KEVIN LEININGER: ‘Urban Trail’ will lead to, through downtown Fort Wayne — if the money can be found

A study suggests the "Cultural Trail" has brought visitors and businesses to downtown Indianapolis, and Fort Wayne officials say a similar project could do the same here. (Courtesy image)
The Fort Wayne Urban Trail would link various downtown attractions, starting near the riverfront and historic Columbia Street Landing. (Courtesy image)
Nancy Townsend
Kevin Leininger

Dorothy and Toto followed the Yellow Brick Road all the way to Oz. Visitors to downtown Fort Wayne could soon take a similar path to an ever-expanding number of local attractions — and they won’t even have to worry about a witch or flying monkeys.

Sometime next summer, the first two modest sections of the embryonic “Downtown Urban Trail” are expected to open on Superior Street between Harrison and Wells streets and along Harrison Street near the historic Columbia Street Landing, which is being redeveloped. But city officials say that will be only the beginning, with the 10-foot trail made mostly of masonry “pavers” extending as far south as the Citilink bus terminal and Electric Works campus, as far north as the so-called “North River” site and East to Lafayette Street and the arts campus, with access to more-traditional suburban and rural trails via connections to the Rivergreenway.

City landscape architect Stacey Haviland said the urban trail has been part of downtown planning for years and is modeled in part on the eight-mile, $63 million Indianapolis Cultural Trail that opened in 2012. Fort Wayne’s urban trail also aims not only to attract more people and businesses but also to make it easier for visitors to get from place to place without the need for congestion-causing cars, according to Public Works Director Shan Gunawardena.

To city Redevelopment Director Nancy Townsend, it’s all about “connectivity”: the desire to identify and link nearby attractions in a way that encourages walking, biking, eating, drinking, shopping and spending. Along Superior and Harrison alone, the urban trail would connect not only the Landing and riverfront but also a new boutique hotel and Hall’s restaurant, along with other potential developments. The Indianapolis trail seems to have done just that, with a recent study indicating a 148 percent increase in property values and increased traffic at nearby shops, with 17 businesses reportedly selected their locations because of the trail. That’s why Townsend insists this is more than just another trail: It’s also an economic development project; one that will make more room available for such things as outdoor dining by removing some on-street parking or travel lanes (although taking Superior from four lanes to two is expected to add parking there as well).

One major obstacle stands in the way. On Wednesday, as Mayor Tom Henry and others officially opened two-mile extension of the Pufferbelly Trail between Washington Center and Wallen roads, the Fort Wayne Trails organization announced a gift of nearly $220,000 for additional trail improvements. Although the city owns the necessary right-of-way, the urban trail has no identified funding source beyond the budgets of previously approved improvements to the riverfront and Landing.

Because of its potential economic benefits, Townsend believes some degree of public funding will be justified, possibly from local income taxes or property taxes generated in the area. But she also hopes the private sector will want to support the urban trail, as it has trails elsewhere in the community, because “This benefits everyone.”

It’s true, of course, that sidewalks already allow pedestrians to move around downtown. But unless you’re familiar with Fort Wayne you may not know how to walk from, say, the Grand Wayne Center to the riverfront. The planned lighting, signs, landscaping and other features will add to the trail’s utility and ambiance, and its width will promote safety by allowing bikers to avoid the street.

It’s also worth noting that the Indianapolis trail was funded with $35.5 million in federal transportation grants and $27.5 million in private and philanthropic funds. No city money was used. But with Legacy and Capital Improvement dollars already stretched thin by support for Electric Works and other projects, the future of Fort Wayne’s urban trail may indeed rely on city funds and the generosity of donors. A financial argument for the full trail will have to be made, perhaps in conjunction with other projects, but that Indiana University study concluded this about Indianapolis:

“By all indications, (the trail) . . . is a tremendous success. It is well-liked and utilized. Likely economic impacts are already being felt . . . yet there is a potential for more. This is a community asset with potential for far-reaching impact.” If so, Fort Wayne should strongly consider the plan because, as Dorothy said, there really is no place like home.

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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