderson, President and Chief Executive Officer of Anderson Partners, LLC. “The project has provided a focal asset for collaboration in Huntington among all our partners.”
A look inside the apartments at UB Block.
Light streams into a newly renovated apartment at UB Block.
The newly leased space includes not only a workspace for community entrepreneurs, but also an art studio and a culinary kitchen available to the public. In other words, it’s a symbol of Huntington’s community collaborating for the greater good and creating a more inclusive, innovative environment for everyone in what would have otherwise been empty space.
And the momentum isn’t stopping anytime soon, Anderson says. Interest in further renovations in downtown Huntington has only increased since construction on the UB Block began.
In other words, by preserving a piece of Huntington’s history, the project was able to act as a catalyst for the city’s future.
This Special Report is made possible by the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership.