Place-making is a popular term in economic development circles these days, but NewAllen Alliance coordinator Kristi Sturtz thinks the emphasis may be on the wrong part of the term.
“A lot of people talk about the place, but there’s value in the making,” Sturtz said, “particularly when you’re working with rural communities or disadvantaged neighborhoods. It’s the value of building and empowering people to do more, and that can go on for decades after you get that established.”
The NewAllen Alliance, which itself has been around in one form or another for decades, is among five groups of communities vying for funding assistance from the state’s Stellar Communities economic development program. The Alliance was schedule to make its pitch for funding at a presentation Nov. 16, and the two community coalitions that will receive assistance will be announced Dec. 6.
Originally, six groups were selected to present strategic plans to the Stellar judges, but a Vincennes-area group later dropped out. “I think, for them, they wanted to take a little more time,” Sturtz said. “It was a very intensive process. I think it would be hard for any group to pull this together that had not already been working.”
The NewAllen Alliance brought Sturtz on board in 2015, with financial assistance from the Allen County–Fort Wayne Capital Improvement Board, to help develop a strategic investment plan for rural Allen County, including the communities of New Haven, Grabill, Leo-Cedarville, Woodburn, Monroeville, Harlan and Hoagland. She stayed on after that phase was completed to act as a steward of the plan. And when the state announced it would change its Stellar Communities program in 2018 to reward collaborative efforts of counties and communities, instead of single communities, the Alliance was ready.
The $20,000 grant awarded to finalists in the Stellar Communities funding competition helped the group take its strategic planning process further.
“What this Stellar opportunity has done is it’s allowed us to put meat on the bone for the planning that had been accomplished in 2016, to go from general concepts and ideas to actually hire engineers and architects to come up with cost estimates and bring in additional partners throughout the region,” Sturtz said. “It’s really allowed us to continue to make strides to actually get stuff done.”
The 232-page written plan, submitted at the end of September, details a $64 million list of projects spread out among the communities in the Alliance. Some of the projects will be more heavily reliant on funding that could be received through Stellar Communities, and some will require smaller amounts to just bridge funding gaps, said Kent Castleman, president of the NewAllen Alliance.
Crafting the Stellar proposal meant looking at how the money could be divvied up in a way that would touch all of the communities, but could also be put into the projects where it scores the highest for the Stellar judges, Castleman said.
“When they look at the scoring in the final judgment, I guess you say it that way, they want to see that there’s more than just the money they are giving. They want to see what else is happening in the region that’s by other local monies or private monies or things along those lines,” he explained.
When the planners started digging deeper, they realized there were projects happening that they didn’t even know about that were using federal or other state funding. “It was amazing to see that, just because we’re asking the questions, what other resources are available that our communities can apply for, to look at doing differently to get more money in the door,” Castleman said.
The local communities pitched in what they could, bringing their total of the funding plan to about $15 million. The Alliance also got a $3.3 million commitment from the Capital Improvement Board, $1.25 million from the Allen County Council and $4.25 million from the Allen County Commissioners. Some of the funding has strings attached — the Alliance must win the Stellar Communities designation — and some of it has no conditions.
“The funding commitments are extremely important as we go into the final presentation and the ultimate decision,” Castleman noted. In addition, “one of the areas they judge us on and it’s the highest scoring area is readiness. For some, it may be just some people saying, ‘hey we want to do this,’ but for us we knew that we weren’t going to be taken seriously until we had funding that was dedicated to it. So the funding dedication really shows that we are ready to start these projects.”
If the Alliance wins the funding Dec. 6, the first projects will get underway Jan. 1, Castleman pledged.
Parks and trails that connect to commercial corridors and downtown areas are among the projects included in the plan. Streetscapes in Woodburn and Leo-Cedarville made the list, as did a senior housing project and an expansion of the community center in New Haven. The Alliance obtained unanimous resolutions of support from all the communities in the coalition as well as the CIB and county government.
Too often, Castleman said, the 56,000 people in the rural area and the employers and businesses that operate there don’t get the attention they deserve. Asking for those resolutions helped spread the word. “It’s been rewarding to help educate elected officials about the needs of our communities in East Allen and the significance our communities play in the economy of Allen county,” he said.
Enhancing the downtowns and parks in the rural communities serves much the same purpose as the riverfront redevelopment in downtown Fort Wayne, Castleman added. “Ultimately, at the end of the day, they understood that the riverfront is creating quality of life, which has been attracting more investment in that area. We’re doing the same thing with our parks and downtowns. It’s quality of life and it’s creating more investment in that area, so it’s a better place that people want to develop and grow.”