This week, I will be meeting with several different groups to discuss the future of downtown Fort Wayne. As many of you know, there have been many attempts in the past to come up with a plan to revitalize our downtown area. People look at what has been done in Indianapolis, and they say “Why not here?” No doubt about it, Indy has been transformed from a cow-town in the ’70s to a vibrant, dynamic downtown destination today. They did it with a cohesive political, business and charitable foundation combination that should be the envy, and blueprint, for anyone attempting to rebuild and redefine a city’s downtown.
But Indianapolis had two things going for it that we don’t have here: control of the State’s purse strings; and the Lilly Foundation. Millions of tax dollars went to Indianapolis in the form of support for their convention center, the Circle Center mall, White River State Park, the RCA Dome, Conseco Fieldhouse, IUPUI, etc. This happened because Indianapolis’ legislative delegation had control of the Senate Finance committee and the Senate Budget committee. On top of this, the Lilly Foundation has been an incredible partner for the Indianapolis renaissance. Unlike our local foundations, which have never understood the positive impact they could have if used, in part, for economic development, the Lilly Foundation has never had this vision problem. As a result, state tax dollars and Lilly’s charitable dollars, together with some excellent, visionary leadership, has transformed Indianapolis into one of the great cities in the country.
It is therefore unfair to try to compare Fort Wayne’s situation to Indy’s, because the same dynamics do not exist. Nevertheless, good things can, and very well may happen for our city’s downtown area. For Ft. Wayne to succeed, we need to be creative, persistent, and very, very focused. So why might this actually happen?
Lets start with a few differences between the current plan and the past. First and foremost, there is actually a workable, professional plan in place today, thanks to the persistence of a lot of dedicated private citizens and a few elected officials who stuck together, met as a group for the better part of a year, hired a top notch consultant who had had success in other cities, and came up with a plan to transform the downtown area. The only problem: no money to fund the plan.
So this year, I got together with Senator Tom Wyss, John Stafford (the most knowledgeable, talented private citizen in the Fort Wayne area, and a dedicated friend to all people in Ft. Wayne and Allen County), and Brian Bergsma ( the local Chamber’s government representative, and another very talented individual), and we worked on something called a CRED district. CRED stands for Community Revitalization Enhancement District. In the past, there had been three created in the State. One of those was created for the Southtown Mall area through legislation I worked on with John Stafford and Brian Bergsma several years ago.
But that concept didn’t work for revitalizing downtown areas, so we wrote a whole new law that would be available to every second-class city in Indiana as well as Indianapolis. A second-class city in Indiana must have a population of 35,000 or greater. There are approximately 24 such cities in Indiana.
The new law would allow a designated area in a city’s downtown to be established as a special district. Any state income and state tax dollars raised through new economic activity within that district, up to $750,000 dollars per year, could be retained for reinvestment into that district, instead of being sent to the State treasury like all other state tax dollars. To realize the full $750,000, the city must invest $250,000 of its own, for a total of $1 million dollars potential investment per year. A CRED district may remain in effect for up to 15 years.
This legislation has been called the most important economic development opportunity for Indiana’s cities in decades. I am very proud to have been a part of writing this new law, along with the previously named individuals.
Thus, for the first time, we have a funding source to implement a downtown revitalization project. That, in itself, is a first. Will this money be enough to fully implement the plan? Time will tell, but it is an exciting start, and gives all of us hope for a much brighter future for downtown Ft. Wayne.
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