KEVIN LEININGER: Competition for public funds shouldn’t overlook Allen County’s rural communities

Facade improvements in downtown New Haven are among the projects included in a $51 million program proposed by the New Allen Alliance. (Photo by Kevin Leininger of News-Sentinel.com)
Kent Castleman
Kevin Leininger

I voted for millions of dollars in grants during my six years on the Lutheran Foundation Board, but it didn’t take nearly that long to learn one very important lesson: Giving away money fairly and intelligently is hard work — and will probably disappoint even more people than it pleases because good intentions are always more plentiful than the cash needed to implement them.

That reality applies even to government, which probably explain why the massive Electric Works project has received a lukewarm embrace at best from some officials. If you want to make sure money will be available for such projects as a downtown arena or redevelopment of the so-called “North River” property, you might be reluctant to commit $65 million in public funds to the $220 million revitalization of the former General Electric campus, with an equally large second phase still to come.

But as Fort Wayne struggles to prioritize those and other projects, the 56,500 people who live in eastern Allen County are asking for their fair share. It’s a legitimate request, and the answer will begin to emerge Wednesday when the Fort Wayne-Allen Capital Improvement Board considers the New Allen Alliance’s request for $4.25 million as part of its $51 million “Rural Revival” campaign.

Sidewalks in Woodburn and Monroeville, streetscape improvements in Grabill, facade upgrades in Leo-Cedarville and New Haven and parks in Harlan and Hoagland may not be as big and bold as Electric Works, but if you live in those communities and the unincorporated areas that surround them such things are no less important, insists Alliance President Kent Castleman.

“We don’t want to create an ‘us vs. them’ thing, but sometimes we seem to be forgotten,” said Castleman, whose $4.25 million pitch to the CIB last month drew some resistance — in part because board members knew Electric Works developers will be seeking $45 million from the board that oversees the county’s food and beverage tax.

But that’s just the point, Castleman says. As a county tax, people who live outside Fort Wayne pay it, too. Restaurants in the area represented by the Alliance have generated at least $3 million in taxes, he said, and that doesn’t include taxes paid by rural residents who dine in Fort Wayne.

At the CIB meeting last month, member Tim Pape expressed concern that the board does not normally fund such things as parks and trails. Castleman correctly pointed out that the CIB has given $3 million to Fort Wayne’s riverfront project, the first phase of which is a park. What’s more, Castleman said, the Alliance has submitted a detailed request for CIB funds; Electric Works and other potential projects still haven’t.

To be sure, the Alliance’s request has grown considerably from the $2.5 million it sought only last year. Castleman said the growth in scope and cost reflects a more thorough assessment of the rural communities’ needs — a community that has also stepped up to help pay for what it wants. The Allen County Commissioners pledged $4.25 million earlier this month, and another $2 million or so will be sought from County Council. Leo-Cedarville has pledged $1 million, New Haven $750,000, Woodburn $400,000; Monroeville $500,000 and Grabill $300,000. Castleman also anticipates $8.5 million in state housing tax credits, $8.5 million in private housing and commercial investment and $11 million in federal urban transportation funds. The housing funds could create new places for seniors to live, freeing up single-family homes in areas that don’t attract a lot of new construction, Castleman said.

If that sounds like the state’s “Regional Cities” program, it should. That program made $40 million available on a matching basis to 11 northeast Indiana counties, and the Regional Development Authority considered programs on a first-come, first-served basis and were careful not to concentrate all the grants in Allen County. With the New Allen Alliance now competing for more than $5 million in state “Stellar Communities” funds, Castleman knows the local match is essential and wants the CIB to follow the Regional Cities precedent.

Given the stiff competition, I suspect the CIB will give Castleman less than the $4.25 million he wants. But the board should be as generous as possible, and not just because Fort Wayne has no rightful claim to all ts cash. As Castleman says, projects that improve the quality of life in places like New Haven, Monroeville and Harlan are just as vital to their residents as what’s happening downtown is to people who live in Fort Wayne. For more information on the Alliance, go to http://www.newallenalliance.net/home_page.html

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.

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