SPECIAL REPORT: What is northeast Indiana's plan to reach 1 million residents?


Northeast Indiana is in the midst of a transformation. Construction sites can be spotted in every county of the region. Trail networks are expanding and connecting, and dream projects that have been decades in the making are finally coming to fruition.

But the timing of these projects is more than serendipity. Many of them are the result of an initiative called the Road to One Million, a regional development plan aimed at funding and promoting key projects throughout the 11-county region. Its goal is to increase northeast Indiana's population from an estimated 789,015 residents to 1 million residents, ideally by the year 2031.

About half of the proposed projects have now been completed or are entering additional phases.
The reason for this population growth came out of a need.

From 2012 to 2016, northeast Indiana experienced a negative domestic migration rate as people left smaller towns of the Midwest to move to larger cities. As the baby boomer generation retires from the workforce without new residents moving to the area to replace them, regional leaders saw that northeast Indiana could undergo a big gap in employment, too.

These leaders knew that to turn the tide of domestic migration, they needed to build a community that provided a higher quality of life for its residents. This includes investing in quality-of-place assets that interest talent, like downtown vibrancy as well as recreational and cultural amenities.

“We want to convince people that staying here, or coming back here, or moving here for the very first time is a really good decision,” says Michael Galbraith, Director of the Road to One Million.

According to the plan's Executive Summary, growing northeast Indiana's population to one million residents would mean "the addition of over 120,000 workers into the economy, a full doubling of our real GDP, an additional 40,000 children (ages 0-17) and 94,000 young adults (ages 25-44), 143,000 more housing units, 119 percent growth among adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 30 percent growth in arts patronage."

Since launching the initiative, regional leaders have found that achieving these milestones is rooted in collaboration.


The Road to One Million initiative is the first program created by a group called the Regional Development Authority (RDA). Due to a change in state laws, cities and counties throughout northeast Indiana have been able to come together to form a partnership and create the RDA to apply for state funding.

Through the Road to One Million, the region applied for Indiana’s Regional Cities Initiative grant, and in 2016, it was chosen as one of three recipients to be awarded $42 million to use for its development projects.

The Embassy Theatre's rooftop is now open for special events thanks to Road to One Million funding.

When deciding how to best put these funds to use, every county in the region was given an opportunity to compete and propose projects they see as transformative—not only to their local community but also to the region as a whole.

Galbraith says the idea is to help the 11 counties of northeast Indiana rise together, from the urban core of downtown Fort Wayne to the vast fields of farmland in LaGrange.

“The collaboration of northeast Indiana is the most important part of economic development,” he explains.

More than 70 projects were presented to the RDA, but in the end, only 24 projects were chosen. Each of the 11 counties has at least one project; eight are in Allen County, and the remaining 16 are scattered throughout the region.

With a combination of funding from the RDA, as well as from local governments and private contributions, nearly half of the original 24 projects have already been completed, and their impact is far-reaching.


In Fort Wayne, residents can attend concerts at the Clyde Theatre, or enjoy events at the Embassy Theatre's updated ballroom and rooftop thanks to Road to One Million funding. In Angola, classes in welding or CNC training are held at the newly-completed Enterprise Center. And as summer approaches, anyone can enjoy the completed trails in Huntington or Noble, which are the first of many routes being developed to connect the region.

“This initiative has really added speed to the momentum we were already experiencing in northeast Indiana," Galbraith says. "And there’s no reason for us to slow down.”

One project, in particular, that has had a major impact on the community is the Russel and Evelyn Fahl Aquatics Center in Columbia City.

Columbia City’s public pool had been around for about 60 years, but it was in need of maintenance, and attendance had been in sharp decline, Galbraith explains. With funds from the RDA, the city was able to transform the pool into an outdoor facility with two water slides, lap pools, a pavilion, and more.

The new aquatics center opened on July 7th, 2018, for about six weeks with a record attendance of 14,000 people.

The new aquatics center opened during the summer of 2018 and had record attendance.

Now, the city already has plans to expand the facility, adding an asphalt pad that can be used for pickleball and basketball during the summer. In the fall, it will be transformed into a synthetic ice-skating rink to make the center a multi-seasonal facility.

“Without things like the aquatic center, this community would not be what it is today,” says Mayor Ryan Daniel of Columbia City.

Columbia City is just one of the few cities already expanding on their newly completed Road to One Million projects. Angola plans to construct affordable housing for artists and entrepreneurs on the same campus as its Enterprise Center.

According to John Urbahns, President and CEO of Greater Fort Wayne Inc., when the Road to One Million applied for the Regional Cities Initiative, they presented an entire portfolio with more projects than they could ever hope to develop for a special purpose.

