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  • Building up downtown
      Editor’s note: Journal Gazette photographer Rachel Von lives and works in downtown Fort Wayne.
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    There has been quite a bit of talk about how quiet this election is in Indiana. It has lacked the excitement of the 2008 primary election, but there still are plenty of things to watch for on Election Day.
Illustration by Gregg Bender | The Journal Gazette

Four issues that deserve our attention in 2014

Illustration by Gregg Bender | The Journal Gazette
Illustration by Gregg Bender | The Journal Gazette

Part of the beauty of a new year is the mystery it holds. There's no doubt, however, that some issues will continue to consume our time and energy. Here are four that deserve the attention they undoubtedly will receive.

Big changes in health care

For health care reform, this is the year when the stethoscope meets the sternum.

The difficult startup of the Obamacare virtual marketplace system this fall was worrisome but directly affected only a fraction of those who may be touched by provisions that became effective when the ball dropped at midnight Tuesday.

"2014 is by far the year in which the most provisions of the Affordable Care Act go into effect," said Douglas Dormire Powers, a Fort Wayne attorney who specializes in employee benefits law.

On the plus side, the new round of changes means that no one can be denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition. Ill people can't be dropped from coverage or charged more for insurance than those who are well. Health plans may no longer set lifetime limits for the amount of coverage one receives. Every plan must include what's called an "essential health benefits package." Much has been made of the fact that this includes maternity care for all, including men, but the other side of the coin is that no one with a health care plan will be left without preventive care, chronic disease management or emergency services.

Just how all those changes will affect how much you pay for insurance, how wide your "net" of providers is spread and how businesses prepare for mandated workplace coverage in 2015 are questions that are yet to be answered. The issue of whether Obamacare may require religious institutions to offer birth control coverage in their employee health care plans will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

For Hoosiers who make too little money to qualify for a health care plan tax credit and too much money to be covered by Medicaid, there will be one overriding concern. Will Gov. Mike Pence work with the federal government to expand Medicaid-style coverage, or will he cling to the ideologically pure but unworkable provisions of the Healthy Indiana Plan? Health care for at least 162,000 of our state's citizens is at stake.

One killing is too many

That Fort Wayne's homicides tied for the highest number in the city's history is not the key point. Each lost life is what matters, and the heartache that brings to each family member and each friend who feels that loss. And the fear each of those slayings brought to others, the lost sense of safety that can undermine all our other pursuits and joys. That is what matters. Shifts in numbers do not really measure the pain and the loss and the toll these things take on children and neighborhoods and first responders.

But numbers, records and trends can suggest solutions and even, in this case, offer hope.

Nationally, crime has been going down for years. The rates for murder and for violent crime declined by more than half between 1993 and 2012, according to FBI statistics.

Other cities besides Fort Wayne sometimes have bucked the trend on homicides. But as 2013 ended, Chicago, which surpassed New York City in killings in 2012, is "on track to have the lowest crime rate since 1972 and the lowest murder rate in 45 years," according to a Yale University study. Chance may play a role in year-to-year figures, but Chicago's reductions are at least partially through concentrated efforts by police and city leaders to focus on the problem of violent crime. Chicago and other large cities have demonstrated that efforts police make to stop those most likely to be homicidal do pay off. Fort Wayne police have gone to Chicago to study some of the techniques that city used to combat gang violence and reduce revenge shootings, and there seems to be no reason that some of those tactics can't succeed here as well.

There is, of course, no magic solution to violence. As long as Fort Wayne is saturated with guns, as most American communities are, there will be shootings and killings on a magnitude cities in many other countries don't see. But the concern and the effort that have been focused here because of this year's tragic numbers may lessen the losses in 2014. Undoubtedly, the homicide toll from 2013 poses a crucial challenge for Fort Wayne's new police chief, Garry Hamilton, and his department in the year ahead, and we all share some responsibility for making the city safer. But it is not an impossible task.

HJR 6: A battle not worth fighting

Will Indiana's debate over a same-sex marriage amendment last for a few weeks or most of 2014? That depends on legislative leaders, who can simply shelve House Joint Resolution 6 or allow a vote.

If they choose the latter option and the resolution is approved by the General Assembly, the real winners will be Indiana radio and TV stations. Look for the airwaves to be overtaken by heated campaigns for and against the constitutional amendment to define marriage as only between a man and a woman. In Minnesota, the two sides spent more than $18 million on political advertising campaigns in the run-up to the November 2012 referendum.

"If I'm working for a television station, I'm thrilled to death," a law professor at St. Paul's Hamline University told Talking Points Memo after lawmakers sent the measure to voters.

Freedom Indiana, the bipartisan coalition established to fight HJR 6, already has launched a well-coordinated campaign, but it will inevitably find well-funded challengers on the opposite side of the issue, including the Indiana-based Advance America. The evangelical organization is warning its supporters that "Homosexual activists and their allies could spend $2-3 million dollars to stop the Marriage Protection Amendment HJR 6 in the 2014 General Assembly to prevent the citizens from voting in 2014. They must not succeed!"

But it would be better for both sides to be able to save their money. The longer the fight goes on, the worse Indiana looks to the rest of the nation. The legislature should heed the pleas of human rights advocates and the state's business community and kill the amendment.

A good problem to have

Recent triumphs in downtown development have set the bar high for 2014. Better things could be ahead.

The success of Parkview Field, the expansion of the Three Rivers Festival and the growth of the Arts Corridor are luring more people to the city center. The development of Headwaters Park and the Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge have made North Clinton Street a beautiful entranceway to the city center. Ash Brokerage and Hanning and Bean Enterprises' plan to build an office tower/parking garage/townhouse complex, as well as the apartment developments in the Harrison and the Anthony Wayne Building, underscore a healthy new trend: making downtown a place where people want to live as well as work.

As more people consider living downtown, other types of development need to follow: grocery stores, drugstores, barbershops and other day-to-day services.

It's a chicken-and-the-egg kind of thing. "There needs to be greater demand for these services in order for these services to exist," says Ellen Cutter, director of IPFW's Community Research Institute. "To the extent that you can get a greater number of people downtown, you'll see the opportunities for these types of businesses."

All that has set the stage for more progress in the year ahead. There are, for instance, efforts to merge our long-ignored rivers with the rest of downtown's identity. Areas near the shores are ripe for recreational and business development, possibilities that will become more tangible after a planning study funded by Legacy Fort Wayne gets farther along in the months ahead.

Keeping the momentum going now is crucial. The merger of city and county development efforts into Greater Fort Wayne Inc. has streamlined the system for dealing with new economic opportunities. Who knows what companies will be attracted by downtown's resurgence? The positive energy that all these steps forward have created could bring its own rewards.