KEVIN LEININGER: Area’s population is a long way from 1 million, but migration trend finally is heading in right direction

Northeast Indiana's population is still a long way from 1 million, but the trend of more people moving out than in has been reversed, at least for now. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
Ellen Cutter
Rachel Blakeman

It’s been more than three years since officials from 11 northeast Indiana counties rolled out the “Road to One Million” campaign to boost the area’s economy and population through an ultimately successful quest for $40 million in state Regional Cities funds.

The money helped turn the vacant Clyde Theater into a concert venue, redevelop Fort Wayne’s downtown riverfront and convert the historic Columbia Street “Landing” into trendy shops, offices and apartments, among many other projects, but the region’s population is still much closer to the 772,337 it was in 2015 than the 1 million goal those ambitious leaders hope to achieve. Still, evidence is beginning to emerge that Fort Wayne and Allen County are becoming places people want to seek out, not flee.

For the first time since the U.S. Census Bureau began tracking such things in 1991, Allen County showed a positive net domestic migration of 21 people in 2017 — a statistic that tracks people in the country moving to or from a given area but does not include births or international immigration. It will take a long time to reach 1 million at that rate, true, but as Greater Fort Wayne Inc. Vice President of Marketing, Research and Strategy Ellen Cutter notes, the county recently had been averaging a loss of 400 annually and in some years double or triple that amount. Some of the influx has come from surrounding counties but Cutter said such major metropolitan areas as Atlanta, Kansas City, Sacramento and Minneapolis have also lost residents to Allen County.

And while Allen County was experiencing in-migration in 2017, Indiana showed an out-migration of nearly 1,000.

As the county’s leading economic development agency, Greater Fort Wayne Inc. has been one of the leading champions of the “Road to One Million” campaign, so perhaps it’s only natural for Cutter to attribute the population reversal to efforts to boost “quality of place.” But when Miami resident Matthew Meltzer visited Fort Wayne recently to research a travel piece for Matador Network, his experience seemed to confirm Cutter’s perception.

After taking in a show at the Clyde, Meltzer ended up at Mad Anthony Brewing on Broadway and found “a bar jam-packed with younger people who’d moved back from Chicago, Minneapolis, Atlanta and other big cities. Nearly all of them were saying that they’d found nothing in those places that was worth more than what they had in Fort Wayne. Meltzer also talked to Kevan Biggs, one of the developers of the $250 million Electric Works project, who told him that he and other developers “are banking on millennials flocking to smaller cities.”

As Meltzer notes, the fact that Fort Wayne is nationally known for its low cost of living doesn’t hurt, but his story makes clear young people want to be able to do more than afford a house: They also want the sort of amenities, albeit on a smaller scale, available in larger but more expensive and congested cities. And although the in-migration is still small, Cutter’s own story shows how it can grow.

She and her husband moved to Fort Wayne from Iowa in 2011 and now have three children. Their presence attracted other relatives, how attracted still others, for a net gain — so far — of about 15 people.

The population growth coincides with another longstanding goal of economic development officials: an increase in local wages. According to a recent analysis by Garner Economics LLC, the Fort Wayne metropolitan area (Allen, Whitley and Wells counties) enjoyed a 12.2 percent increase in private-sector wages between 2013 and 2018 when adjusted for inflation. Statewide the increase was only 4.5 percent, and some areas experienced a wage decline. Only Lafayette saw greater wage growth, at 15.6 percent.

Some of that growth can be attributed to the tight labor market (7 percent unemployment in August 2013 compared to 3.2 percent last month), but Rachel Blakeman, Director of the Community Research Institute at Purdue Fort Wayne, said “this analysis gives us some optimism, especially since this accounts for inflation and the decreased buying power of dollars over time.”

Blakeman said continued wage growth could erode Fort Wayne’s cost-of-living edge, “but that might be a problem we look forward to having.” Cutter, meanwhile, said some cities — Des Moines, for one — have managed to increase wages while maintaining affordability.

As Greater Fort Wayne Executive Vice President of Economic Development John Urbahns noted, many local companies are struggling to find the workers they need. With several major projects already announced for next year, Urbahns said he was pleasantly surprised to discover while addressing high school students recently that several of them intend to come back to Fort Wayne. “My eyes were opened,” he said.

A lot of other people’s too, apparently.

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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