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New times for New Haven

The city just to the east of Fort Wayne is in the middle of its own revitalization process

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


While Fort Wayne has been studying, debating, and squabbling about downtown development for the last few years, New Haven just to the east of us has been going through its own revitalization process, sprucing up its downtown area, improving its parks, connecting its arm of the River Greenway to ours, and looking at some other exciting projects in the works.

If there’s an area that should be able to capitalize on some small town charm (New Haven’s population is a little under 13,700, according to a 2005 estimate), it’s New Haven’s Broadway corridor, which is the main thoroughfare through downtown. It’s home to several bars and restaurants, retail stores, an internet café, and another coffee shop coming soon. The street has been given a recent makeover and features brick-paved sidewalks along with period signage and street lights.

But the improvements to New Haven’s Broadway go deep. Literally. A couple years ago, the city embarked on a massive sewer separation project. Like a lot of older cities throughout the U.S., New Haven had combined sanitary and storm water sewers in the oldest part of the community. Under the Clean Water Act of 1972, those had to be separated, so New Haven tackled the project at a cost of $12 million, replacing their main water line, too (and yes Fort Wayne residents, you can look forward to our own sewer separation projects to come along pretty soon).

For a big chunk of the summer of 2005, Broadway pretty much didn’t exist; separating the sewers led, at various times, to massive trenches slicing the width of the street, no sidewalks, interrupted traffic, and lots and lots of dust (and off the record, a few business owners along the street are still a little cranky about all that). But as disruptive and pricey as the project was in the short term, it proved the beginning of the area’s current revitalization. “The progress we have made in downtown renovation with the streets and the lights and just the ‘feel’ I think is just amazing,” says Mickey Hill, owner of the New Haven Curves franchise and recently elected to the city’s council. “I’ve lived right off the downtown area for 19 years now, and I love the changes that have been made.”

Hill credits New Haven’s mayor, Terry McDonald, with getting the project up and running. “McDonald took office in 2000 and had seven years to get it done,” she says. “They were already talking about downtown revitalization in connection with (the sewer separation project), but I don’t know to what extent. It was Terry’s vision that said ‘you know what? Let’s do it, let’s do it well’.”

Mayor McDonald is a little more demur about his role: the sewer separation project really needed to get done, and redeveloping downtown New Haven was an idea that had been kicking around since the 80s. It just made sense, McDonald says, to take care of the infrastructure first before moving on to the rest. “For a city of New Haven’s size, you’re seeing major investments,” Mayor McDonald says. “You’re seeing merchants and offices expanding their establishments and doing ‘facelifts’ on their buildings… The city has made its investment, and now the local business community is making theirs.” He cites Rack & Helen’s, a long-standing bar/restaurant on Broadway, investing nearly a million to buy the building next door and expand their facility. Ruhl’s Furniture recently bought the Blackwell’s grocery store building at 511 Broadway with plans to move into the three-floor space and keep their old Broadway store. “Ruhl’s has been in the same location since 1956,” says John Pape, Ruhl’s owner for the last 16 years. “We’re selling to third generation for sure. There’s nothing broke about this, so we’ve never wanted to move out of New Haven.”

McDonald says New Haven is in a transition mode right now. “We’re making that next step, and what that next step is, I don’t have the words to categorize it,” McDonald says. “It’s going to be uniquely New Haven, that’s for sure. But citizens, as they experience more things outside the community, they’d say to themselves, ‘it would be nice to have one of those here, in our town’.”

McDonald says that he has seen a pretty big change since the days he was a police officer; the taverns that line Broadway, as well as many other establishments all over town, are more focused on entertainment and serving food these days. Pat Anderson, who has owned Rack & Helen’s, a downtown tavern, for 18 years total, says his food sales now make up over 50% of his total business; a decade or so ago, 6 – 8% food sales was considered good.

Also, as McDonald points out, if you do happen to smoke, New Haven’s bars still allow it. And don’t think the city hasn’t benefited from Fort Wayne’s smoking ban. “Oh, yeah, my business is up,” says Pat Anderson. “That seems to have tapered out a little, but don’t get me wrong, I’m up a solid 12 – 15%. At first, it was up well beyond that.”

Mayor McDonald laughs when I ask if he’s “afraid” New Haven’s bars will garner a reputation as a “smoker’s paradise.” “I think our merchants are very, very smart men and women, and they know what’s best for their business,” he says. “As public officials, I don’t believe it’s our place to tell merchants how to run their business. I’ve always voted with my wallet. I’m not afraid to spend a good deal of money on a great meal, but at the same time, I’m not going to go someplace that doesn’t satisfy me the customer, and so I believe that people are pretty smart in that area.”