Since its inception, the Road to One Million was meant to act as a catalyst, generating momentum for additional projects and investment as it progresses. By showcasing a whole litany of plans for ongoing projects, such as The Landing and the Riverfront, it's seeking to attract outside investors.

“We want to make sure we are creating opportunities for people to invest their capital here,” Urbahns says.

Phase 1 of Riverfront construction has generated additional funding for Phases 2 and 3.

For instance, the Riverfront in Fort Wayne was considered a vision project, or the type of project that the Road to One Million hoped to install within the next 10 years. Phase 1 of the project was funded through the initiative, but due to the enthusiasm behind the construction, investments and private donors came in to help fund Phases 2 and 3.

In other words, the community involvement behind projects, such as the Riverfront or the Fahl Aquatic Center, has been able to propel them beyond what the Road to One Million could accomplish on its own.

“I can’t do what I do without the support of our residents,” explains Mayor Daniel. “Our residents are always looking toward how can we make this community better for my kids, my grandkids, and future generations.”

Kids enjoying a summer day on Towpath Trail.

With several projects completed and underway, the region is already starting to see a slow growth in its population. In 2018, Whitley County, the home of Columbia City and the Fahl Aquatics Center, was determined to be the fastest growing county in the region. Greater Fort Wayne Inc. reported that 2017 was the first year Allen County saw positive domestic migration, as 21 more people moved to the region than those who left.

According to recent Census Bureau statistics, the trend continued in 2018 when Allen County added a record net 691 new residents.

Commenting on the migration data, Urbahns says, “The secret’s out: This a community on the rise.”

This Special Report was made possible by the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership.
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Kelly Updike
Kelly Updike
President & CEO of the Embassy Theatre

Q: You're President and CEO of the Embassy Theatre in downtown Fort Wayne. Tell us about your background and what led you to this position?

A: I am a Fort Wayne native whose first Embassy experience was as a fifth-grader attending the Philharmonic Young People’s Concert. Those concerts still take place at the Embassy with the Philharmonic today!

My background is in communications, and I have worked at Fort Wayne Community Schools, Lincoln Financial Group, and The Leona Group (a national charter schools management company). I responded to a job posting for the Embassy’s director position because I love the beautiful building, its history, and its place in the community that saved it from demolition.

I wanted to be a part of that and to give back to our community. I have been working at the Embassy since June 2006, and every day is different. We have grown a lot.

Q: Speaking of growth, one of the ways the Embassy has evolved is thanks to funding from the Road to One Million initiative. Tell us what project inspired you to apply, and what was it like on the frontlines of that process?

A: We had launched the Vision for the Embassy capital campaign to raise $10 million. This was to renovate four floors of the former Indiana Hotel, which was part of the Embassy building and had sat unused for more than 40 years. The Vision plan included a two-story ballroom with a rooftop patio, classrooms, a history center, new dressing rooms, and new bars.

We believed we met all the funding criteria, including that the funding had to be the last dollars obtained for the project. It was very interesting to watch the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership staff and the Regional Development Authority board manage this new funding and oversight authority.

We all should be very proud of their groundbreaking and collaborative work. It was exciting to be part of a new regional initiative. It was like building an airplane while flying it.

Q: How has the Road to One Million funding helped the Embassy fulfill its mission?

A: We are a nonprofit arts organization with a mission to preserve and protect the historic facility through excellent events. This last piece of funding–more than $1.7 million–got the Embassy across the finish line. It has made it so we have no debt from this massive renovation.

In 2016-17, the first full fiscal year of operations following Vision completion, the Embassy earned more than $317,000 in new net revenues from operations in the new spaces. That allows us to continue to preserve and improve the building and to focus on new programming strategies.

Q: To receive Road to One Million funding, your project has to benefit the entire region of northeast Indiana. Tell us about the Embassy Theatre’s role as a regional theater?

A: The Embassy is a vibrant venue, a strong economic vehicle, and an iconic cultural and arts pillar for northeast Indiana. Our programming draws a diverse range of audience demographics from the region, as well as from other states. We offer arts and educational programming, as well as host private events that draw more than 150,000 patrons a year.

In addition to feeding the artistic soul of our community, our Embassy events positively impact our economy, particularly area hotels and restaurants, as we had more than 400 events last year. I’ve been told that having the Embassy in our community has sealed the deal for job offers in the area, too.

Our regional focus gives us a platform to publicize our success stories nationally while also fostering a greater sense of pride and connectivity among current residents. It’s great to see us celebrate our heritage and welcome new developments at the same time. The Embassy is honored to be part of that growth.