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KEVIN LEININGER: Southeast side will prosper through real investment, not more programs

Anti-violence marches haven't dramatically improved life on the southeast side, but real economic development would. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
The first phase of the $42 million Posterity Heights includes apartments for single parents enrolled in college. (News-Sentinel.com photo by Kevin Leininger)
Sharon Tucker
Kevin Leininger

The city will begin its latest effort to boost the southeast side later this month in the shopping center at 7500 S. Anthony Boulevard. It’s an appropriate venue.

When I was growing up in the Village Woods area, the plaza was anchored by a very busy Kmart. A Target store was across South Anthony Boulevard to the west, and Southtown Mall was across U.S. 27 to the south. Just down Decatur Road was the Eavey’s supermarket, which at 75,000 square feet was heralded by Life Magazine as the “world’s largest supermarket” when it opened in 1957.

Today, the Kmart is a self-storage business, the Target building is a data-storage center ringed by a concrete-block security barrier and the grocery that was later a Scott’s then a Kroger is now an indoor-outdoor receptacle for Indiana & Michigan Electric Co. equipment. The once-vacant buildings are being used again, and that’s good — but with far less economic and community impact than their predecessors offered. As for Southtown, a Menard’s and Wal-Mart replaced the mall with much government assistance but the hoped-for spin-off development has largely failed to materialize.

So now the city and its Southeast Area Partnership are seeking input to help update the city’s decade-old “southeast strategy.” The public is invited to a kick-off party at the former Kmart plaza from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 21 and a wrap-up event from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Oct. 24. During the kick-off, residents will be asked to share their ideas for housing, retail, commercial, light industrial and infrastructure needs in southeast Fort Wayne. A consulting team from YARD & Co. will lead the discussions and offer some findings and conclusions at the wrap-up.

In a statement, Mayor Tom Henry noted progress has been made over the past decade, including construction of more than 70 new homes in Renaissance Pointe, revitalization of the Coca-Cola Bottleworks building into affordable housing, the new $42 million Scholar House near McMillen Park, the new Urban League/Allen County Public Library/Brightpoint campus, the new Renaissance Pointe YMCA and the Fort Wayne Parks & Recreation McMillen Community Center. But notice: The list is devoid of commercial or industrial growth, and most of the items were largely dependent on government or social-service organizations. Why, in the midst of en economic boom, has the southeast side not seen more business investment?

“Developers and business owners need to look beyond what they see in the media. There’s money and land southeast,” said Sharon Tucker, an Allen County Council member who come Jan. 1 will represent the 6th District on City Council. “Most of us are not living in fear and wearing bullet-proof vests.One bad apple doesn’t mean the whole community is that way.”

The problem is that there is more than one bad apple in the barrel. Most of the city’s homicides occur southeast, and even though Henry may be right that people not involved in gangs, guns and drugs have little to fear, most people simply find it easier to avoid the area than to examine stereotypes. Residents of the southeast side, as a result, must do their part to improve the area in both perception and in fact.

But the city has a role to play too, even though some previous efforts have fallen short. In 2015 the city agreed to pay a Detroit consultant $5,000 a month to attract more stores to the southeast side but the contract expired a year later with few tangible results. And at times even community leaders have gotten in the way, such as when then-NAACP President Michael Latham threatened a boycott of the new Wal-Mart store only to discover its operations were not discriminatory after all. And whatever happened to that $386,000 the Ministerial Alliance received for southeast economic development from the 2007 sale of its share of the defunct Adams Center Landfill?

Tucker said her constituents want splash pads in parks and the groceries, restaurants, shops and other amenities residents in other parts of town take for granted. The city can do the splash pads and more effective policing, but businesses exist to make a profit. Southeast Fort Wayne has lacked a strong industrial base since International Harvester close in 1983, creating a ripple effect still being felt today. If entrepreneurs and corporations don’t believe they can prosper in one area they will go to another, so Tucker wonders why the city or Greater Fort Wayne Inc. can’t do for southeast Fort Wayne what has been done for downtown: attract private dollars, jobs, opportunity and excitement through targeted incentives that at least temporarily minimize risk.

It’s an essential point, because the southeast side will not truly be strong until it more effectively nurtures and taps its own economic and civic potential.

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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