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Our big apple

As anniversary nears, DID polishes its mission

The Downtown Improvement District was created in 1995 with the aim of making downtown Fort Wayne as attractive as possible – “putting the extra shine on the apple,” as Paul Helmke, mayor at the time, recalled recently.

Now the apple is bigger and shinier, but there’s still a need for the kind of marketing and sprucing that DID does. The creation of Greater Fort Wayne last year raised the question of overlap between the missions of the two organizations.

But the district is working to better define its mission as its 10-year reauthorization approaches in 2015.

“It’s not so much ‘if,’ it’s ‘how,’ ” says Bill Brown, DID’s president.

The organization organizes and promotes special downtown events, keeps the city physically attractive through the Clean and Green program, and enhances communications about the businesses and organizations within its 91 blocks.

But no longer does the group have to convince people that downtown matters. “That battle has been won,” observes Zachary Benedict of MKM architecture and design, a former chairman of DID’s board.

Now the emphasis must be on making people aware of exactly what downtown has to offer.

It’s eminently sensible for the board to look at ideas that have worked for some of the 1,200 or so other development districts around the nation.

Consultant Jamie Licko of Denver, who’s helped create or reauth- orize 40 such districts, offered some ideas that have been carried out elsewhere, including adopting an assessment structure that allows for inflation and asking nonprofits within the district to make “fair share” contributions to the organization.

Brown said the district currently operates on an annual budget of $550,000: $300,000 from a tax on downtown businesses; $50,000 from private donors; and $200,000 from the city and county, which own more than half the real estate within the district. The district’s churches, arts organizations and schools do not pay an assessment for DID.

“We have a wonderful relationship with most of the nonprofits in the community,” Brown said. “We support events that they do.”

But should those organizations become “stakeholders” in DID? “That would take conversation and it would have to be crafted into our work plan,” Brown said. “At this point, it’s (just) brainstorming.” Getting the groups more involved with DID would be more important than the money they would bring, he said. “We want people to be as engaged as they possibly can be.”

Late this year, DID’s board will prepare a budget proposal for the City Council, and it’s hoped that the reauthorization process will be wrapped up by mid-2015.

The board is doing the right thing by looking at what works elsewhere and trying to spruce up its approach to promoting Fort Wayne’s center even as it continues its efforts to keep things clean and green.