What we love

about Fort Wayne

Photography by John McGauley

Photography by John McGauley

No. 1
Our parks

People love every single thing about our parks, big and small, from the newest ones to the grand boulevard plan that links the biggest and grandest of them across the four quadrants of the city, for their historical and nostalgic value, for what they add to our physical and emotional health to the mundane fact that we take our children and grandchildren there to play.

And people love our trails system, too, with an equivalent fervor. Trails are not precisely parks, but they have been embraced as fully here. The original Rivergreenway was introduced to the community back in 1975, after all, as a “linear park.”

And we use our parks and our trails. Regularly and joyfully. By the tens of thousands, month after month after month. Official city figures for July say 66,858 wakers, joggers and cyclists used the trails in July, beating July 2015’s total by more than 22,000, but missing June 2016’s all-time high count of 73,226 users.

Voters specifically praised Headwaters, Foster, Franke, McMillen and Lakeside Parks, plus our neighborhood parks, all of which improve our residential neighborhoods, they noted.

They’re eagerly looking forward.

“We have been graced with an excellent historic plan, so let’s keep it and stuff … right?” said panelist Dan Swartz, of Wunderkammer Company. “Even better, how about merge old with new by including our exciting riverfront plans?”

 

No. 2
Arts & culture

The arts are so much more than something to do in Fort Wayne, though they are beloved for that. We could have called this category “entertainment,” too.  The arts here are also cherished as something we are and something we support, something we do well and something we are known for in the wider world.

It’s important to note that when Fort Wayne people talk about “the arts,” they know they’re talking about a deep and wide range of performing and creative endeavors that come in classical to contemporary to idiosyncratically definition-shattering forms. We’re proud of that. We each simply gravitate to the arts and artists that move us most deeply. And many of us create art and/or know people who do.

Art is not remote from our everyday lives here.

Panelist Nancy Stewart, an active community volunteer and member of the Indiana Arts Commission, believes “what we have to offer is the best,” she said. “The expansion of the Arts Campus is a real asset in our community. Since I have been involved with the arts on the state level, I have seen how Fort Wayne is paving the way. One can never say there is nothing to do.”

Panelist Michael Galbraith, French horn player in the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, formerly executive director of ARCH and now Road to One Million director for Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, has an insider’s view of the local arts world. He cast his vote for our “Healthy arts community. Vibrant, growing, diverse, fiscally responsible.”

Panelist Julia Meek, artist and public radio music show host, is someone who received votes all on her own as something Best Loved About Fort Wayne, but she cast one of her votes for something she calls “Artitude! This is how we celebrate who we are, where we are and why we love to be here – and our arts and culture scene is so vibrant it glows in the dark. It far exceeds the norm in quantity, quality, diversity and scope, no genre left behind. It lives from riverfront to city’s edge. There’s seemingly something for everyone. I rank this No. 1 because it is the ultimate pleasurable communal bond, an expression of Fort Wayne’s unique aesthetic and a reflection of our collective soul.”

 

No. 3
Affordability & cost of living

Who doesn’t love affordability? It helps all of us be more able to enjoy all the other things we love about Fort Wayne because simply living here doesn’t eat up as much of what we earn.

Now that we’re on the Road to One Million, though, with more sophisticated economic development efforts than ever before (it’s no accident that IPFW’s Community Research Institute and the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership are on the same floor of a downtown Fort Wayne office building, one floor up from Greater Fort Wayne Inc.’s offices), we are aware that our affordability has been accompanied by wages that have drifted down from higher than the national average a few decades ago to lower than that average today. A lot of intelligent effort is going into reversing that lower-wage trend, as indicated by this statement from the partnership’s website: “Since Vision 2020 was launched, leaders in Northeast Indiana have taken steps to develop, attract and retain talent, with a goal to stop the region’s decline in per capita income.”

We have a red-hot housing market that dazzles newcomers and visitors to enjoy in the meantime, restaurant prices that bring travelers back from visits to bigger cities with great relief and concert/event prices that are very, very reasonable.

We have “great, big-city attractions with small-town prices,” panelist and County Commissioner Nelson Peters said.