The Broadway area isn’t the only development going on in New Haven. Just this month Parker Hannifin Corporation donated 15 acres near U.S. 24 and Interstate 469 to the city. The plan is to develop a community and recreation center on the site.

And somewhat like Fort Wayne, New Haven’s revitalization even comes with its own major project surrounded by contention and controversy. “Probably the hottest issue for us has been the Jury pool project,” says Ken Wilkinson, New Haven’s Director of Parks and Recreation. A public pool in New Haven, the Jury pool will be 40-years-old in 2008 and Wilkinson says it needs to be repaired. A plan was put together to turn the area into an aquatic center. “We put together a citizen’s committee in June ’05, we did survey work interviews, had public hearings, met with business leaders on the pool project,” Wilkinson says. They developed a business plan, presented it to city council this past fall, and it was rejected 5 – 2 by the city council. “It was a $5.3 million replacement with some of the bells and whistles that people in our public meetings were wanting, like slides and all that fun stuff,” continues Wilkinson. “I felt we had a good plan, but I think it was just sticker shock for some of our citizens and some of the city council.”

Wilkinson isn’t the only one disappointed that that project was shot down. Mickey Hill said she made it a point during her campaign for city council to talk about the Jury pool project. “Every house I knocked on, I asked about this. If they said ‘no, I’m not in favor,’ I would say ‘do you know what it all entails? Do you know what you’re going to get?’ ‘Well, no…’” Hill says when she took the time to explain, most people were for it. “The night we had a public forum at the city council meeting, it was pretty much split right down the middle,” Hill says. “A gal who worked at the pool had actually spent some time at the park polling people. She got over 100 signatures in favor of the aquatic center, and she presented those that night. The council did not take any of that into consideration.”

Mayor McDonald agrees with Wilkinson that he thought “sticker shock” played a part in the project’s rejection, but then again, a lot of citizens were for the proposed renovations to the Jury pool. “I think some of the members of city council that voted against it for whatever reason just thought that it wasn’t the right project,” McDonald says. “That’s their business. But the room was split that night about 50-50, and there was a hundred or more signatures on petitions saying ‘yes, we want this,’ but no weight was given to those because those people didn’t show up. Well, maybe they weren’t able to, maybe they had family obligations, whatever the situation might have been, but they put their name on paper saying ‘yes, this is something we want’.”

“I think the public needs to speak up louder and let council know what they want,” McDonald adds. “Those that want positive change, to see our community get to the next level and progress, they need to speak louder than the naysayers. Those who want progress, that’s what you always have to do.”

Of course, progress is dependent on economic factors, and New Haven is as susceptible to those factors as any other city its size. “Like the rest of the county, New Haven experienced some fairly good growth over the past several years in terms of addition to residential neighborhoods,” says Kevin Whaley, land use planner in the city’s planning department. But he adds that that has slowed down over the past year. Mickey Hill points out that several stores near the shopping center where her Curves business is located are set to close in early 2008.

“I think there are a lot of great things going on in New Haven,” says Vince Buchanan, business owner and president of the New Haven Chamber of Commerce. “The challenges are the overall economic conditions faced by all businesses in northeast Indiana. I don’t know if we’re really unique with respect to any challenges above and beyond that. Certain segments are thriving and doing well. I think that’s pretty universal in this part of the world.”

Buchanan adds that there are a couple things in the works that bode well for the future growth of New Haven. “The ‘Fort to Port’ project that has huge implications for this community,” he says. “The governor just announced we’re getting interstate style exchanges in Allen county off of that new four lane corridor. That is going to have a huge impact on not only New Haven but Northeast Indiana in general.”

The expansion of Maplecrest road, if it goes forward, will also help out, further opening Fort Wayne to New Haven and vice versa. “I think that’s going to open up this area to a lot of the shoppers who live in Fort Wayne,” says Kevin Whaley. “Wal-Mart already has an approved development plan to build at the southeast corner of Adams Center and 930 and so we’re expecting that that intersection is really going to take off in terms of retail development. Just by opening up that corridor you’re just going to improve access to the area.”

But in general, most people seem optimistic about the direction the city is going. Mickey Hill says that though she was disappointed at the way the Jury pool project turned out, she has high hopes for the future. She’s encouraged by the new investment, particularly in the Broadway corridor, and would like to see more events like last summer’s Taste of New Haven. There are a lot of possibilities, and she seems to echo the mayor’s sentiments when she says she hopes the citizens of New Haven aren’t afraid of any new proposals that can benefit the city. “In part, the economy is tough, and I understand why people would be afraid to spend money — you think something will cost you a certain amount, and the next thing you know, you’re getting over-taxed. But if the folks in the area would just realize that we do have to move forward. We cannot sit stagnant.”

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