John Urbahns and Mark Becker made their way to the elevator at the end of last night’s city council committee session. Becker, the deputy mayor, was smiling broadly, Urbahns was smiling as fully as the taciturn director of planning for the city can, his is a reserved smile, at best, and his eyes are always of to the side like an old spy worried about his back. Urbahns’ team of planners had just won a landmark victory, city council had passed a package of Legacy projects with only the slightest of tweeks from city council. One after another of Urbahns’s proposals was debated and passed unanimously. Only one of the nine proposals prompted philosophical hand-wringing by council, but that too, passed with the necessary super majority. Urbahns and his boss left triumphant.
The Legacy process is now two-years old. It has involved hundreds, if not thousands of people in recommending and assessing ideas which would “transform” Fort Wayne into a more vibrant, more prosperous community. As oft reported, nearly 1,000 ideas were submitted to the community leader panel that Mayor Tom Henry empowered to advise him. The whole process of a few hundred meetings and all the rigmarole that accompanies such an effort -websites, news releases, sub-committee meetings, briefings, notebooks, scoring matrices, sorting, folding, collating, coffee, donuts, etc.- was managed by Mr. Urbahns’ staff. Aside from the normal collection of grousers the rest of the informed community gave them very high marks, indeed for management ad production.
From those thousand ideas came nine last night, including a few that had little to do with the Legacy process, but rather emanated from the nearly decade old Blue Print Plus process instituted under former Mayor Graham Richard. Fairfield and Ewing will be converted downtown to two-ways and their intersection at the St. Mary’s River will be completely redesigned. And, the overpasses and gateways into the city will be beautified at significant cost. Other projects – a half million dollar river study, extension of our burgeoning trail system, and an assessment of our potential to develop a significant presence as a youth sports hub- did come from the Legacy Process. The project that prompted the most soul-searching, establishment of an Education Fund, little more at the moment than help for the University of St. Francis to build-out their campus downtown, brought a strong string of criticisms from Councilman Russ Jehl, principally the expenditure of millions to help USF renovated buildings which they will own, thus, taxpayer money going directly to another organization with no equity stake for taxpayers. It passed. And, finally, a million was earmarked for use by what Councilman Mitch Harper dubbed the “opaque” Downtown Development Trust to acquire land and buildings in the center of town for redevelopment. That proposal had nothing to do with the Legacy Process, either. In fact, what Mr. Urbahns brought to the table was as much a wish list from planning and the Mayor’s office than the creative output of the Legacy process.
Last night’s votes were in committee, but for some reason it was not brought forward for the next step at the Regular session of council. Held.
Also, on the agenda was State Street, but it was clear that the behind-doors work over the past week was less about the design of State Street and the frustrations of the people living along that boulevard and more about a new process in designing major infrastructure projects. Deputy Mayor Mark Becker and Board of Public Works Director Bob Kennedy discussed the matter with council and it was hard to tell what they were talking about, the discussion was so related to a document that the public had not seen and could not view last night. Another reporter walked around the room trying to find a copy, but was repeatedly denied. The discussion was so tedious that the humorous moment came during a discussion of whether “may” should have been substituted for “could” in the document. Regardless, the document, a Resolution on the Transportation Planning Process, passed as amended and, according to John Shoaff, will usher in a new day in citizen involvement in the planning process whereby citizens and stakeholder groups will be involved at the beginning rather than at the end of the process. Don’t expect it. Councilman Crawford noted that had the Shoaff process been in place during the planning for the Ardmore Avenue redo it would have saved the community boat-loads of money and precious time. Let us hope Shoaff and Crawford are right, that citizens are involved in the process from the beginning, rather than imposed upon at the end, as is now the case. Old habits, however, die slowly and usually require new managers before they are fully implemented. The current engineering leadership prefers not to involve themselves with the messiness of public involvement, they like to toss out designs and the defend them against an onslaught of surprised criticism. Mr. Shoaff can not rest on this victory. Meanwhile, the people involved in the State Boulevard war wait for word as to whether this agreement means a whit to them.
Finally, at the end of the evening, a marathon three hours and 30 minutes, Council President Smith offered a challenge to his fellow members. He reminded them that they, too, could offer proposals and plans, that they do not have to wait for the administration to bring things to the table. Very true, but city council has but one staffer and the mayor has thousands. While council members are part-time the council members, like a bunch of Minute Men, go back to their plows and cappuccinos after meetings. Mr. Jehl is a real estate broker, Mr. Crawford an oncologist, Mr. Didier a salesman. While it is true that they can and should formulate their own legislation or plans it is a bit hard. In fact, Mr. Smith and Mr. Jehl should both be applauded for above-and-beyond-productivity for their work on the Fifth Tuesday sessions, the brain-child of Mr. Smith. That forum has greatly elevated the level of discussion of public issues in Fort Wayne and, as well, the value of council to the body politique. Mr. Jehl should be congratulated for researching and presenting the most noteworthy of that series of public discussions, his on the Tax Abatement System.
It was a long night. Let’s see where it leads.
As Mr. Urbahns said entering the elevator, “now the work begins…”