Panelist John Beatty of the Allen County Public Library said the city’s  affordability “is one of its greatest assets and attractions. Coupled with that is especially our affordable housing and the rich variety of our neighborhoods.”

“It’s much touted, of course, but it’s true,” said panelist Michele DeVinney, a contributing writer for Fort Wayne Magazine. “Once you live here, it’s hard to imagine paying what the rest of the world pays for houses, especially! I watch those Realtor.com and Zillow commercials and see all these average-looking families deciding on a dream home that’s a quarter million (dollars) and wonder ‘Is that the real world?'”

 

No. 4 (3-way tie)
The people

Well, duh! This really would be one of those dismissible “they had to say it” obvious things – except the reasons people gave are so Fort Wayne-specific and so vividly convincing. There really is something special going on here. There really are special people here, all over the place, doing all sort of things. There have been for years and years.

“What I find best about Fort Wayne are the many niches of people within our city who are the movers and shakers, the ones that push citizens to action and hold public officials accountable for protecting all of our health and well being,” said Abigail Frost-King, Save Maumee Grassroots Organization vice president and founder. “The farmers, the architects, the artists, the musicians, the spiritual guides, the designers, the activists and the organizers all set the example by being physically present and calling others to do so. The best thing about Fort Wayne is those people who are active in the community and hold a value that cannot be shown in a graph or be captured in a picture.”

“I think the very best thing about Fort Wayne today is the diversity and cultural tapestry of our community and the collective energy that is moving our community forward,” said Cheri Becker, vice president of investor services, programs and marketing at Greater Fort Wayne Inc. and longtime executive director of Leadership Fort Wayne. “This energy and momentum is helping people understand our possibilities and creating a desire for ‘more,’ however it is defined … more trains, more riverfront access and activities, more downtown development, more bike paths, more downtown restaurants, more housing, more educational opportunities, more investment in neighborhoods and more jobs.

“There are people who are supporting and leading these efforts in ways we have not seen in the past, so for me this is one of the very best things about Fort Wayne. I’m excited about our rekindled community pride and the collaboration, hard work and willingness of so many to get involved and engaged to protect, improve and build on existing community assets while also working hard to embrace and promote our uniqueness. I love that we as a community are learning that we all have a role to play in our collective success.”

The schools

Tune out all the trash talk you hear these days about schools and the value of an education. Just set it aside. Now listen, really concentrate, on these real people telling you why they judge our schools, our educational system here, to be one of the things they most love about Fort Wayne.

From Karl LaPan, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center: “Whole-person educational system from elementary schools to a strong and innovative network of nearly 13 regional public and private colleges.”

From David M. Nicole, president and CEO of United Way of Allen County: “Great schools! And our schools have great diversity – one school district has more than 100 languages spoken in it.”

From Madeleine Baker, CEO of the Early Childhood Alliance, which has been instrumental in raising awareness and quality of early childhood education here and all over Indiana: “Broad-based higher education options – from private to public, from small to large, from community colleges to certificate programs, etc.”

From contributing writer Michele DeVinney: “Public schools. I’m a fan. I really am. Not only did all three of my kids receive a great education through FWCS, but I think the diversity of the student population really helped them see the world in a different way. I think that’s every bit as valuable as the books – just seeing people of so many different economic levels, backgrounds, languages, skin colors, etc. My kids were all North Siders and were very vocal in wanting the name to change from Redskins because they came out of that school more aware and sensitive to the feelings of others in different cultures.  (And Legend was our favorite name anyway since two of my kids were editors of the North Side Legend yearbook.)”

The library

The Library in Fort Wayne is like The Lake. When any one of us says The Library, we might mean the big one downtown or any of the 13 lovely and busy branches throughout the city and county. Each building is the favorite “The Library” for lots of people, young and old. Fort Wayne has been recognized many, many times for how many books we check out of our libraries, and our genealogical research collection is top-ranked nationally and is actually a tourist attraction and a reason for conventions to come to town. Don’t forget the music, movies, art, business and technical section and the Abraham Lincoln collection. And the computers, the meeting rooms, the art gallery and the public access television studios, etc., etc.

Panelist Tom Castaldi, who is Allen County Historian and a columnist for Fort Wayne Magazine, has just the right story to make the point.

