At last week’s Inspire Fort Wayne Neighborhood Conference, an annual event created to energize and equip neighborhood residents and leaders with information to better serve the community, Mayor Tom Henry referred to those in attendance as “the backbone of our city.”
He couldn’t have chosen a better metaphor.
City of Fort Wayne divisions and departments have prioritized neighborhoods for decades. Today, community engagement drives nearly every development project the city undertakes, and Fort Wayne’s neighborhood associations are instrumental in identifying and planning the city’s economic goals and quality- of-place improvements.
“I think that neighborhoods have been critical to the development of our community,” John Urbahns, president and chief executive officer of Greater Fort Wayne Inc., told The Journal Gazette Thursday. “You can try to do things in community and economic development, but if you’re not doing it for and with and on behalf of the residents and the neighborhoods, you’re not going to make the progress that we have seen.”
City Director of Public Information John Perlich said engaging with neighborhood associations and encouraging civic participation are crucial to city development, which Urbahns believes was key to the city’s many quality-of-life projects over the years, such as the Downtown Blueprint Plan, the Riverfront Fort Wayne Plan and the All In Allen Comprehensive Plan.
To ensure it continues planning developments supported and welcomed by all residents, the city government’s Community Development Division created the Neighborhood Planning and Activation Workgroup in January 2022. Its five-person staff works with neighborhood associations to identify desired long-term improvements and to help inform the content and scope of city projects.
“In the past two years, the workgroup has collectively participated in, attended or facilitated over 1,000 neighborhood meetings to discuss challenges, hopes, goals and dreams for various neighborhoods across the city,” Perlich told The Journal Gazette Thursday. “The workgroup also oversees the Fort Wayne Neighborhood Improvement Grant program, which now requires proof of community engagement in the grant application for neighborhood quality-of-life projects.”
In 2022, the Community Development Division awarded a record 39 grants of no more than $5,000 each to city neighborhood associations. The Aboite Lakes Neighborhood Association, for example, used its $5,000 grant to replace its neighborhood signs, which were more than 30 years old and degraded by wood rot. The Wedgewood Place Neighborhood Association restained playground equipment with its funding.
This year, 47 grants have been awarded to neighborhood associations – another record investment.
During his address at the Inspire Fort Wayne Neighborhood Conference Sept. 14, the mayor said some 30 officials from other cities have visited our community to find ways to improve their downtowns, parks and trail systems. One such city, Waco, Texas, is building a baseball stadium and wanted to hear from local leaders about the financing and development of Parkview Field.
Henry’s first question to those visiting officials likely was, “What do the development’s neighbors think of the project?”
American participation in civic life is essential to sustaining our form of government. Of increasing concern to many social and political scientists is the declining level of civic engagement across the country, a trend that started several decades ago. This lack of engagement in civic behaviors has reduced participation in community organizations and elections, especially among young people.
Fort Wayne appears to be bucking that trend when community and economic development planning is involved. During development of the All In Allen plan, neighborhood leaders were regularly invited to take part in the discussion. Thirty-eight workshops were conducted, and nearly 1,000 in-person participants aided the planning process throughout 2021 and 2022.
The mayor’s right. Neighborhood Association leaders and members are the backbone of our city. They’re the secret to the city’s success.
Decades of city leaders partnering with neighborhoods have built a strong foundation from which nearly every successful community development in Fort Wayne flows. Get involved in your neighborhood association; city government wants to hear from you.