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EDITORIAL

Has downtown reached the tipping point?

Monday, September 30, 2013 - 9:32 am

New development just may provide it with self-sustaining growth.

Some are calling the planned $71 million downtown project a “game-changer.” The public-private development, which will include new headquarters for Ash Brokerage, commercial space and a residential component, will provide “unprecedented positive momentum” in the city, says Mayor Tom Henry.

Actually the real game-changer will probably turn out to have been near-perfect Parkview Field and the phenomenal first year of the Fort Wayne TinCaps baseball team. That project started bringing more people downtown and created a momentum that the Ash project is merely continuing.

But this project might just represent something needed to keep the momentum going for downtown: the tipping point. The development conundrum has long been recognized. There have to be enough people to justify providing things for them to do and enough things to do to lure the people. The tipping point is when both are true enough that the growth becomes self-sustaining.

The Ash development might get us there.

If it does, then we can judge whether the push for a revitalized downtown was all worth it. Will it increase economic activity or just move it? Will neighborhoods and commercial centers near downtown start improving, or will those farther away get neglected? Will a bright and shiny downtown lure more residents and businesses, or just provide shopping and diversions for those already living here?

One important aspect of the revitalization will be hard to measure, since it is an intangible factor not measurable by numbers: What psychological effect will a new downtown have on us?

It is perfectly logical to observe that people move to where they want to live and that commercial activity then follows the people. Since the advent of the automobile and the resulting ease of travel, that migration has led activity farther from the centers of cities, which started emptying and struggling. That doesn’t mean the cities are any less viable or desirable.

But it can feel that way. As cities formed, it was natural to concentrate activity in the middle of the urban area. “Downtown” became the most important component of our city experience, and what one looks like is central to how we feel about the city overall. When you drive through any city on the interstate, you are likely to be inside the city limits at some point. But you won’t really know the city unless you get off the interstate and drive downtown.

Will our downtown be vibrant enough to lure people off the interstate? And if it is, how much will that improve our lives? We shall see.