“Alex Haley, visiting Fort Wayne on a book tour, said that the first place in a town he stops by is the library, which tells him about how much its citizens value their quality of life,” Castaldi said. “He was complimentary.”

 

No. 7 (2-way tie)
Downtown

Fort Wayne Magazine has had reader polls like this one before, though not for a few years, and this is the first time downtown has made it into the Top Ten.

It’s about time!

Apparently our panelists have been paying attention, though, and they know downtown is past the tipping point. It’s a fun place to be during the day, in the evening and on weekends, even on the rare weekends when there is no festival to attend. There’s always something going on, and now there are also places to shop and great places to eat and drink. There’s a choice of weekend brunches!

As a friend reminded me a few Friday nights ago, though, there is still room for a great ice cream shop (or two) ….

“The revival of our downtown makes me very happy,” said panelist Gina Kostoff, executive director of the Urban Enterprise Association. “I love seeing how our downtown is once again a destination instead of an afterthought.”

Michael Galbraith calls it a “downtown renaissance. Empty lots and vacant buildings are finding new uses. Commercial and residential infill. Actual nightlife as opposed to rolling up the streets after five.”

The zoo

The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo is a delight and a marvel. And a powerful economic engine. Self-supporting, it’s a major visitor attraction. A zoo pass is one of the best gifts you can give any family, and a selection from the zoo gift shop is one of the nicest things you can give to any child. A trip to the zoo makes any day better.

Madeleine Baker summed it up: “Fantastic Children’s Zoo!”

 

No. 9
Restaurants

This Best Loved category is no surprise in Fort Wayne Magazine, where we have been profiling wonderful local restaurants for all 14 years of our existence, along with a cover story or two each year on the local food scene. Fort Wayne has plenty of great food to write about and photograph.

“Restaurants, wineries, brewpubs, Fort Wayne has it all,” Michele DeVinney said, “and the diversity of our population is reflected in the food options. When I first moved to Fort Wayne (I moved here from Rochester, N.Y., which is very Italian), I couldn’t believe how many Mexican restaurants there were. Now you can just about pick a cuisine, and it’s out there somewhere.”

“Fort Wayne is a city of food,” said Lauren Zuber, air service and marketing manager for the Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority (and daughter of the editor of this magazine). “The Midwest/America gets a decent amount of guff for slathering things with ranch dressing and/or nacho cheese and disrespecting food in general, but I think Fort Wayne pulls out of that enough to feed its citizens really well. There are enough fancy restaurant options that my budget won’t let me visit them all in a year, enough diners that my breakfast skillet obsession is kept in check, the best chicken wings in the world at Tower Grill and so many really fantastic family-owned ethnic restaurants that I haven’t gotten bored in 28 years of living here.”

 

No. 10 (5-way tie)
Locally owned and operated

We love our local businesses, our local business people and starting and owning our own businesses.

Karl LaPan reported that he loves that Fort Wayne is “pro-business with strong entrepreneurial business support systems and family business roots. A great place to launch and grow a business, a nonprofit or yourself.”

Andrew Hoffman, founder and director of Neighborhood Works, cast his vote for “Young people investing in their dreams – I see more and more young professionals not standing idly by waiting for someone else to start the businesses, creating the events and the social movements that they wish someone would create. They are taking huge risks, investing all the resources they have and going all in with their time to try to answer the question of ‘what if?’ Because of this, we have fantastic new restaurants, retail stores, social events that build community and social issues being addressed. To me it doesn’t really matter if they all succeed, because it’s the spirit of taking ownership and responsibility that encourages me that I’m part of a city that is worth sticking around in.”

Getting (t)here

It’s only fitting that a city that exists because of transportation (the three rivers, then the canal, then the railroads, then … you know the rest) ranks getting places one of its Best Loved things. In Fort Wayne we enjoy the ease of getting around town and getting to other interesting places, too.

“Manageable traffic with short commute – very appreciated by someone who’s a transferee from the West Coast,” said Madeleine Baker.

“There is no traffic,” said David Nicole.

