East Allen County sets the standard for strategic planning

When you think about Allen County, you might picture Fort Wayne.

But many county residents live in rural communities beyond the city’s borders, and while their numbers may be small, together, they account for more than 100,000 people.

“It’s a significant population to respond to and plan for,” says Kent Castleman.

Kent Castleman, Chairman of the NewAllen Alliance, speaks about the group's bid for a Stellar Community designation.

As Chairman of the NewAllen Alliance, Castleman has been working with a group of seven communities in the East Allen County School district, representing more than 56,200 residents in New Haven, Woodburn, Harlan, Grabill, Leo-Cedarville, Monroeville, and Hoagland combined.

The NewAllen Alliance was initially formed in the 1980s and incorporated in 1991 as a way for small towns in the same area to collaborate. Then about four years ago, it turned into something more: A volunteer-driven organization focused on creating a detailed Strategic Investment Plan.

“Our vision is East Allen rural renewal,” says Kristi Sturtz, a Rural Liaison for the NewAllen Alliance. “We believe with the significant investment in downtown Fort Wayne, we also have a number of small communities sprinkled throughout Allen County people can live in.”

Quaint, timeless features of Allen County communities like Hoagland inspire residents in community development.

This fall, the Alliance is collectively bidding for one of Indiana’s highly coveted Stellar Community Awards, which could fast-track its plans for progress across East Allen County.

Sturtz has been working with the group for the past two years, helping them turn goals into actionable plans, and she says placemaking and community development are already well underway.

“I’ve been working in Auburn for a long time, and they are just going gangbusters,” Sturtz says. “People are starting to value the whole concept of strategic planning.”

Members of the NewAllen Alliance meet monthly to share ideas and discuss plans for East Allen County.

That’s because instead of a cookie-cutter, top-down, urban-centric approach to planning, the NewAllen Alliance has modeled its plans around the personal and practical philosophy of rural communities themselves.

For Sturtz, it started with focusing on the benefits of small-town life. Kristi Sturtz

After living in the Fort Wayne community for 15 years and working as a long-range urban planner for the City, Sturtz decided to move to Churubusco and start her own consulting firm about 25 minutes northwest of Fort Wayne to enjoy the perks of a quaint, rural lifestyle.

“I can hear turkeys gobbling across the street or be able to sit here and see the deer out back,” Sturtz says.

Running Sturtz Public Management Group out of her house since 2003, she noticed that her change in lifestyle reflected a change in philosophy about regional development, as well.

“For a lot of people who have driven development in our region, it’s been more about efficiency,” Sturtz says. “That is important when you’re using public dollars. But we also look at effectiveness, and sometimes what’s most efficient isn’t the most effective.”

To her, being the most effective in rural communities means taking the scenic route—listening to residents’ concerns and giving them practical steps to get involved in local planning.

But to mobilize rural residents, the NewAllen Alliance had to create an effective infrastructure for them to do strategic planning in the first place.

“Many of these communities have a mechanism to do zoning, but not to actually be strategic about working together to accomplish things,” Sturtz says.

So the NewAllen Alliance became their guide—first by developing broad, overarching goals and core values for the entire East Allen County region, then by breaking down that vision into individual plans that could be adopted by each town council.

They called it the NewAllen Alliance Strategic Investment Plan, and in 2017, it won the national John Keller Award for Outstanding Planning Initiative by the American Planning Association Small Town and Rural Planning (STaR) Division.

According to the Awards Committee, what made NewAllen’s plan stand out was its "refreshing and innovative approach to economic development on a regional scale that stays true to the unique identities in the individual communities."

Members of the NewAllen Alliance accept their John Keller Award for Outstanding Planning Initiative from the American Planning Association.

The plan for each East Allen County community is available on the NewAllen Alliance website, and while each plan is unique, they’re unified by a focus on four common denominators: parks, transportation, downtown development, and housing.

“It’s really about community connectedness,” Sturtz says. “That’s through physical walkability, but also through the places people can connect with one another. The thought is, if you live in a small community, then you want to walk outdoors and go downtown or to the park, but some of those resources have gone downhill over the years, and we need to reinvest in those areas.”

Part of the purpose of the Strategic Investment Plan is to make rural communities more independent, armed with the resources to raise their own funding for development, and in towns like Monroeville, this vision is underway.

Their Strategic Investment Plan calls for updating their Parks and Recreation system, so they put together a park plan, applied for a grant from the Department of Natural Resources in 2017, and earned the money to begin work this summer.

“A lot of times in these collaborations, it’s having big ideas and not making plans that are actionable for the partners involved,” Castleman says. “We wanted to make sure this was actionable for each community to own their plan, and then we could drive the implementation.”

Parks are one of the focus areas for the NewAllen Alliance's initiatives.

Another way the communities of East Allen County are implementing their ideas for advancement is by applying for a Stellar Community designation this year.

While the program is not a direct grant, it sets aside money for two Indiana communities to develop their projects throughout the year. The NewAllen Alliance helps rural communities develop downtowns.

The Indiana Stellar Communities program has been in place since 2011, and it was originally created for one city or town. But this year, the state has modified it to allow groups of cities and towns to compete as a region.

In late April, the Alliance was selected as one of six finalists for the designation. The winners will be announced in mid-November, and Sturtz believes NewAllen has a good chance.

Along with being the largest region applying, they also have the advantage of a nationally award-winning plan and the momentum building in connections across northeast Indiana.

When the NewAllen Alliance team accepted their award from the Planning Association in New York City last year, they realized that in many regions across the country, rural communities operate entirely separately from their closest urban cores.

But since Fort Wayne is a smaller city, it allows rural and urban residents to work together as neighbors.

“In our region, I think we really have an asset,” Sturtz says. “We’re more connected in northeast Indiana than in other areas, and that’s to our benefit.”

She hopes the regional community will help set the standard for rural renewal nationwide.

“When you look at how our (2016 presidential) elections turned out, it was loud and clear that a lot of rural areas felt like they were being neglected,” Sturtz says. “This is a good model of how small communities can cooperate and move things forward.”

What's in store for East Allen County?

View the Strategic Investment Plan for each community on the NewAllen Alliance website.

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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.