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Swagger’s returning; city gains momentum

Our family moved to Fort Wayne in 1957 – almost 57 years ago. We picked Fort Wayne over San Francisco, where we were when I left the Navy; over Chicago, where I had a job with a bank I could have gone back to; and over Indianapolis, where I interviewed. Fort Wayne had emerged from World War II as one of the going places in the country – jobs were plentiful, manufacturing was king and Fort Wayne was where the action was. Downtown, anchored by Wolf & Dessauer, had six hotels and 370 retail stores. There was a lot to swagger about, and most who went away to college couldn’t wait to return.

Since those halcyon days, we have been through many ups and downs. When the train elevation was built in the ’50s, this opened up the north side; after that retail went to the malls. In the ’80s recession, 30,000 people moved out in three years looking for jobs elsewhere – unemployment was almost 13 percent. We roared back in the late ’80s and again in the ’90s with many jobs; unfortunately, we failed to regain the per capita income we had in the ’50s.

Now, we’re on the grow again, and this time it looks to be different. When we grew in the late ’80s and again in the ’90s, it was almost completely about an upturn in manufacturing. Manufacturing was one job in three in northeast Indiana in 1975. Now it is one in six. We are still heavily dependent upon manufacturing – which unfortunately can by highly cyclical.

However, we are working hard to diversify. Health care is certainly one area (Parkview, Lutheran, medical devices); others are textiles (Vera Bradley, Cinda B, Matilda Jane); music (Sweetwater); education (new medical school, pharmacy school, law school); and getting a toe back into the insurance business (Ash Brokerage, Lincoln’s expanding employment) that was a mainstay for many years. (At one time, we had Waterfield Mortgage, Lincoln’s home office and Mutual Security Life, among others.) We are also big in youth sports with Speice, Parkview and Lutheran ice and volleyball facilities, and Hefner soccer fields.

Some other things are also different this time around. Fort Wayne is not alone. A strong regional partnership has been created, and we work hand in glove with nine other counties in northeast Indiana.

In addition, downtown housing, a winner in places such as Indianapolis, is starting to come back on the scene.

Who would have thought a downtown building (the old Anthony Wayne Bank) could be converted into condos selling for as much as $750,000? The Ash project, the Randall Lofts Project at Pearl and Harrison, and the area just cleared west of Parkview Field also are in the works for housing.

With the $75 million Legacy Fund, we have the bucks to do a river study that may open a whole new area for development. Who knows if at some point the OmniSource land at North Clinton could be added to the mix? A lot of this change of momentum dates to Parkview Field, which has proven to be the big game changer for downtown.

There is one other thing that is different this time around. There is a lot of enthusiasm in our younger generation. The millenials are not only participating but in some instances leading. Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana, Millenial Leaders group and many others are in the thick of what is happening and making their voices heard.

Hey, I am optimistic. The swagger is coming back!

Mac Parker, a Fort Wayne attorney, is chairman of the Downtown Development Trust. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.