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KEVIN LEININGER: What’s ‘hip’? Turns out Fort Wayne is — and that’s good for all of us

The townhouses at Cityscape Flats reflect a growing demand for downtown housing. (Photo by Kevin Leininger of The News-Sentinel)
Andrew Smith, Jack May and Dan Campbell of the Junk Ditch Brewery may or may not be Hipsters, but their year-old restaurant is definitely hip. (News-Sentinel file photo)
Mary Maugher
Savannah Robinson

I’m 62, refuse to look even older by growing a mostly gray beard, and I don’t own a funny hat, so I’m probably not the best judge of what’s “hip.” But according to the experts, the numbers don’t lie: Among all American cities, only Columbus, Ohio, Seattle and San Diego are “cooler” places to live (pardon the antiquated jargon) than Fort Wayne.

And to think it all starts with something as mundane and seemingly bourgeois as real estate.

According to Realtor.com, the Summit City also places fourth among top-performing housing markets which, when cross-referenced with mention of the word “hipster” on the internet consumer-preference website Yelp, discovered that life in Fort Wayne’s 46802 ZIP code is more appealing to so-called millennials than some might have expected.

How could this be? Here’s a clue: The area in question includes Fort Wayne’s downtown, the redevelopment of which has received millions of dollars in public and private investments over the past several years and is a lynchpin of local economic development officials’ efforts to increase the region’s population from about 790,000 to 1 million by 2031. Overly ambitious or not, the effort seems to be bearing both rhetorical and tangible fruit.

“I have a son who’s a hipster, and it’s all about downtown, walking, using Uber instead of owning a car,” said Mary Maugher, associate with Century 21 Bradley and president elect of Upstar, the local alliance of Realtors. And that interest in downtowns in general and Fort Wayne’s in particular is not limited to Indiana or even the Midwest.

“I hear about the success of Fort Wayne’s downtown at national (real estate conventions),” she added. “I was one of the naysayers at first, but look at what happened in Indianapolis. (Young) people don’t want to commute; they want to live where they work. We’re getting a lot of millennials who have been to other cities and are now coming back to raise their kids, and keeping more of them in the first place.”

Realtor.com’s statistics don’t get that specific, but they do support Maugher’s overall point. Although California claimed 11 of the top 20 real-estate markets, the demand for housing in Fort Wayne placed the city above such acknowledged hotspots as San Diego, Nashville, Denver, Boston, Los Angeles and even the supposed Hipster mecca of Columbus.

According to Upstar’s August report, the median sales price in the area has increased by 6.3 percent in the past year, from $126,900 to $134,900, in part because of the demand created by a 13.3 percent drop in housing inventory. In the 46802 area, Realtor.com reports the median listing price is about $163,925, with the millennial share of the population about 19.9 percent and the median household income $29,591. In Columbus, by contrast, the median listing price is $269,455 and the median income is $44,007, while in San Diego the average home costs $597,000 and the median income is $55,130.

Those numbers are important, Maugher said, because Fort Wayne’s low cost of living means money will stretch further here than in most major cities — something that also helps attract the attention of would-be homebuyers.

That reality induces differing conclusions, however. To some, Fort Wayne must continue to invest in improvements downtown and elsewhere in order to attract new residents and jobs — even if it means higher taxes and a higher cost of living. But as this summer’s debate on the successful effort to boost local income taxes in part to pay for riverfront improvements proved, even some millennials insist a city’s pizzazz is meaningless if they can’t afford to live there.

That cost-vs.-benefit debate will continue, and should. But in the meantime, Fort Wayne’s positive vibe is real and spreading. Even Food and Wine Magazine has discovered us, noting recently that Fort Wayne “managed to keep from succumbing to the usual precipitous (Rust Belt) decline . . . (and) is home to one of the best small collections of classic restaurant treasures around (Tolon, Conjure Coffee and Junk Ditch Brewing Co. downtown are mentioned). Fort Wayne might not play in the big leagues, but it has always been a compelling place, one worth making a detour for.”

That’s music to the ears of Eric Doden, who as CEO of Greater Fort Wayne Inc. is the city’s cheerleader-in-chief. “Fort Wayne is making the quality-of-life investments that people and companies look for, and now we’re seeing the results. We’re building a nationally recognized economy here. We’ve said for a while now that Fort Wayne is a well-kept secret. Well, the secret is out,” he said.

Savannah Robinson, vice president of Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana, agrees — and wants to spread the word. “I’d absolutely invite all of my friends, including my millennial friends to move here. I’ve called Fort Wayne home since 2004, and in that short time, I’ve seen amazing transformation,” she said. “Quality of place is so critical when choosing where to spend your life. I used to split my time between Chicago and Fort Wayne for a job and ultimately, decided to move back to Fort Wayne full-time not because of a job but because I love this city.”

For a city slandered not that long ago as America’s dumbest, the fact that a growing number of others seem to feel the same way is pretty cool, and maybe even downright hip.

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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