Want to improve your neighborhood? This conference coming to Fort Wayne is a good place to start

When you hear the name “Regional Neighborhood Network Conference,” you might picture government officials sitting in a stuffy auditorium, clicking through PowerPoint slides.

But if you ask Mary Tyndall, a member of the Local Host Committee for the 2019 conference, that picture couldn’t be further from the truth.

Rather than government officials alone, the annual RNNC is aimed at engaging volunteers and neighborhood leaders across the Midwest in developing grassroots solutions to the challenges cities face.

Taking the concept a step further, this year’s conference in Fort Wayne, Ind., has a special focus on helping attendees roll up their sleeves and practice placemaking firsthand.

“It’s eye-opening because a lot of times, people think, ‘The government needs to make my neighborhood better,’” Tyndall says. “But it’s really empowering for volunteers, community advocates, and neighborhood leaders to see that there are creative ways they can make their neighborhoods stronger that they might not think of until they attend a conference like this.”

Neighborhood volunteers build a community garden.

Since 1987, the Regional Neighborhood Network Conference (RNNC) has been bringing together hundreds of volunteers, corporations, governments, and community leaders across the Midwest to learn from one another’s strategies and take valuable ideas back to their communities.

The first conference was organized by leaders in Louisville, Ky., who drew a 400-mile radius around their community and invited the largest cities within that area to join them at a conference.

Over the years, the annual RNNC has grown to encompass more than 20 Midwestern cities in five states: Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Even so, the conference is open to anyone who wants to attend from any state, Tyndall notes. Being a part of the network simply gives cities the opportunity to host the conference and share their progress with others.

One session at the 2019 RNNC will focus on social media for neighborhoods.

Each year, the conference is hosted by a different RNN member city. The Host City’s job is to organize the conference, select speakers, and raise funding for it.

This year’s conference in Fort Wayne was made possible by a grant from the Knight Foundation through the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne, as well as local sponsorships from Ruoff Home Mortgage, Parkview Health, and others listed on the RNNC’s website.

Downtown Fort Wayne has several diverse neighborhoods that will be featured in the 2019 RNNC.

The 2019 RNNC keynote speaker is Shawn Dunwoody a multi-disciplinary creative from Rochester, Ny., who has completed more than 75 public art projects throughout the cityShawn Dunwoody is a multi-disciplinary creative from Rochester, Ny.

Tyndall, who is also the City’s Community Development Public Information Officer, says local organizers chose Dunwoody primarily because of his work in community driven urban development. For instance, in 2015, he led the Fruit Belt Project, which employed five youth in one of Rochester’s most distressed neighborhoods to create a series of public murals inspiring social change on their streets. Along with beautifying the community, the project also brought these youth together and gave them an opportunity to express themselves in the city.

To Tyndall and others in Fort Wayne, Dunwoody’s work speaks to the ripple effect of positive change that placemaking projects can have in communities across the country.

“Placemaking builds community,” Tyndall says. “When people have a chance to connect, they get to know one another, improve their quality of life, and the quality of life of the people around them. It can really have a huge impact on a neighborhood.”

Art This Way is collaborating with a project called Make Music Fort Wayne to bring painted pianos to mural spaces.

Other keynote speakers for 2019 RNNC include Kevin Wright and Joe Nickol who coauthored the Neighborhood Playbook, giving local leaders a play-by-play guide about how to get projects off the ground.

“It has five plays… and those plays get you from a place where you’re sitting on your couch wondering how you can solve a problem in your neighborhood, to the point where the problem is solved,” says Wright in a video.

The Neighborhood Playbook offers residents and developers alike a play-by-play guide to accomplishing effective projects.

Local and regional leaders will be hosting a series of workshops throughout the three-day conference, as well. Their topics include social media for neighborhoods as well as sessions about food access, inclusion, and urban development.

While the workshops won’t shy away from heavy topics, Tyndall says local organizers wanted to keep the tone of the conference fun, so they chose the theme “Play in the Fort.”

The theme of the 2019 RNNC is "Play in the Fort."

Since the Summit City hosted its last RNNC in 2012, downtown development has taken off with projects like the Ash Brokerage Skyline Plaza, The Landing, and riverfront development. New restaurants, shops, and breweries are filling up vacant storefronts in the urban core, and  neighborhoods are home to projects, like the Johnnie Mae Farm, Bottle Works Lofts, and the Clyde Theatre, too.

The idea is to introduce attendees to the scope of Fort Wayne’s growth, demonstrating that while it has been seen as a traditional, manufacturing town, it’s also becoming a place to enjoy dynamic arts and culture.

One of the places the RNNC will be encouraging visitors to “play” is at Fort Wayne’s new riverfront Promenade Park, which opened to the public on August 9th. The space, which has been years in the making, features a boardwalk, pavilion, ampitheatre, canopy trail, kids’ canal, playground, and Trubble Riverside Café & Tap.

Riverfront Fort Wayne's Promenade Park opened to the public on August 9, 2019.

On Friday night, there will be a special Celebration at Promenade Park for conference attendees to experience the riverfront and take boat rides. It will feature performances by Ty Causey, the Omotayo Rite of Passage Dance Group, Amaneceres de Mexico Folkloric Dance Group, and the Fort Wayne Ballet.

Palermo Galindo, Community Liaison for the City of Fort Wayne, says that throughout the RNNC, international inclusion is an important component.

“Our neighborhoods, speakers, workshops, bus tours, and entertainment highlight the importance of our diverse and treasured communities,” he explains.

Palermo Galindo, center, is the Community Liaison for the City of Fort Wayne.

Tyndall says another main feature of the conference this year will be an expanded number of tours to get attendees out and about in the city. While most RNNCs offer about three tours, Fort Wayne’s conference has a robust list of nine tour options, ranging from brewery tours to urban development tours, and two special hands-on “work” tours in Fort Wayne’s near-downtown neighborhoods.

As an Urban Planner for the City of Fort Wayne, Dan Baisden will be coordinating two “work” tours. The first will take attendees to Fort Wayne’s Mount Vernon Park neighborhood where they will learn how to plan a multi-cultural neighborhood block party with the co-creators of the Neighborhood Playbook. The project will temporarily transform a street into a vibrant community space that can be replicated in other neighborhoods.

West Central Neighborhood will be featured in the historic tours at the 2019 RNNC.

The second “work” tour will take attendees to the Nebraska neighborhood where they can participate in a community driven mural project with the artist Tim Parsley.

“We want these tours to provide leaders with hands-on experience to make projects happen,” Baisden says.

Artist Tim Parsley has painted several murals around Fort Wayne and in other cities.

It’s all about inspiring more grassroots engagement in cities across the Midwest and breaking down misconceptions about groups like neighborhood associations among a new generation of homeowners and city dwellers.

“We want to help younger residents engage in neighborhoods, and understand the role of neighborhood associations,” Baisden says. “It’s about making your neighborhood a place where you want to live.”

Attend the 2019 Regional Neighborhood Network Conference in Fort Wayne

The Regional Neighborhood Network Conference (RNNC) is an inspiring three-day event hosted each year by one of 20+ Midwestern cities and 5 States: Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee. It’s a place where volunteers, corporations, governments, and community leaders gather to learn from each other and gain valuable ideas to help transport their own community.

The 2019 conference will be hosted in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Sept. 19-21 with most events and workshops at the Grand Wayne Center at 120 W. Jefferson Blvd.

Registration between July 1 and August 31 is $150 per person (plus processing fee). Late registration after Sept. 1 is $175 per person (plus processing fee).

For more information and to register online, visit rnnconference.com.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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