Fort Wayne’s commitment to the arts was center stage Thursday in the Auer Auditorium at Purdue University Fort Wayne as Democratic Mayor Tom Henry and Republican challenger Tim Smith participated in a forum to discuss the Summit City’s quality of life.
When he thinks about quality of life in Fort Wayne, Smith said he thinks about trying to “lift every life.” That means going beyond new buildings, restaurants, parks and trails, he said. Quality of life matters little if the city is not safe, smart and prosperous, Smith added.
“It doesn’t matter where you live, which side of town, where you work, what your heritage is, everybody in our community needs to benefit equally from quality-of-life improvements in Fort Wayne,” he said.
Quality of life goes beyond bricks and mortar or money, Henry said.
“To me, quality of life is your health, quality of life is your happiness, quality of life is your comfort level,” he said.
As mayor, Henry said he can provide access to parks and downtown or contribute to neighborhood infrastructure. But the city needs to focus beyond that.
“Those are basic components of city management that every mayor should be providing,” Henry said. “We need to take that beyond the norm, because that’s what employers are looking for any more.”
There’s no other role as important for a mayor as supporting the arts, Henry said, because the arts “really is what makes a community.”
Jobs often trump everything, but jobs come and go, he added.
“Especially young people of today, they’ll move if there’s more money to be offered somewhere else or if they feel they can expand their professional careers, unless there’s something to keep them in a community,” Henry said.
Vision, convening resources and execution is the mayor’s role in quality of life, Smith said.
“Though the mayor may have the chief role as visionary, there’s a whole lot more good ideas from the leaders of our community,” Smith said. “The mayor must convene those resources, get the best minds in the game to cast the rest of the vision.”
It doesn’t matter how good the vision is, however, if there are no resources to put toward making it a reality, Smith added.
Collaboration, or how Fort Wayne can get the community involved, depends on communication encouraged by leaders, Smith said. The best, most effective teams are the most diverse, he said.
“When mayor, when I pull together all the resources, all of the people, … we will have a diverse group contributing,” Smith said.
One of Fort Wayne’s strengths, Henry said, is as soon as an opportunity arises, the community tends to embrace it. There’s an ongoing study, he said, about the creation of a possible arts campus. That possible development, Henry said, could be a “catalyst for significant movement in this community in the years to come.” It’s in the embryonic stages now but is something Henry said he’s excited about.
“We spent a lot of time developing our downtown for enhancements in hospitality, in retail and in housing because it was needed. We saw it, we embraced it and we built upon it,” he said.
“We’re now at a point in Fort Wayne’s history that we’re beginning to truly embrace what the arts have to offer and what better way to do that than put together an arts campus to be able to really showcase all that we have.”
Fort Wayne needs to expand upon downtown development, Henry said, adding that southeast Fort Wayne is the “perfect place for us to grow, particularly in the arts arena.”
“Wouldn’t it be great if you could envision south/southeast Fort Wayne being a real center for upcoming artists, musicians, actors,” Henry said, referring to the area as virgin territory for development.
“That whole south part of town, the (U.S.) 27 corridor, is perfect for it. In fact, that whole area from Southtown out to (Interstate) 469, there’s nothing there. All I need to do right now is move utilities there and it’s ready to go.”
The reason that area is considered virgin territory, Smith said, is because Henry’s administration has abandoned it economically for the past 12 years. The money invested downtown and in other areas of the city is substantially more than has been invested on the south and southeast sides, he said, adding that southeast Fort Wayne just needs attention and stimulation.
“The mayor, other officials who have been around a long time, have had literally decades to improve the southeast side of town to whatever extent it needs improved,” Smith said.
“I’ve actually been studying the economic power of City Council districts 6 and 5. When compared to the other four City Council districts, there’s not much difference. There is a ton of existing, dormant economic power on the southeast side of town.”
Fort Wayne needs to have a community discussion on the vision and funding necessary to sustain public spaces and other amenities, Smith said. He said he’s excited about the prospect of an arts campus; there just needs to be a discussion on what it will entail and how to fund it.
“I have seen what the best countries, the best states and the best cities do in this regard and my conclusion is those municipalities that collaborate the best yield the best results,” he said.
There are two things necessary, Henry said, to make sure Fort Wayne’s amenities are sustainable: accessibility and education. That means providing more easy access to the city’s art and other amenities and encouraging students to embrace and appreciate the arts.
“Our responsibility as a community right now is to take these young people, introduce them to art appreciation, music appreciation, dance appreciation,” he said. “Because then as they get older not only will they protect the arts of our community, they’ll embrace and love the arts, and that’s what it’s all about.”