Economic development officials would have you believe that shovel-ready sites, low corporate taxes and logistics are the keys to growth.
Not so much, according to the “Soul of the Community” report, a study by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation on what makes people embrace a community and, in turn, want to work there and help it prosper. As one of 26 communities where the Knight brothers once owned newspapers, Fort Wayne is a beneficiary of the foundation’s research, polling and recommendations on what matters in community attachment and how a city fares.
“The study provides empirical evidence that the drivers that create emotional bonds between people and their community are consistent in virtually every city and can be reduced to just a few categories,” according to the report. “Interestingly, the usual suspects – jobs, the economy and safety – are not among the top drivers. Rather, people consistently give higher ratings for elements that relate directly to their daily quality of life: an area’s physical beauty, opportunities for socializing and a community’s openness to all people.”
Paula Lynn Ellis, vice president of strategic initiatives for the Knight Foundation, said the hope is that communities can use the reports to help residents feel more connected, because the more attached they are, the more likely they are to invest in making their cities better.
“We know that cities with engaged residents do better economically and we know there are steps a community can take to cause residents to feel more included, to encourage more social offerings, to improve the aesthetics,” she said. “We’re not able to say, ‘go, do this,’ but we’re supporting experiments and efforts across the country, in our grant-making, to support this.”
The Knight Foundation worked with Gallup to poll about 400 residents in the metropolitan statistical area, which includes Allen, Wells and Whitley counties, on their level of attachment to the community and then asked them to rate attributes supporting community attachment.
How does the area measure up? Better in 2010 than in the two previous years. Residents expressed a “higher level of attachment” to the community – even a bit higher than similarly sized Knight communities like Macon, Ga.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; and State College, Pa.
Ranked from first to third based on survey responses, here’s how Fort Wayne residents rate the community’s performance on the key measures of attachment and some thoughts from some local observers on what we do well and how we could improve.
Residents like what Fort Wayne has to offer when it comes to community events, arts and cultural opportunities and nightlife. Nearly four out of 10 gave this measure a high rating. Jim Sparrow, executive director of Arts United, is pleased with the response.
“It puts some real teeth into some of the things we’ve been working on,” he said. “The downtown (arts and cultural) campus, the diverse offerings available, getting people more connected – not just event-driven offerings where people show up, but that sense of social offering that focuses on a place.”
Sparrow, who has spearheaded efforts to establish a cultural corridor on the east end of downtown, said he was pleased that the report didn’t look at the measures of attachment as isolated elements, but instead urged the community to see how everything works together, as in using community events to include minority groups and in recognizing the importance of beautifying venues where people gather.
Lori Keys, executive director of Fort Wayne Trails, said she wasn’t surprised by the report’s recognition of Fort Wayne’s social offerings. She said the city’s assets are valued by residents, but undersold. “When you hear how humble Fort Wayne is, it’s because we haven’t put ourselves out there as a hip, Midwestern city,” she said. “We have a lot of progressive things going on here and I think it’s paramount that we keep doing things like improving the downtown.”
The survey also asked residents if they believed this is a place where people care about each other. Fort Wayne lagged other Knight cities, and the percentage of people who agreed has fallen steadily since 2008.
Cheri Becker, executive director of Leadership Fort Wayne, said she struggled with that finding.
“We are a very philanthropic community,” she said. “But it’s good information to have.”
Fort Wayne residents give their highest marks to the city’s parks, playgrounds and trails, but their perception of the city’s “beauty or physical setting” and of overall aesthetics also are at the highest point in three years of surveys.
“There was some real affirmation in what we’re doing with our parks and our trails,” said Becker, who serves on the city’s parks board, “It shows we’re on a forward-thinking pathway in that area.”
Keys cited the trails as an example of “setting the table” for more investment.
“I directly saw the impact of the trail system. The trails are one piece, but to see people invest based on what’s going on is exciting,” she said. “The downtown development has built on a lot of different initiatives. When you invest in the built environment, it’s setting the table for more diverse offerings.”
Lanah Hake, a Fort Wayne native who left for 13 years for school, career and travel, has returned to the city to guide education initiatives at United Way of Allen County. She also provides an example of those diverse offerings that take advantage of the city’s amenities. Hake organized an outdoor yoga series this summer at Freimann Square and Lakeside Park.
In her time away she lived in Washington, Denver, New Zealand and British Columbia.
“I’ve lived in beautiful places, but I tell my friends that the authenticity here is what makes it special,” she said. “We got to make sure we maintain that.”
Some of the survey’s lowest marks come from its reputation as a welcoming city. Not surprisingly, it does best on the perception that “it is a good place for families with children.” But residents don’t believe the city is a good place for older people, immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities, young adults without children and gay men and lesbians. They believe it’s even a less welcoming place for “young, talented college graduates.”
Lori Keys acknowledged that Fort Wayne’s emphasis on “nice place to raise a family” isn’t a great marketing tool. “It doesn’t really differentiate this city,” she said. “Any place could be a good place to raise a family.”
Hake pointed out that the survey reflected residents’ perception of openness, not actual experience.
“It didn’t ask, ‘Are you gay or lesbian,’ and then, ‘Do you feel included?’ It asked if people believe the community is inclusive.”
Where she does see room for more inclusiveness is in drawing young, college-educated residents into leadership, noting that survey results showed college graduates show less attachment than those without a degree.
Sparrow said there was a lesson in the survey response on openness.
“It makes me very aware that as we invite people into the conversation, that to get a true piece of feedback as it relates to culture, we’ve got to look around and see who’s not there. That’s the part we need to take away from the report.”
Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.