How can Fort Wayne’s creative class help transform the city? Renata Robinson has a few ideas

The world of local leadership in cities like Fort Wayne can be a grey space.

Grey like the age of leaders in power, and grey like the carpets and cubical walls of cold slate buildings where decisions are made.

But if you step into the 8th-floor office of Renata Robinson at Greater Fort Wayne Inc. in downtown Fort Wayne, you’ll notice a marked difference.

The walls are covered in local art—sunset splashes of blues, oranges, and pinks screaming for your attention—and on the windowsill overlooking downtown, there are dozens of colorful origami figures of all shapes and sizes.

Colorful, local art covers the walls of Robinson's Greater Fort Wayne Inc. office.

Robinson says it’s a little creative hobby she’s picked up. It was her goal to make one piece of origami every day this year to keep her creative juices flowing, but with the ebb and flow of projects coming through Greater Fort Wayne Inc. (GFW Inc.), she doesn’t always get around to it.

Lately, she’s been tied up launching the Bridge Program designed to help span the gap between established business owners and budding entrepreneurs in Allen County.

While GFW Inc. has long been the voice of Fort Wayne’s business community, providing business leaders with advocacy, networking opportunities, education, and support in exchange for membership dues, the Bridge Program allows more up-and-coming entrepreneurs to have a seat at the table, too.

Through it, 15 current GFW Inc. members (aka Bridge Investors) sponsor memberships for 15 entrepreneurs over the course of five years, bringing fresh—and often more diverse—business owners into the fold.

Greater Fort Wayne Inc. kicked off its Bridge Program in 2019.

Robinson explains that the selection process for these entrepreneurs is blind, similar to ABC’s “The Voice,” in that Bridge Investors choose who they’ll sponsor based on business concepts alone.

“The beauty is, for our first year, we ended up with 10 out of the 15 entrepreneurs as women- and/or minority-owned businesses,” she says.

It’s all part of her desire to live in a creative community that thinks beyond the grey walls of top-down decision-making to empower a rising class of diverse, divergent thinkers.

And while Robinson might not always have time to produce traditional artwork, she sees her role in local leadership as a new form of creative expression.

“I live out being artistic in the work I do,” she says. “I treat it as a work of art.”

The Bridge Program is bringing fresh—and often more diverse—business owners into the fold of Greater Fort Wayne Inc.

It’s a philosophy that traces back to a time when she worked in the creative field herself.

***

Robinson knew from a very young age that she wanted to be an architect.

Growing up a biracial city girl in Indianapolis with parents who were both educators, she started drawing floor plans of houses as early as elementary school.

“I was artistic, too,” she says. “I just loved to make art.” Robinson

After earning her bachelor’s degree in art history with a minor in studio art and architectural studies at Tufts University, she earned her Master of Architecture at UC Berkeley.

However, Robinson quickly realized that architecture wouldn’t be her career path for long. While she loved to create, she didn’t love the process of redoing her work or being chained to a computer all day, so after graduation, she began to explore her options.

After dabbling in advertising for a few months, she landed a position in 1998 at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners (GS&P), one of the nation’s top ad agencies in San Francisco.

Within six months at the agency, Robinson transitioned from an account coordinator to a print producer for GS&P, creating marketing materials for niche, boutique clients. It was this experience that piqued her interest in working with up-and-coming entrepreneurs, rather than large, established corporations.

“There was more creativity—more room to try interesting things—with the little guys because there wasn’t this huge machine structure in place,” she explains.

Speaking of room for creativity, Robinson remembers San Francisco’s business culture as being much different than what she’s experienced in Indiana, too.

“It was a very relaxed environment; it wasn’t corporate,” she says, noting how the partners at GS&P would often hang out with their employees after hours.

Robinson believes this relaxed environment allowed more room for creative expression in the workplace as well as the city.

In places like San Francisco, there are so many people with so many projects and ideas that nothing stays the same for long.

“There’s evolution happening all the time, so there is an opportunity for anyone to make changes to the environment,” she says. “There are so many people there, you can’t control every aspect, so the creative class is able to express themselves without feeling like they’re not allowed to, or there’s not the space to do it.”

Robinson helped plant urban gardens in San Francisco.

Along with the freedom to create, having a critical mass of creatives in San Francisco also made it an inspiring place to be, Robinson notes. As more creatives get priced out of the coasts, she sees hope for cities like Fort Wayne that are reclaiming residents they lost in the brain drain.

“The good thing about brain drain is that it allows those generations who moved away to see what’s possible in other cities,” Robinson says. “If they choose to come back, the more, the better, because they can bring those innovative ideas back with them and know what’s possible.”

Since Robinson has been back in Indiana herself, she’s helped inspire a few changes, too.

***

After being laid off from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in the Great Recession of 2008, Robinson was ready to be done with advertising.

She tried her hand at urban agriculture and landscape design, and in doing so, she discovered a new passion: Pedestrian-friendly urban design.

“I wanted to regreen San Francisco,” she says.

Robinson works on an urban garden in San Francisco.

So after studying environmental horticulture at the City College of San Francisco and earning a certificate in urban permaculture design, she interviewed for a Great Streets Program project manager position with the City of San Francisco. But it didn’t pan out.

With dwindling funds in one of the world’s most expensive cities, she packed her bags in February 2011 and moved back to Indiana to live in her mother’s childhood home, an 1800s Hoosier Homestead family farmhouse in rural South Whitley.

