The Long View

Tools for success

Big projects the right start, but not the true goal

By Jim Sparrow
Fort Wayne is moving. Steadily, through a series of successful projects, the city is being transformed. We have aspirations to become a more vibrant and resonating urban center. The Harrison Square project is moving towards completion of its final stage. The Grand Wayne, Embassy, Library and Botanical Conservatory are now a dense core of opportunity. On the west side of town, St. Joseph Hospital and West Central have been actively pulled into our downtown through bike lanes and corridors, and on the east side our Arts Campus is quickly becoming an arts neighborhood with the development of the Anthony Wayne condos.

These successes could be described as anchor or catalyst projects. Fort Wayne now needs to consider when and how to turn the corner from building anchors and starting new catalysts to turning our existing projects into booming successes, which we can then build on. Looking at whatever becomes the next project as another anchor or a new catalyst might not be the best way to proceed, especially if we leave the current successes behind instead of using them to spur new growth and new ideas.

I would propose that we are missing the tools and structure for continued growth and investment. Instead of looking solely to the next major project, let us look at what we can do to encourage active investment from these projects.

What do I mean? Let’s start with some parameters. First, I am not advocating larger government or public initiatives to drive this process exclusively, but let’s look at how strategic public support gives the private sector both an opportunity and an advantage. Second, I also think that expecting the private sector to invest and generate growth downtown without positioning for a series of tipping points is a fool’s dream. Finally, I think that many of the tools should be created by invested parties with endorsement from the city government, but not led, created or administered by the city. These realities were made abundantly clear earlier this year when I talked at a seminar in Washington to a number of peer arts organizations developing cultural neighborhoods. Each were extremely impressed with how much we had accomplished, but equally shocked that we did not have investment tools in place to continue or develop from our initial momentum.

The questions were:
•     You have no percent for art?
•     You have no district-favorable visual or aesthetic modifications that encourage public art and façade development within the neighborhood?
•     You have no downtown small business loan program?
•     Has the district formed any type of neighborhood development consortium to reinvest in itself?

All of these questions got me thinking about how other communities position themselves for success and where we may be falling short. I came to the conclusion that we have not prepared for success by acquiring tools to encourage or maintain our initial investment.

To begin, we should look at the advantages and disadvantages that must be addressed as we develop downtown. The positives are an increasing desire by many to have a vibrant urban space that only cities can provide. The potential proximity and density can also be a long-term advantage for lifestyle and retail, but that is once a density tipping point is reached. Also, well planned cities actually promote a healthy lifestyle through walking and social engagement. The challenges include encouraging and building density both through usable space and economic opportunity, encouraging a collective view of neighborhood development downtown as opposed to an isolationist or island view and providing amenities and advantages that can not be provided outside of downtown. The final challenge is the biggest — long-term success is the goal, not short-term gain.

I’ll use Gordon Square in Cleveland as a successful example of tackling these challenges.

A few years ago three executive directors and boards of three non-profits (Shoreway Community Development Organization, Cleveland Public Theatre and Near West Theatre) displayed vision and created the Gordon Square Arts District. They agreed to limit independent fundraising and make raising funds for the district a priority, delegate governance to a board with a majority of independent directors and promote the betterment of the whole through a variety of collaborations. Many other communities have used the arts as a tool for development, but this tactic was groundbreaking because it was triggered by existing non-profits coalescing to work on neighborhood planning, fund-raising, renovation, new construction and neighborhood improvement. $30 million was raised through public and private sources. A neighborhood responsibility fund of $1 million  was created to be used by residents and businesses to provide advantages such as low rent, no-interest or forgivable small business loans, abated increases in property taxes and business improvement district assessments, transportation and human services such as daycare.

After only three years the district has attracted 33 new shops, restaurants, artists’ studios and other business resulting in vacancy rates of only 3 percent. The partners have also invested $3 million in public streetscape development, new lighting, public art, benches and trees. This district has also revived housing demand, and the ripple effect now extends several blocks south. The projection from the initial investment of $30 million in public and private dollars and new model neighborhood reinvestment from this consortium is more than $400 million in commercial and residential real estate, hundreds of permanent jobs and a projected $317 million of economic output.

Just such investment and strategy could be employed around the Arts Campus, around Harrison Square or on the west side of downtown. Even better would be to employ these strategies within multiple neighborhoods making downtown and river development successful by developing the various neighborhoods that make up downtown.

Making downtown succeed the way we dream of it succeeding is an exciting possibility, but we must go beyond traditional big-project thinking. We must instead look at investing in ourselves, our advantages and our opportunities. We can and will succeed. All we need are the tools.

Jim Sparrow

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.

Posted: Thu, 06/14/2012 - 1:43 pm
Last updated: Mon, 10/29/2012 - 1:45 pm