What is the future of Fort Wayne's parks system?

How does a 21st-century parks system evolve to stay relevant and continue to meet the current and future needs of its residents?

That's the question that leaders of Fort Wayne's Parks & Recreation Department are asking. The recent master plan to upgrade Franke Park is a case study for what development might look like in the context of civic engagement, says Parks & Recreation Director Steve McDaniel.

From September 2018 to April 2019, the City of Fort Wayne hired a consultant to work with an advisory group of major park stakeholders to develop a master plan for Franke Park.

Since it was established about 90 years ago in 1921, the park has expanded and acquired a wide variety of uses. Its now 329-acre footprint is home to a day camp, an outdoor theatre, 3 pavilions, a pond, a playground, the renowned Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, picnic areas, trails, and lots of open space. 

Franke Park's master plan will better accommodate a variety of activities in the park while addressing congestion.
Looking to the park's future, the planning team sought to answer two key questions: What’s working right now, and what could be better?

To do so, they interviewed more than 60 individual stakeholders, and gathered more than 1,600 responses in two online surveys. They also held two public open house events drawing crowds of more than 150 residents.

“These forums brought in a lot of information about the current and past uses of the park and what things people like about the park,” McDaniel explains. “From there, they were able to narrow it down to a few designs to present to the community in public meetings and firm up a final master plan this spring.”

In an executive summary of the master plan, McDaniel reports that connectivity is a key part of plans for Franke Park's future.

"While there is an abundance of trails, there is not a logical network of paths that serves those who may wish to circulate through the park on foot or in a wheelchair on a stable solid surface or accessible route," he writes. "A well-conceived path system would also facilitate movement of day campers safely to various venues within the park. Most people who visit Franke Park arrive by car; we’d like to create connections to neighborhoods so that users can walk or bike to the park instead."

Along with the creation of more than 5 miles of new pedestrian paths to enhance connectivity, notable highlights from the plan include: a more organized vehicular system, additional parking for Foellinger and the Zoo, additional cycling amenities (showers, shelters, improved wayfinding and bike maintenance facilities), two new playgrounds, and ecological improvements. The park is also slated to get new shelters, a boathouse, a Day Camp building, and a Community/Nature Center.

But intentional development takes time, and that can mean slow but steady progress, McDaniel says. Updates to Franke Park will be taking place in phases over roughly the next 25 years.

“Right now, we’re evaluating what we could do, what the cost might be, and how we move that forward," McDaniel says. "What we didn't want is to have this sit on a shelf. We think is a really good plan, and the input that we got from our community was the same.”

Alec JohnsonAlec Johnson, Deputy Director of Planning & Development, says the plan for Franke Park is international to address the wide variety of uses the park has among residents—from Day Camp to dirt biking. But the human impact isn't the only interest at stake in the developments.

The Parks Department is also looking at how to make improvements through the lens of conservation.

"One of the park system’s guiding principles is to balance ecology with development and recreation in the environment," Johnson says.

That means bringing “an appropriate mix of natural areas and recreation areas” into the mix, as opposed to just thinking in terms of trails or other built-in assets, he explains.

Both Franke Park and Promenade Park may be top of mind for Fort Wayne residents right now, McDaniel says. But he challenges residents to seek out the richness of the parks system as a whole and how they work together to be assets for locals and visitors alike. Smaller, neighborhood parks play important roles in the community, too, he says.

Taylor's Dream Park is Indiana's first Boundless Playground.

For instance, Taylor’s Dream Boundless Playground on the northeast side of Fort Wayne offers children physical, sensory and developmental support and fun.

"We got some large community parks, but we also have those small neighborhood parks,” McDaniel says. "In some larger communities, they may only have 5 or 6 major parks, but they're all huge. We have a wide spectrum in terms of sizes. So that lends itself to tying into a neighborhood or an association. But it also ties into the tourism or economic development piece, drawing people from larger cities.” 

McDaniel says the Parks Department has seen increased interest from employers who—looking to attract workers from outside of the region—see Fort Wayne's parks system as a critical component of its talent attraction.

His message to this group of stakeholders is simple.

“We think parks are a big part of growing our community, and so we're here to help," McDaniel says.

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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