And there’s more. Fort Wayne is, he continued, “in the middle of everything – less than four hours from Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Indianapolis. Less than three hours away from world renowned educational institutions. We are only hours away from mountains and the Great Lakes, etc., etc.”

“In Fort Wayne, if you’re late to work, it’s probably your fault,” said Michele DeVinney.

Big enough & small enough

The charm of this characteristic is all that it makes possible.

Julia Meek finds an opportunity to network in it that she calls  “connectability. How we fit here makes it special to live here. Over and above Fort Wayne’s Midwest friendliness and relative absence of ‘regional airs,’ I think it notable how incredibly easy and satisfying it is to develop first-rate civic, social, professional and cultural networks here. All age groups included. This makes it desirable to become and stay engaged, which is an empowerment to the individual as well as the community. Many dedicated organizations, groups, facilities and individuals make this so.”

David Nicole is probably agreeing when he says “It’s large enough to have the amenities of a city and small enough to be connected like a town. Anyone and I mean anyone, who wants to put in the time and effort can make a difference in Fort Wayne.”

Jonathan C. Ray, president and CEO of the Fort Wayne Urban League, almost was writing poetry with the top three items on his list.

“1. Fort Wayne is small enough to change. 2. Fort Wayne is big enough to enjoy anonymity. 3. Fort Wayne is small enough to be heard.”

Great sports town

Steve Hoffman, president and CEO of Brightpoint, calls Fort Wayne “a great sports town” and ticks off “Komets, Mad Ants, TinCaps, colleges, high schools.”

He’s right. It’s a great city for people who like to attend sporting events, for people who enjoy being fans. Our minor league teams lead the parade of TinCaps, Mad Ants and Komets fans through the years and through the seasons, though IPFW and University of Saint Francis collegiate teams in several sports have attracted equally loyal and loud fan bases and Indiana Tech’s teams are coming on strong. Fort Wayne is a high school football power in the state, with some serious credibility in basketball, too, and other sports. Spend time many weekends out north, and you’ll realize what a busy youth sports destination we are, too, with Spiece Fieldhouse and SportONE/Parkview Icehouse and Fieldhouse complexes packed with basketball, volleyball and hockey tournaments. Turnstone is putting Fort Wayne on the national map as a Paralympics training and competition center, too.

A giving community

“I am so impressed with our community’s willingness to give,” said Kathy Callen, community engagement executive and senior vice president at Old National Bank. “There are so many wonderful nonprofit agencies, some big and some small, who address the needs of a great variety of people, and these agencies receive substantial financial support from our community. I have been involved in a number of capital campaigns for area non-rofits. Many times we were told that that amount of money couldn’t be raised. But … it always was because our community is so generous. And the people who work or volunteer to help others. There seems to be no end to the generosity of spirit of the people of Fort Wayne.”

Karl LaPan cast his vote for “a significant and important nonprofit sector powered by some of the very best and smartest leaders I have worked with in my professional career.”

 

Our heritage

“I am amazed that the people who planned our present Allen County Courthouse had the vision and the good taste to create such a beautiful building, and I am proud to work in it. They planned well for the future citizens that would use it. And that creative spirit has been exhibited over and over again by Lee Ninde and the other architects of our beautiful neighborhoods, by the creators of our park system and by the builders who have built office buildings and residences that are unique and functional. It is this appreciation for beauty and the value of artistic expression and the constant creation of places and events that are enjoyed now and will be enjoyed by future generations who will live here that makes this place great. In the end, it is not the places, but the spirit and the creativity of the people who live here that make this such a wonderful city.” — Judge Stanley Levine

Methodology

This summer Fort Wayne Magazine assembled an expert panel of 100 community leaders, local thought leaders and interesting people and invited to vote via email for up to 10 things they judged to be Best Loved About Fort Wayne. After the votes came in, we compiled them, and we present the winners here with selected comments from some, but not all of our panelists.

We wish we had room to include all the comments and all the great examples our panelists provided to explain and amplify their votes. Suffice it to say we now have a wealth of great story ideas for the coming year.

A special thank you goes out from Fort Wayne Magazine to all the panelists who helped make this story so meaningful, so rich with detail and so true to Fort Wayne. You’re the best!

First appeared in the October 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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