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Lesson learned from Wichita: Fort Wayne needs better theme for self-promotion

Wednesday, December 26, 2012 - 3:35 pm

It took one year, 10 organizations and $70,000 to develop.

Yet today, six years later, Fort Wayne's last attempt at a marketing slogan – “Room for Dreams” – is mostly forgotten except for the visitor center's partial use of its logo.

So perhaps the community leaders who visited Wichita, Kan., in October were on to something when they concluded that use of the same theme, materials and images by numerous civic organizations might do for us what it has apparently achieved for Kansas' largest city.

“Economic development is a team sport. The difference is that in Wichita they hand you a folder showing how it all works,” said Downtown Improvement District Interim President and County Councilman-elect Bill Brown, one of 21 people to make the trip. “We have begun to do elements of that here, but we have some duplicative marketing efforts. We need a unified playbook.”

Having visited Greenville, S.C.; Providence, R.I.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Denver in recent years, the group chose Wichita in large part to study its riverfront-development efforts – efforts that are gaining steam in Fort Wayne thanks to City Council's recent approval of $500,000 to study the issue. But it was the image standing at the confluence of the Big and Little Arkansas rivers that caught the eye of Leadership Fort Wayne Executive Director Cheri Becker: the 44-foot “Keeper of the Plains.”

Since its installation in 1974, the Native American figure with his hands raised in supplication to the “Great Spirit” has become Wichita's most common symbol – a unifying civic icon matched by a single-minded marketing approach.

“They have more materials in multiple places, but it's one message, one logo, and it all fits together,” said Becker, who organized the trip.

In Fort Wayne, meanwhile, various groups with diverse identities and logos produce disparate materials available in scattered locations – a situation that can give real or online visitors an incomplete or even confusing picture of what Fort Wayne has to offer.

Becker and Brown returned from Kansas convinced that Fort Wayne needs to sharpen and refocus its message.

Much of that was supposed to have happened already, of course. The city, county and Chamber of Commerce created the Economic Development Alliance in 2000 precisely to promote cooperation and eliminate redundancy in the community's job-creation efforts. And even now, officials are discussing how best to coordinate or even combine the Alliance, Chamber, Downtown Improvement District and other similar groups.

“But the cities we've visited have been at this for 30 years,” Becker noted, as if to say: Fort Wayne will get there eventually.

But Brown properly perceives the momentum building in Fort Wayne riverfront development and other projects being considered for funding through the city's $75 million Legacy program as ample reason to view the city's glass as half-full. And Karl Bandemer, who promotes downtown development for the Alliance, said Fort Wayne's ability at long last to complete funding for Harrison Square's apartment and commercial project echoes Wichita's efforts to create a consortium of lenders willing to share in projects perceived as “high risk.”

“I was surprised by how spread out downtown Wichita was. It buttressed my feeling that it's an asset to be able to walk from one end of downtown Fort Wayne to another,” he said.

But the desire and willingness to promote a single message in a unified way begs the question: What is Fort Wayne's version of the Keeper of the Plains?

“Room for Dreams” clearly isn't it. “Summit City”? Being the high point of a canal that no longer exists would take too long to explain. “City of churches?” Too politically incorrect. Anthony Wayne on his horse looks too much like George Washington.

So what's left?

City Councilman Tom Smith thinks Fort Wayne could benefit by stressing its link to an image that is already well-loved and nationally known: The classic 1917 tune by Ballard McDonald and James Hanley, “Back Home Again in Indiana.”

“Room for dreams” puts you to sleep, and when you wake up you don't remember anything,” Smith said. “We really need a reliable and better identity.”

A trial video has been produced, and Smith hopes to show it to people and groups who will be willing and able to do something with the theme, which could turn out to be something like:

Fort Wayne: Your back-home-again city.

Granted, it implies that people have left. But if it brings them back – after having gained knowledge, wisdom and skills elsewhere – this city will be the better for it.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@ news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.