I have often talked about what our community should and could aspire to become. How should we brand ourselves, what tools we need for success and how to push our name beyond our regional doorstep. I have always believed that this community near a tipping point to not only be great, but also believe it is great. Recently I have had multiple occasions that indicate that these columns are not the wishful thoughts of a Pollyanna but rather commentary on what the community is achieving and believing it can become.
One of the most recent was when I had the opportunity to have a friend in for the afternoon from Charlotte, N.C. On his first visit to Fort Wayne six years ago, he had looked for something to compliment and chose to comment on the community’s compact and clean downtown. He listened while I talked about the plans for an arts campus downtown, condos, a downtown ballpark and shops, retail and activity that was being planned for development. He commented politely about how wonderful that would be, but I could see then he thought I was waxing on with a vision that would never be achieved.
Fast forward to mid June 2012: When I drove him into downtown, we passed the downtown ballpark and the Harrison development. We scooted past the library and Wayne Street during lunch when the sidewalks were full of people at various restaurants and Lunch on the Square was in full force. I doubled around to show him the Embassy and Botanical Gardens corridor with the new hotel and then drove him over to the Auer Center for Arts and Culture to talk in my office. As we parked, I pointed to the new Anthony Wayne Condos and we walked into the lobby of the Auer Center. The lobby had three tables of people eating lunch, Artlink had classes and people in the gallery, and the ballet studios were full with rehearsals for summer performances. I walked him past the Fort Wayne Trails offices and told him about the network of trails and active lifestyle planning as well as the IPFW Sculpture with Purpose Bike Rack project. As we sat in my office to talk, he seemed impressed with our community and struggling to figure out what to say. He finally spoke: “Six years ago I remember what you described during our breakfast. I thought then that the community would be lucky to see any of it develop in a 10-year period. You (the community) didn’t just hit the ball out of the park — you guys have hit the cover off the ball. How did you do this in Fort Wayne?”
I replied that we were able to do it because we were in Fort Wayne. We have the resources, the plans and momentum and have begun to find our confidence. We are a city built for this type of innovation and growth with a history of entrepreneurs, an accepting community where you can get involved and a renewed understanding of how to work as a community to reach big goals. He left that evening still talking about the day, and I heard later that week from a friend in Cincinnati about Martin’s visit with her and his constant chatter about Fort Wayne and what a cool place it had become.
Similarly, my brother, who lives in Atlanta and is general manager with the Atlanta Symphony, came to visit. I took him on the same path as I described earlier. He was surprised by what we were accomplishing and described his sense that we were making a stronger community impact through the arts than they were in Atlanta. He commented on how organized and progressive Fort Wayne was to be working with the arts as an active team member for community development. He noted we were not only talking about new models for operating and creating, but we also were doing it and in a fiscally responsible manner. His final comment was that while Atlanta had immense wealth it was not coalescing to achieve the things we were accomplishing here through the arts, community, active lifestyle and community engagement.
Fort Wayne is making progress and doing great things throughout the various sectors of our community. The rest of the country is beginning to notice. Once they get here, they are beginning to spread the word to others. Let’s keep our pace and proudly embrace who we are and are becoming — a city 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.