Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Downtown: Ever Been?

Wednesday Leo Morris blogged about Tuesday night's city council meeting, during which he asked each council member, "What are your ideas for what the next Big Thing [for downtown] should be?" Some responses were better than others.
1. Baseball stadium downtown. This idea has broad support but a lot of detractors, too, which was evident even among council members. Councilman Don Schmidt was adamantly opposed to the idea and said most of the people he's talked to snicker at it. Councilman Sam Talarico Jr. said the people he's talked to, on the other hand, think it's a wonderful idea.
That we're going to have to replace Memorial Stadium (where the Wizards play) at some point in the future is a given; choosing to locate a new stadium downtown instead of next to the Coliseum is a smart idea. People are going to come watch the Wizards play regardless of where the stadium is, so why not put it downtown to draw them there? That some people oppose that idea isn't surprising -- that they snicker when it's even talked about shows how seriously we ought to consider their opinion.
2. Develop the riverfront. This one came from Smith, who believes we're not taking advantage of a natural asset and that such development would help bring young people downtown. Smith has suggested previously that we should move the Old Fort and use that area for development.
Cleaning up our rivers: a good idea. A very good idea, considering how dirty and nasty they are. (Alternately, they look like they're full of chocolate.) But after the city cleans them up, we're still going to be at the mercy of private investors deciding whether or not to gamble that people will be attracted to a riverfront area.
3. Do something with the YWCA villa property.
A nice goal, but again, it's at the mercy of private investors. The city can only do so much.
4. Traffic. We need to both make the flow of cars in and out of downtown better and figure out how to let people get around better when they are downtown -- we need a "park and ride" idea that makes better use of public transit.
Yes, yes, yes! We need to redesign the downtown traffic grid and find a better way to make the center of the city more quickly accessible from the outskirts of town, where most people currently live. It needs to be easier for them to get downtown.

It's going to take a lot of government money, however, which means it's not going to happen overnight. And to justify that kind of expense, we're probably going to have to see a lot more progress downtown that where we're at currently.
5. Signs. We have a lot of good attractions already; we just don't do a good job of calling attention to them, even something as simple as "to downtown" signs on the interstates.
Sorry -- the problem with downtown isn't that isn't not being advertised enough. We all know it's there; most of us just don't want to go.
6. Places to live. We need to pay attention to two critical groups -- young people and empty nesters -- who might like to live downtown. Having a group of people there all the time, not just people who come in occasionally for an event, is crucial to downtown development.
Now we're getting somewhere. There's a reason why all our efforts to revitalize downtown have yet to open the floodgates: they're flawed in their conception. For some reason, we think that the best way to get people downtown (which is what we all agree with revitalize the are) is to build big, expensive "attractions" like the Grand Wayne Center. But there are no guarantees that, once built, those attractions will attract anyone downtown.

Wouldn't it be smarter to look for ways to put people downtown instead of building big expensive carrots in an effort to entice them there? (Yes.)

But what could we possibly do that would put a large amount of people (with money to spend) downtown?


Funny, just this morning, I was reading an article in the Journal Gazette about IPFW's enrollment for the new academic year.

This year, the university’s student housing is also full, which means university officials will soon make plans for an expansion.

“We are gratified that enrollment is steady at record levels and that full-time student enrollment is continuing to grow,” Chancellor Michael Wartell said in a written statement. “With campus housing being filled this year, we are looking forward to planning for the expansion of the housing complex.”

Expanding the housing complex? What if the school could get that expansion subsidized by the city...if it were willing to build some student housing downtown? We're not talking about cramped dorms, but nice loft apartments, the kind that would appeal to upperclassmen as well as new students. Think that IPFW wouldn't like to tell prospective students that if they come to Fort Wayne, they could live in a trendy downtown loft unlike anything offered at another other university in the entire nation (and take a free shuttle to campus every day)?

Wait a minute...if IPFW built student housing downtown, that would put a whole lot of people downtown...without having to spend $100 million...people with money to spend (mostly their parents') who want something to do after everyone else leaves downtown at 5 o'clock -- they'll be looking for places to drink coffee or get something to eat or see a movie...and business owners will notice a large group of consumers, willing to spend money but under-served by the current offerings...and other local colleges might consider putting some cheap-to-build student housing of their own downtown, which would bring in more people...and then... makes too much sense. It would never happen in Fort Wayne.

But what if it did?

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