I must first say that I understand the concept of regional clusters as an economic development strategy, and I am completely on board with the concept and strategy. Where I differ is I feel that identifying ourselves as a region for branding sake weakens our position. Visibility, notoriety and understanding for anyone and everyone who is outside of our 50-mile radius has to include a nucleus that someone in Delaware, Alabama or California can recognize and associate with larger capabilities, interests and infrastructure. The definition of “metro area” is an area consisting of a dense urban core with less-populated surrounding territories and communities sharing industry, infrastructure, housing and amenities. Sounds like us. The definition adds that metro areas usually comprise multiple jurisdictions and municipalities including neighborhoods, townships, and cities and in some cases multiple states. The Fort Wayne Metro area is the recognizable nucleus and brand. We are the second-largest city in the state. Building amenities, infrastructure and industry isn’t just happening downtown, it is happening all over the metro area, but it is happening because we have a city that is large enough to matter. When I think of other comparable communities, I would be hard pressed to not think of a metro area as the identifier. As examples, we refer to Toledo, not the Northwest Ohio Region, or Grand Rapids, not the Central Western Michigan Region. Those regional terms have meaning locally but not nationally, and as we continue to grow we are now in a national game. I may think of the Midwest or Southeast as regions that are identifiable nationally, but I do not for parts of a specific state. In fact, without a strong metro area anchor, the regional concept seems small and incapable of handling the infrastructure and providing a quality of life, education and access that emerging business and talented people gravitate towards.
A metro area concept does not diminish places like Auburn, Decatur or Kendallville; it enhances and elevates them. They become unique and vital pieces to a diverse area that allows different opportunities for people to live in the style they want, smaller towns or a bigger city but each contributing to the breadth of choices within the metro area.
Let’s consider embracing our success and emerging visibility throughout the Midwest and our place as the state’s second largest city by calling ourselves what we are. As we do, the rest of the nation will begin to understand what we have and why they want to know more. We are rounding a bend in a long race, and we are picking up momentum. Let’s consider embracing a brand that others will recognize. We are the Fort Wayne Metro area to those outside of Northeast Indiana. If we acknowledge and embrace it, we can begin to strengthen the many communities that make that designation a reality.
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.