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New leadership at the D.I.D.

With a career spent in community development, Richard Davis knows the dangers of putting too much stock in “the big project”

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2008-08-04


When Richard Davis, the new executive director of Fort Wayne’s Downtown Improvement District, was interviewed for the job last winter, he had a chance to turn the tables on the selection committee and ask them some questions.

And the most important question Davis asked was about (what else?) Harrison Square. Obviously, Davis had done his research in preparation for the interview; he was very familiar with the Harrison Square project, and liked what it said about Fort Wayne’s commitment to revitalizing its downtown. “I saw it as a big community venture,” he says. “I admired the scope not just of Harrison Square, but I could see some other major public projects — the library, the Grand Wayne Center… to me, these are evidence of public support for these kind of facilities downtown.”

But still, he had a concern. “I asked this group, ‘is Harrison Square the thing that’s going to save downtown as you see it?’”

They gave Davis the answer he had been hoping to hear. “They said, ‘no, Harrison Square is not the thing, it’s only one thing. It helps us kind of elevate our downtown to a new level, but we realize it’s not the thing’.” And when he asked the question to the members of selection committee individually, he got the same answer.

Great. This goes with a lot of what we’ve heard from city leaders about Harrison Square, that it’s a catalyst project. But did Davis believe them?

Well… yes. Davis has spent most of his career in city and community development. A thumbnail sketch of Davis’ professional life begins with a stint as a downtown planner for the city of Columbus, Ohio, directing the development of their own downtown strategic development plan. After that, he moved to Downtown Columbus, Inc., a private, not-for-profit downtown planning and development organization.

In 1996, Davis became the founding executive director of Intown Manchester Management, Inc. in Manchester, New Hampshire, responsible for redevelopment, management, marketing, and promotion of the downtown several years after a real estate bust had devastated the downtown area. And immediately before coming to Fort Wayne, Davis was founding executive director of the Pawtucket Foundation, a private, corporately-sponsored not-for-profit enterprise aimed at large-scale civic and economic revitalization within the cities of Pawtucket and Central Falls, Rhode Island.

That’s the short version. So, Davis says he’s pretty savvy about sensing when there’s a division among civic leadership over a major public project. He’s been through it several times before. “If I had seen coming in that there was a huge fracture among the civic leadership… and there often is about these sport facilities,” he says. “The tendency is to oversell them (the big projects), of course, as being the thing, and I’m sensitive to that, coming from a town like Columbus that I thought really had oversold itself on some big projects.” He cites Columbus’ City Center mall, a massive, multi-million dollar shopping center that opened in August, 1989, based around the long-standing Lazarus department store. The entire facility is now closed. “Having worked in Columbus, there were often big projects, and civic leadership would say ‘oh wow, it’s the new science center which is going to save us, or it’s the new mall that’s going to be the salvation of downtown.’ People seem to expect that any one big project is going to be the thing that transforms downtown, and that’s the wrong way to go.”

On the other hand, Davis went through something similar in Manchester with the Verizon Wireless arena, now home of the Manchester Monarchs (hockey) and the Manchester Wolves (indoor football), but with far different results. It was a contentious project that Davis says passed city council by a single vote.

But as Davis explains, Manchester didn’t base its entire downtown revitalization effort around the arena project. The city had been through a very rough patch economically, with a real estate boom and then bust in the early 90s. “Coming in in ’96, it seemed like ancient history to me, but it wasn’t,” Davis says. “People were still shell-shocked by what had happened in the early 90s.” Basically, there was a savings and loan crisis. A lot of credit unions were involved and the banks got swept up, with many of the banks taken over by the FDIC. “Overnight, the city of Manchester lost about 20% or 1/5 of its value,” Davis adds. “A very limited number of banks survived the crisis. And those banks were the pillars of the community, those were the people that contributed to the arts and events and so forth.”

Building owners dis-invested in the downtown, leasing out the street level store fronts at rock bottom rates, just to keep them filled. The store fronts that weren’t boarded up became loan shops, adult bookstores, etc. “But just like in Fort Wayne, there were these big public facilities,” Davis says. “A big theater, The Palace, very similar to The Embassy. The art museum, the history center… all those things were still downtown.” Manchester also had a branch of the University of New Hampshire in town.

In response, a group of bankers — including the president of the Bank of New Hampshire, who was the chairman of Intown Manchester Management, Inc. the organization Davis lead — along with the City of Manchester established a loan fund for emerging businesses and undertook to clean up the “look” of downtown, planting trees, cleaning up the city, creating lighting and signage. “We had funds from the city to help with something that the city of Fort Wayne is already doing, which is this matching grant program for facades,” Davis says. They also created a stable of experts to help new business owners get started. “It’s not enough to just move in and just tape an ‘open’ sign on your front window,” Davis continues. “You need interior renovation, the signage, the lighting. We had a small fund for tenant assistance, a stable of architecture, graphic, engineering where it was needed… every kind of help we could give to people, we did. Just whatever it took. The point of the exercise is you do whatever it takes to help a small business owner open that establishment they’ve always dreamed of.”

Davis would like to establish something similar for downtown Fort Wayne (which is in far better shape than Manchester was when Davis took on the job in 1996). For the past several years, the Downtown Improvement District has concentrated on creating events to draw people downtown, usually collaborating with other businesses and organizations in the area. But it has also served an important pro-business function, a role Davis wants to expand. “Fortunately, in Fort Wayne, you actually have very good planning and development capability in the city,” he says. “Our job here is to make sure people have the information they need to get to the city. Find the right space, and get the help they need to get into that space.”

Harrison Square is just a piece of the puzzle — a big , expensive piece, but something that, if handled right, can be leveraged to help local businesses establish a presence downtown. “It’s simply an opportunity for us to do the match-making and do the kind of granular kind of work you need to do to get good entrepreneurs, local and unique entrepreneurial kinds of businesses into our downtown street fronts, to make the case for downtown as the region’s premier office center,” he says.

“You have fantastic amenities downtown. You’ve got places where singles can live, a tremendous ball park you can walk to, a great bike system… Those are the kind of things that can help Fort Wayne elevate its position as a competitor in the global market place everybody is so concerned about.”

However, Harrison Square and its imminent opening is serving as a sort of motivator for the Downtown Improvement District and other organizations in town. Davis says there are a number of things Fort Wayne could do to improve downtown — some of them simple (see the sidebar), others that will require a little more thought and planning, but are far from impossible.

Of the latter, it’s traffic issues that interest him most. Between Washington and Jefferson, downtown Fort Wayne has 10 lanes of traffic flying through town. We only have an average daily traffic of about 30,000 cars. Basically, we’re designed to be a city 10 times our size, we’re designed to carry more traffic than Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Major arterial roads aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but if we’re trying to create a more pedestrian friendly environment downtown, we should look at ways to slow that traffic down. It’s not just a “walkability” issue; it’s a safety issue. “The safety issues I’m concerned about have to do with people and cars trying to use the same space,” Davis says. “I’m concerned more about the people standing at the curb on Jefferson or Washington, with an 18-wheeler rolling by at 40 miles per hour in a lane six inches away.”

But Davis says the logistical issues we need to deal with are going to make downtown Fort Wayne a friendlier place overall, not just for playing ball. “Wrapping around all that is a larger and more fun project, which is a community celebration. Talking to people in other downtown organizations, I’m pleased to hear the various ways in which people are thinking about how we can really step up what we’re doing as individual organizations to be part of this larger downtown experience,” Davis says. “We only have about eight months left until the first pitch. Time is short, and that’s a good thing because it really focuses our minds.”

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