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Zombie Walk through downtown Fort Wayne is a feature of Fright Night, a DID innovation.
Editorial

DID’s role in city’s promotion remains vital

Helmke

DID has a problem. But that doesn’t mean it’s DONE for.

Created in 1995, the Downtown Improvement District’s very existence has to be reauthorized every 10 years, which means a decision on its future is just over the horizon.

So by 2015, the quasi-governmental agency’s functions could be folded into the general economic-development efforts of Greater Fort Wayne Inc. Or DID could be refocused and reauthorized to continue to collect taxes from downtown businesses and promote the city’s center until at least 2025.

To help prepare for that far-reaching decision, Sharon Feasel, the city’s downtown community development manager, sought input from 100 stakeholders – including business owners, economic-development leaders and residents.

Many of the 59 who responded seemed unsure of actually what the agency is and what it does.

Not surprisingly, respondents knew that DID is behind the Clean and Green and flower-pot programs, that it produces or partners on events such as Taste of the Arts, Lunch on the Square, next week’s Fright Night and the holiday kickoff, Night of the Lights. Many recognized the group’s social media and website presence.

But the survey showed that some of the other roles that DID has a hand in are not resonating. Even the keenly involved respondents were not clear about what role the agency plays in such areas as parking and transportation, providing information and metrics and being a champion for downtown’s business and development.

Has DID’s day passed? DID’s board of directors and the 91-block business community it serves should not rush to judgment.

Business improvement districts have a short but successful history. The first one was created in New Orleans in 1974; more than a thousand have been launched nationally in the ensuing four decades, according to Feasel’s report.

Paul Helmke was mayor when our Downtown Improvement District was created.

“Downtown really needed some specific force to help it improve,” he recalled this week.

“We began with small projects,” Helmke said, “beautification, signage, being an advocate for downtown.”

There were concerns about what the boundaries of the special taxing area would be, he said.

But overall, Helmke said, “it was a positive partnership.”

Few would dispute that DID’s efforts to keep buildings and sidewalks free of graffiti and litter, and the flowers, the friendly faces of Downtown Larry and his colleagues, and the general sprucing up that’s gone on have contributed to the renaissance of the city’s core.

There is, too, the “repairing broken windows” theory – the idea that if a city pays attention to the little things, bigger problems, such as crime, may be averted.

Whether criminals are discouraged or not, Helmke said, such things as unchecked graffiti may detract from the overall sense of safety – signaling that perhaps the city doesn’t care about preventing serious crime – and thus discourage visitors or potential newcomers.

The district’s area was expanded when DID was reauthorized in 2004, and over the years, the role it is supposed to play in development has expanded.

Some overlap with Greater Fort Wayne’s necessarily prime role in some of those functions isn’t disastrous. Though, as Helmke notes, “you certainly don’t want the groups to start working at cross-purposes.”

But as DID’s future is debated, it would be wise to keep in mind that its key purpose – what Helmke calls “putting the extra shine on the apple” – remains vital.

The danger is that all those “little things” that DID has brought to the very successful effort to revitalize downtown could be lost if it is simply subsumed into the larger organization. A better route might be to acknowledge the study’s findings and clarify the organization’s mission, refocusing efforts and emphasizing its lesser-known role in business development. Little things, over time, make a big difference.

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