Just like people, cities may have their ups and downs. Karl Bandemer believes Fort Wayne is finally in the groove.
“In the past, they've had their successes and then they've said, ‘Well, everything's going pretty good, so we don't have to do anything. We'll put it in on cruise control,' ” Bandemer said.
“And then they find out that cruise control's not working and things start slowing down. So then they get their act together and we do something else.”
Bandemer, who has had his hand in the development of the community in one way or another since the '70s, rejoined government as deputy mayor six months ago. Working behind the scenes to carry out Mayor Tom Henry's agenda, Bandemer believes the energy and hope generated by recent city accomplishments will not, this time, dissipate.
“That's the big difference I see now,” Bandemer says. “The community seems to have its foot on the accelerator, if you will. They're not sitting back and resting on their laurels because we built Harrison Square and Parkview Field and all that. They say, ‘OK, we did that – now what's the next thing we can do?' ”
When Henry made Bandemer his deputy mayor, he hired a man who had helped establish the city's role in economic development. Bandemer had worked for four decades in both public and private leadership roles with, among other organizations, the Sturges Development Group, Northill Corp., the Region 3A Development and Regional Planning Commission and, most recently, senior development officer with the Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance. When he came into the job, he already had a reputation as a man who knows how to make things happen.
“I've always found Karl to be one to get things done,” said John Stafford, retired director of IPFW's Community Research Institute and another veteran of the moving-the-city-forward wars. “His bias is action.”
A deputy mayor doesn't get the headlines, as his predecessor, Mark Becker, acknowledged with a laugh. “The deputy mayor is not the mayor,” said Becker, now the chief executive officer of Greater Fort Wayne, Inc. “Karl is the mayor's point person.”
“He's done an outstanding job working with the City Council” on such initiatives as the new airline routes to Philadelphia and Charlotte, N.C., announced last week and the Ash Brokerage project, Becker said. “These are very complex projects with lots of moving parts.”
“It's more of an internal role,” Stafford said. Henry “has found somebody here that complements his skills. He has somebody that is much more driven to bring a specific project to fruition, and who does a lot of things behind the scenes.”
Bandemer himself compares the role to a private company's chief operating officer. “Tom Henry sets the tone, he sets the charge and sets the goals.
“Fortunately, it's a good group here. Everybody seems to pull in the same direction. It's really not so much a management challenge as it is to make sure things just keep moving.”
When Mayor Win Moses chose him to head the city's first Department of Economic Development in 1980, Bandemer, a few years out of college, found himself trying to execute the then-audacious idea that government could and should do something to help the city keep and attract businesses.
For down times, nothing matched the early 1980s. The International Harvester Scout plant had closed. General Electric was beginning the long retreat that led, ultimately, to this year's closing announcement. There was the Great Flood. And Harvester announced it would move most of its remaining operations. What could Fort Wayne do?
The answer, Bandemer recalls, was a whole new approach to city government that ultimately paid off, though not in the way it was originally hoped.
“The whole concept of public-private partnerships was brand new,” Bandemer recalled. “The economic-development efforts in most communities were really driven by the Chamber of Commerce. It wasn't viewed as a function of government. That was a sell we had to make here.
“We were successful at it because it became apparent that … there had to be certain public incentives,” Bandemer said. “You weren't going to bring a lot of jobs by just saying we got great schools, we got affordable housing, it's the city of churches and the crossroads of America. That's the profile for every community. You really had to go out and do what you could to keep businesses here, to work to incentivize business to stay here.”
The city raised $31 million in an attempt to keep Harvester from leaving. But in fall 1982, just a few months after the devastating flood, Harvester announced it was moving to Springfield, Ohio.
“It tore families apart,” Bandemer recalled. “There were 14,000 employees that lost their jobs in the matter of maybe three years. There were workers getting on charter buses and going to Springfield on Sunday evenings,” working the week and “taking a charter bus back.”
Unemployment was above 12 percent.
Even today, Bandemer remembers with pride how the city responded to the looming disaster.
The day Harvester announced it was leaving, “council held a special meeting, and they said, use whatever money we have to bring in business – whatever it was going to take, do it.”
Bandemer credits Tim Borne, owner of the Asher Agency, with creating a phrase that dramatized the citizens with sandbags who helped hold off the floodwaters: “The City That Saved Itself.”
Word of Fort Wayne's determination to fight back and invest in its future brought new companies to town, including Edy's Ice Cream. By the mid-'80s, the city had landed the biggest prize of modern times, a truck plant with 3,000 jobs.
After the announcement at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, Bandemer, who had helped show GM's real estate representatives around when they visited the city, asked them why they had decided on Fort Wayne.
“Well, we've been reading the newspapers,” Bandemer said they told him. “And we see you've got a positive attitude about everything. Allen County and Fort Wayne have got a can-do attitude.”
Bandemer's family moved him to Fort Wayne from Chicago when he was eight years old. He now has two grown children and is expecting to become a grandfather within the month. Except for college – he has a bachelor's degree from Drake University and a master's in urban planning from Wayne State University – the 69-year-old Bandemer has lived his life here. He believes the can-do attitude is back to stay, and he's enjoying his low-key but crucial role in the city's development efforts.
If one thing worries him, it's the state's approach to economic development.
“They're looking at us to be the most business-friendly state in the union, with the lowest taxes. But they seem to be counterbalancing that with taking away the funding, the tools with which communities can provide the quality of life that our citizens want.
“You have to have money to pay for public safety, you have to have it to pay for parks, you have to have it to pay for roads,” Bandemer said.
Bandemer, you see, isn't going to stop selling Fort Wayne, and he's determined to keep it a product worth selling.