Before long, Robinson found a way to put her passion for urban design into action in a smaller—but still mighty—way, reviving North Manchester’s fledgling Main Street organization as its first Executive Director. (At the end of 2018, Manchester Main Street and North Manchester Chamber of Commerce merged to form Manchester Alive: Main Street Chamber Alliance.)

Robinson poses with a group at the Manchester Main Street 2013 Holiday Gala.

North Manchester is a town of roughly 6,000 residents in northeast Indiana, and its Main Street organization (similar to Fort Wayne’s Downtown Improvement District) focused on four pillars: economic restructuring, streetscape and façade design, downtown promotion, and community organization.

At the time, the town was undergoing a downtown streetscape re-design, and Robinson came up with the idea to sell engraved pavers as part of the project to fundraise for Manchester Main Street. As a result, she and her team raised more than $45,000 and used it to fuel more town revitalization projects over the next four years. Their accomplishments include launching the first-ever Eel River Arts Festival, creating a riverfront park, and installing a community trail network.

“Over that four years, we did about 20 projects, which is huge for a town of 6,000,” Robinson says.

Robinson helps paint a bike lane as part of Manchester Main Street.

With success in North Manchester under her belt, she set her sights on Fort Wayne in 2016—a city she saw as full of promise. But she found it harder to break into the circle of local leadership in Fort Wayne than she initially assumed.

“I knocked on every door that made sense, and everywhere I thought there was a niche for me, I got nothing,” she says. “It was painful.”

She eventually landed an informational interview at Greater Fort Wayne Inc., which led to a job offer. But the lengthy search taught her about the challenges she would face in the Summit City—finding ways to bring more creative ideas to a place that’s bigger than North Manchester, with a more corporate environment than San Francisco.

***

Robinson started off at GFW Inc. traveling with then-CEO Eric Doden to do business attraction out of market.

After that, she got into development, co-leading an investor drive for the year of 2018.

When GFW Inc. underwent a leadership change the following year, she became Director of Small Business Development for the organization.

“Basically, anything happening within the entrepreneur space is my zone now,” Robinson says.

Robinson traveled to cities like New York with Greater Fort Wayne Inc. her first year.

Part of her duties include serving as a GFW Inc. representative on inclusive entrepreneurship projects, such as the city’s Summit City Match program, designed to revitalize South Calhoun Street with local small businesses.

She says this project, in particular, speaks to her interest in commercial corridor redevelopment.

Her job also entails heading up the Bridge Program to connect entrepreneurs to GFW Inc.’s programs and services. In doing so, she’s realized how much entrepreneurship has been part of her story all along.

“What excites me so much about the startup community is it's creativity at its core,” Robinson says. “You’re starting something fresh and new, or improving on what’s out there now. That’s what makes it so rewarding.”

Robinson serves as Greater Fort Wayne Inc.'s Director of Small Business Development.

Speaking of creativity, she also was appointed to the newly formed Fort Wayne Public Art Commission, which is developing more opportunities for art to infiltrate the city through public projects like murals, sculptures, and street activations.

Robinson points to the 2018 Team Better Block project, re-engineering Columbia Avenue and St. Joseph Boulevard near Conjure Coffee as an example of what’s possible in Fort Wayne—if only the creative class is given more freedom to shape the city’s culture.
 

The high-traffic area was temporarily transformed into a community-friendly zone with reduced lanes, added pedestrian and bike lanes, and food trucks.

Team Better Block brought community building activities to the corner of Columbia Avenue and St. Joseph Boulevard.

“This kind of thing should be happening all the time in Fort Wayne,” Robinson says.

So how can it happen?

***

Origami is an ancient Japanese art where paper is folded according to a pattern.

For each creation, there is generally one way that things are done to produce the desired results. And yet, among the origami figures scattered about Robinson’s windowsill, it’s evident that there’s still room for variation in the pattern—a short flap here; a long crease there.

Each piece follows the same, routine processes, and yet, it’s able to express its unique personality.

Robinson made it her goal to make one piece of origami every day in 2019.

As her paper cranes overlook downtown, that’s the hope that perches on Robinson’s shoulders, too—that within the structure and the pattern of urban design in Fort Wayne, there’s room for creativity and variation, there’s space to take an ordinary piece of paper and turn it into a work of art.

As Fort Wayne evolves, Robinson sees opportunities to build intentional room for creativity into its planning and redevelopment. She considers San Francisco’s parklet program, turning parts of the street into dynamic public spaces, a good example of what’s possible.

“The Planning Department of San Francisco went as far as creating an ordinance to allow parklets to happen,” Robinson says. “It invites the creative class to be involved in the physical transformation of the city.”

While she admits that Fort Wayne is still in the process of growing its creative community, there are already creatives here, and with more on the way, there’s more that can be done to empower them.

“We can break down barriers within the structure of how we envision the city through seemingly simple measures like that,” she says. “We should be inviting the creative class to be part of transforming the city more often. And, what’s encouraging is that, I see this shift already starting to happen in Fort Wayne.”

She points to the city’s recent Gehl Public Realm study as well as last summer’s Porch off Calhoun pilot project installation, the Art this Way Alley Activation Project, and the establishment of a Public Art Commission as examples.

“There’s still more work to do,” she says. “But I’m excited about what’s next.”

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native, passionate about the future of her hometown and other up-and-coming places across the country. 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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