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KEVIN LEININGER: Is city’s glass half empty or half full? Your perspective will shape your vote

Mayor Tom Henry, left, and challenger Tim Smith debate at the Grand Wayne Center last week. (Photo courtesy YLNI)
Kevin Leininger

After watching the Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana’s mayoral debate last week, it seems to me the contest between Republican challenger Tim Smith and three-term Democrat Tom Henry essentially boils down to this:

Is Fort Wayne’s glass half-full — or half empty?

After holding city government’s top job for nearly 12 years, Henry is compelled to argue the former. And that’s more than a mere political necessity: Fort Wayne is indeed headed in the right direction in many ways, and even in areas of potential vulnerability — poor trash collection and lingering violent crime, for example — Henry insists his administration is working, with some success, to improve things.

Smith acknowledges some of Fort Wayne’s gains, especially downtown, but he is equally compelled to persuade voters that, however promising things may appear, Fort Wayne can and must do better. That’s the subtle message behind his “expect more” campaign theme.

Nowhere is this difference in perspective more obvious and potentially more important than in the area of economic development, which encompasses everything from jobs and wages to the city’s ability to retain and attract young people. Both men can legitimately defend their respective positions, creating a challenge to voters motivated by more than partisan ideology.

With state and national media and even Smith himself praising the changes in downtown Fort Wayne in recent years, Henry’s position there is exceptionally strong. But Henry can cite more than perception: As the Community Research Institute at Purdue Fort Wayne noted recently, the number of area residents with jobs grew by 5 percent over 18 months, with wages increasing by 3.5 percent during that period. And just last month the Institute reported that the percentage of city residents living below the poverty line had decreased from 19 percent in 2015 to 15.8 percent last year.

What’s more, for the first time since the U.S. Census Bureau began tracking such things in 1991, Allen County showed a positive net domestic migration in 2017.

Smith, however, correctly points out that many cities have experienced job and wage growth during the current national economic expansion and that, despite the gains, local wages that once exceeded the national average are substantially below average now. According to the Institute, the average Fort Wayne wage last year was $44,097 compared to $55,331 nationally.

He also notes that the positive in-migration in 2017 amounted to just 21 people — hardly a trend — and that a study released last week by Northeast Indiana Works revealed that 48 percent of northeast Indiana high school and college graduates are no longer in the region after five years.

The two men also take different approaches when it comes to continuing the city’s momentum (Henry) or getting it headed in the right direction (Smith). Many economic development officials insist residents and especially young people are drawn to a city by so-called “quality of place,” and Henry’s downtown focus is a prime example of that philosophy.

Smith, on the other hand, contends people primarily choose a city because of job opportunities. He vows to personally recruit prospective employers in key high-wage sectors, while Henry said at the debate he generally prefers to leave economic development to such groups as Greater Fort Wayne Inc. and the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, both of which are subsidized by the city.

Late last year, when I asked Henry to grade his performance as mayor, he answered: “B-plus. Mayors judge themselves on six areas: public safety, utility operations, parks, neighborhoods and infrastructure, downtown and economic development. I think my administration has done a pretty good job, but there’s always room for improvement.”

Smith’s challenge is to convince voters he can produce that improvement while — by his own admission — being more discerning about publicly funded incentives. As the debate at the Grand Wayne Center showed, both men have a good, if selective, command of the facts needed to persuade voters inclined to stay the course or change things up.

As for those who can’t make up their mind, I suspect a campaign that has so far been marked by a certain level of civility is about to get considerably more hard-edged. Once that happens, the differences between the candidates will be made clear in a way dueling crime and economic statistics could never illustrate.

Whether that’s good or bad will also be a matter of perspective.

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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