Before you stop reading or decide this is only a cheerleading piece, filled with cotton candy and seen through rose-colored glasses, let me make my case. For many years the Midwest has taken its hits as a too-conservative, best-days-are-past, unable-to-change region. We have struggled based on our earlier success in manufacturing, because our central location no longer seemed essential and with a perceived malaise as to our willingness to change.
Yet slowly and quietly the change began — out of sight and overlooked by those not paying attention. And why shouldn’t it have? The Midwest was modestly at the forefront of the innovations that created the 20th century. We did it with mass production techniques that allowed us to create steel and the auto industry; inventions that created television, video games and night time baseball; rubber tires, manned flight, Kool-Aid, ice cream cones, sugary breakfast cereals, the 911 system; and writers, musicians and designers who shaped our style and our culture. At the center of this ferment was Fort Wayne, birthplace of the NBA, Philo Farnsworth the wizard of TV and the best quality of life in the country as reported by LIFE magazine in the 1950s.
The Midwest can look back and easily claim leadership in creating the lifestyle that became the dominant, middle class American dream. Our past is not our epitaph because the Midwest is still innovating. Our past is a prologue.
I see a bright future especially in Northeast Indiana. For much of the past 30 years Fort Wayne seemed to lose its stride, but as we look over the past 10 years it’s obvious we have begun to create and believe in our rebirth. Rather than relying on the next manufacturing plant to move into town as the only way to build industry and jobs, we have begun to surface anew as a region of entrepreneurs and innovation. Companies like Sweetwater Sound, Fort Wayne Metals, Vera Bradley, DeBrand Fine Chocolates and Steel Dynamics just scratch the surface of new industries and business innovation making our community a place where good ideas and new business plans can become new industry. Downtown Fort Wayne has reconnected with its urban heartbeat, lead by the Allen County Library expansion, Parkview Field, realization of a downtown arts campus, the Grand Wayne Center and new restaurants, festivals and activity.
Future goals of a downtown market, urban living, and a healthy, walkable, bike-able region being led by Fort Wayne Trails is not just a dream but taking shape. Riverfront development is not far behind.
The best of Fort Wayne is in its people. As we regain the swagger of our forefathers and our Midwest legacy, we will grow to believe what is already becoming a core value and an identity. We are a home for innovation and entrepreneurship, and our best days are before us. It is our legacy and our future. It will be exciting to watch.
Jim Sparrow is executive director of Arts United, the third-oldest united arts fund in the United States and the second largest arts council in Indiana.