Parkview Field was held up repeatedly last night at city council as the model for the sort of “transformational” change that the backers of the Legacy Process now hope to bring to Fort Wayne. To a full house, during one of Council President Tom Smith’s transformative Fifth Tuesday ruminations, one community leader after another spoke in support of moving forward with a package of projects to be funded by the Legacy Fund created nearly 40 years ago by Ivan Lebamoff.
However, for councilman John Shoaff Parkview Field still galls, but only because the deal, according to him, was so thoroughly skewed in favor of the Atlanta-based ball team owners, and away from the Fort Wayne taxpayer, that he trusts no one in matters of spending the Legacy money to “transform” Fort Wayne. Same with Dr. John Crawford. He fears turning the money over to volunteer committees that will be insulated from the will of the people and, thus, squander millions. They were the loudest and nearly only critics of a set of blue prints that are steaming ahead to either fruition or ruin in an effort to greatly improve the quality of life and the lure of Fort Wayne as a good place to do business.
Many other citizens share Mr. Shoaff’s concern. One speaker last night reminisced that before the park was built 75% of us were against it, but now, after we have experienced the complex for a few years easily 75% of us are for it. We are a tough sell and so we should be. Skeptics fear insider deals, buddy-buddy contracts, nepotism, cost overruns and ill-conceived ideas. We see the chance, but worry that the money will be squandered.
Last night some of the biggest guns and hardest workers in the community were on hand, people who have put their time in, given of themselves for the public good and motivated their co-workers, employees and friends to work toward a better Fort Wayne. They were among the thousands of citizens who participated in the Legacy process and they all pointed forward. Move, was the collect chant of the Greek Chorus.
For many of us it is a long time coming. Remember when the center of Fort Wayne was blessed with the Grand Leader, Wolf & Dessauer’s, the Boston store and Hutner’s Paris? Remember Vim Sporting Goods and Sappenfield?s? There were shoe stories, theaters (the Jefferson, for example and the Majestic), as well as a dozen jewelers, groceries, grand hotels and plenty of small boutiques offering everything from soup to nuts. Then came Northcrest and sprawl and the center of town collapsed. Buildings came down like leaves in the 70s and 80s to make way for redevelopment that never happened. Cracked, barren parking lots remain where useful buildings once stood. Now, even the parking lots are half empty.
So, during the Richard Administration and now the Henry Administration there has been a concerted push to reinvigorate downtown. Win and Paul did their parts, too. Last night, with a pile of cash to facilitate the rebuilding in the bank and on the table, the plans were laid out for all to see. First, riverbanks improvement to exploit our raison d’etre which are used now for little more than sewers. Tied to that is downtown development that will include links to the rivers and public art, as well as more construction and renovation. Third will be a youth sports initiative to play off the strengths of so many youth sports programs in Fort Wayne and to take advantage of our central location (as if we were their downtown) between Toledo, Detroit, Chicago, Columbus and Indianapolis. There were other ideas on the list: decorating our many overpasses to make it exciting to come downtown. Supporting campuses in the center city to bring kids back downtown, something sorely lacking since Central and Central Catholic moved out. Life begets life. Activity begets activity. And, much of the money will be set aside for rainy days and golden opportunities. Super majorities will be required of council to spend the first cent.
John Urbahns and Mark Becker, the director of planning for the city and the deputy mayor, respectively, made the presentation supported by banker Ben Campbell, wise elder Mac Parker and others. The house was filled with those who have led and participated in the two-year process to winnow 900 proposals to those which would work and for which we could pay. Kelly Lynch was there, the son of the insightful Journal cartoonist Dan Lynch and a power, in his own right, behind Headwaters Junction, a place to display and run our massive, grand and elegant steam engine 765. Remember when Fort Wayne was a rail hub? There was Lori Keys who has been a leader of the trails movement in the country and who, with her energetic board, has found a 5-to-1 match for the $1 million they have requested to run hiking, biking and nature-walking paths throughout the community. Ernie Williams, the former publisher of the News-Sentinel and champion of the Rivergreenway movement, would be proud, as would David Foster who spend huge sums of his own money to bring a renown urban designer to Fort Wayne in 1912, Georg Kessler, who, in turn, gave us our park and boulevard system that Councilman Shoaff now so dearly loves. Foster gave us Foster Park.
Foster’s dream of turning Fort Wayne into a city in a park was crushed by a stingy city council in 1914. He wanted then to buy all the river bank to emphasis our greatest asset. Now, we are finally set to acquire much of what we should have bought for pennies a hundred years ago.
In fact, this plan has the votes to pass and the determination of the best and the brightest in our community to push it forward quickly. Next week the Foundation agreement will be debated, amended and passed out of committee. Then in two weeks the full council will pass the measure. Then Katie bar the door. Planning believes they can have the first contract for an assessment of our river front, where to build, where not to build, out for bid in weeks. $500,000.
And, there-in lies the rub. Haste makes waste. Councilman Crawford and Shoaff and the others want progress, but they also want better management of contacts and construction than they believe occurred with the Harrison Square development. Crawford, for some strange reason, wants fewer citizens involved, and more oversight on his plate. Shoaff should explain to him the process by which Headwaters Park was created after its conception some eighty years earlier by that same Georg Kessler and that same David Foster. Shoaff became the leader of a large committee, the Headwaters Park Commission, appointed by various governmental bodies, including mayor and county commissioners. It worked beautifully because Ian Rolland and other business leaders joined the process and rallied millions of dollars from the state and from their own business coffers to make a great idea happen. Anybody remember Seat Cover Charlie?
Mark Becker made the point repeatedly: all of these ideas are designed to make Fort Wayne a more attractive place to do business. The region from Angola to Decatur are behind our efforts, he added.
The mayor who has led this process for two years was draped with a laurel wreath last night by Councilman Russ Jehl: “You have done a magnificent job.” The mayor has put his heart into this and after briefly speaking sat quietly among the audience through almost two hours of discussion.
But the job has just begun and the coming months should see the formation of a dozen champions teams, as the mayor likes to call them, to oversee each aspect of the Legacy Plan. They should be filled with people like Dorothy Kataka who has done so much for Fort Wayne in the arts. There should be places at the table for John Kalb who has served this community well in a dozen volunteer jobs. There should be room for Cheri Becker who has driven the process of searching best practices around the country by leading trips of local leaders to Providence, Greenville and beyond.
Instead of taking this process completely in-house the mayor should follow his own example and appoint a thousand citizens to steward and shepherd each project forward, a reflection of the process that Mr. Jehl applauded. We all want to be involved. This is our town and we have waited patiently and worked hard for this chance.