The plan to guide the next 10 years of Allen County’s economic development includes “bold” projects in the areas of high growth, innovative and inclusive that continue on Fort Wayne’s momentum and opportunities in the southeast quadrant and in the entrepreneurial community.

The plan, called “Allen County Together,” or ACT, was funded by the city of Fort Wayne, Allen County Commissioners, and American Electric Power.

TIP Strategies consulting firm of Austin, Texas, worked on the plan.

“We asked them to really come in and challenge where we have been, where we were headed because we know we’ve seen a tremendous amount of growth over the last 10 years, and we want to talk about accelerating that,” John Urbahns, president and CEO of Greater Fort Wayne Inc., said ahead of the Jan. 6 public release of the plan.

Instead of a traditional economic development plan that is divided into topics such as infrastructure and workforce, “we said we really need to focus on three guiding principles,” Urbahns said. It will continue building off the growth is has seen the previous 10-year plan was released by what was then the Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance. Allen County has seen consecutive years of positive domestic migration the last four recorded years, so high-growth projects, as well as innovative projects and those that are inclusive, so all of Allen County is covered.

“We knew that economic justice was a key piece of what we wanted to talk about going through this process,” Urbahns said. “That’s looking at southeast Fort Wayne, that’s looking at the rural communities, that’s looking at growth through all parts of the community.”

The plan resulted from several groups’ input in stakeholder meeting, focus groups, and an outside perception survey across the country.

“This is not GFW’s plan; it’s the community’s plan,” Ellen Cutter, GFW Inc.’s vice president of economic development, said. GFW Inc., created from the alliance’s merger with the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce and Leadership Fort – has many partners that will have pieces that they’ll guide, including Northeast Indiana Works, Visit Fort Wayne, redevelopment commissioners, New Haven and Huntertown.

The Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance’s last economic plan with the city and county was in 2011. After that plan was completed, the alliance brought in the International Economic Development Council, a group for economic development professionals, as peer reviewers and they made three recommendations.

“The first was we need to be bolder in our vision,” she said. “We need to narrow down our options. Economic development can be anything and everything. To really be effective, we need to prioritize and focus. And the third piece of advice is we need visionary leadership both in the public and private sectors who are really going to drive the change.”

Those working on the plan asked TIP Strategies, “we said we want you to challenge us to be bold. Make sure that we are bringing visionary leadership to this and that we are narrowing this down to a handful of very specific initiatives.”

The process resulted in the three-point framework that each included three projects.

High-growth

Allen County’s annual population growth has been 0.8%, compared to 0.4% for Indiana and the U.S., Cutter said. “We’re coming at this (now compared to the plan a decade ago) from it’s a high-growth economy vs. what was more of a stagnant, rust-belt economy, right? The brain drain vs. the brain gain dynamic. And we’re now the fastest-growing metro in the Great Lakes Region but we really don’t want to say, ‘OK, mission accomplished.’ We know our real competition is really on the West Coast and the South.” So that requires a look nationally, not just on the Midwest level. Nationally, Fort Wayne is in the top quarter of metros. However, more needs to be done to stay ahead of the competition.

Urbahns said, the results of a fall 2019 business survey showed that “90% of businesses across the county felt that the investment in downtown on the riverfront was the No. 1 driver of them attracting and retaining talent for their companies.”

The plan seeks to build on the millions of dollars that the city is investing in the riverfront, and the fact that the county has attracted 2,000 new jobs annually on average, with last year drawing over 2,600 jobs.

“We’re starting to win some projects in research and R&D, office, engineering-focused jobs that frankly five years ago, 10 years ago we weren’t winning.”

The goal is to bring up the average wage, which according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis is $52,268 a year.

To provide employees for those jobs, the plan calls for the creation of college student housing to create the sense of a college town.

That has resulted in three project goals:

• Attract $1 billion in private investment to the riverfront in downtown Fort Wayne by 2031.
• Attract and grow 2,500 net new high-wage jobs by 2031 in R&D, engineering, IT, regional headquarters, and tech-driven growth industries.
• Build 2,500 on- and off-campus student housing units — and other amenities associated with local higher-education institutions — by 2031 to help Fort Wayne become a widely recognized college town.

Innovative

Many people from outside of Fort Wayne know about the city because of Sweetwater, the hometown audio and musical instrument retailer. And the automotive industry is a major employer in Northeast Indiana and is changing with the move to electric vehicles. The plan seeks to make sure they stay relevant in the new automotive economy, Urbahns said.

The plan also dovetails with the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne and the Don Wood Foundation’s funded Greater Fort Wayne Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Strategy by Startup Fort Wayne that boosts the role of entrepreneurship in economic development projects.

That resulted in:

• Become recognized as a “Top-10 Music City” by 2031 through expanded festivals, music venues, training and education, and music-industry innovation.
• Become a premier “Industry 4.0” automotive tech community and add 2,500 net new jobs in the automotive tech sector by 2031.
• Enhance Allen County’s entrepreneurial ecosystem by launching a $10 million venture fund and accelerator by 2026, housed at Electric Works. Grow the venture fund to $25 million by 2031.

Inclusive

“A rising tide really lifts all boats,” Cutter said. One thing that came out the Southeast Area Strategy update looked at the value of commercial and residential development in each quadrant of Fort Wayne and Allen County, which found that southeast has been lagging.

“We see that that’s an area of tremendous opportunity,” she said.

It has engaged leadership and assets that led to making southeast a priority in the plan.

• Close the disparity gap by providing financing to underserved individuals and small businesses via expanded local community development financial institution (CDFI) capacity. Deploy $10 million in CDFI funding by 2026 and $25 million by 2031.

One of the main reasons for a trip to Louisville in 2019 that included entrepreneur groups and community leaders, was to see how the city used downtown momentum to spread out that investment to lower-income areas. “One of the things that we learned from Louisville is they have a great depth of CDFI institutions that help they provide patient capital in development projects or they back entrepreneurs to help start local businesses.”

Allen County’’s CDFI lending since 2005 averages $53 per capita, compared to $182 nationally, or about 29% of the national average.

• Build catalytic development projects in southeast Fort Wayne that attract $100 million in capital investment by 2026 and $250 million by 2031.

Village Premier, a residential-mixed-use project planned for McKinnie Avenue and Anthony Boulevard is about $50 million, which provides a head start to the goal.

• Attract and grow 2,500 net new jobs in southeast Fort Wayne by 2031.

Southeast lacks major employers. “If we brought in an employer today and said I want to put 300 jobs southeast, my first thing I’m going to look at the team and say OK, where do we have the product to do that. And when I talk about product I’m talking about land that is ready to build on or a building ready to go. And if I look southeast I don’t have very many options.”

Land assembly and the successful spec building construction by Fort Wayne International Airport need to be examined for southeast.

In addition to the Greater Fort Wayne Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Strategy and Fort Wayne’s Southeast Strategy, ACT incorporates the forthcoming All In Allen Comprehensive Plan and others. All In Allen will deal with the need for more housing, Urbahns said, a must for bringing in new residents, though ACT deals with some of that, including the southeast focus. Also in the area of house, Urbahns and Nancy Townsend, Fort Wayne’s community development director, will give a presentation on Fort Wayne’s economy and opportunities at the national Urban Land Institute’s annual conference in April for developers and investors.

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