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The Tax Plan for the Riverfront

By Jim Sack

Fort Wayne Reader


The vote on a tax increase to pay for riverfront development will be a watershed moment in the history of Fort Wayne, one of those “to be or not to be, to progress or stand pat” moments.

In context, Dr. John Crawford has proposed a method to fund the second and third phases of Riverfront construction, not to mention build miles of sidewalks and repair sagging alleys.

His proposal was heralded a couple months back in a news conference where three other councilmen stood by his side, along with the mayor and a few other community leaders. The announcement was mirrored on June 13th with many the same players and embellished with more details, including a map showing the scores of sidewalk/alley projects.

To be sure, the proposal was forged by Dr. Crawford in conjunction with the Henry Administration and many other community leaders in order to secure the $100 million over 10 years to finish Phases Two and Three of “Promenade Park.”

Meanwhile, the opposition is stiffening and coalescing around State Representative Bob Morris and three city councilmen, Jason Arp, Russ Jehl, and Paul Ensley who is an employee of Mr. Morris. They are courting first-termer Michael Barranda and Councilman Geoff Paddock.

The ordinance will be introduced late this month with public hearings on the 27th of June and 11th of July at 5:30pm.

In discussions with councilmen, none argues the riverfront project should be scrapped. If you remember the Legacy process of a few years ago, nearly a thousand proposals were offered for the redevelopment of the city with Legacy funding. Of the thousand projects, the riverfront, came in at the very top of the list. In fact, it has been near the top of the list for over 100 years since David Foster and Georg Kessler envisioned Fort Wayne as a city in a park with broad boulevards, river parks, scenic overlooks, and a central park at the confluence. Foster gave us his eponymous park as a down payment on that dream.

So, the question is not whether to build a fancy-smancy waterfront system of promenades, lemonade stands, zip lines and plazas, but how to pay for it.

Initial funding has come from the Legacy Fund, as well as some city funds, Parks money and generous foundations and individuals. The funds for Phase One are in hand and groundbreaking is scheduled for June 29th..

But, the full river front project will cost upwards of $100 to $150 million with ongoing expenses and yet unforeseen projects over the coming decade. It is an expensive and long project.

Dr. Crawford proposes a $70 a year income tax on a $50k family. In short, we will all pay something. There is substantial, although unquantified, community support for the project.

The tax revenue would also fund miles of sidewalks connecting schools with neighborhoods, repairing swaths of dilapidated sidewalks and alleys. Currently, repair of both alleys and sidewalks are the financial responsibility of adjacent property owners. This will now migrate to the tax rolls.

Dr. Crawford also promised that the tax will be legally restricted to pay for sidewalks and alleys long after the riverfront is full constructed.

Dr. Crawford’s proposal is simple and direct. Opposition, meanwhile, is led by Morris who has formed an ad hoc group, and in the three councilmen. Unless they offer a solid, workable alternative they are simply obstructionists.

As for the opposition, Mr. Arp and Mr. Ensley generally vote against any use of tax dollars for all but baseline essentials. Mr. Barranda argues a broader mix of funds would be preferable, prefers an increase of .10 as opposed to .15, but has offered no formula in support. Mr. Jehl sees rising property values yielding sufficient surplus to future city budgets as a way to build the riverfront, in addition to millions flowing into the Community Investment Board through the food and beverage tax.

Mr. Crawford and others counter that time is of the essence, that we currently have momentum, that there is an upbeat, can-do attitude, and in order to move Fort Wayne forward even more dramatically takes bold action, namely all of us anteing up. “Strike while the iron is hot” might be their campaign slogan.

And a campaign it has become. Just ask the councilmen. They are being bombarded in a way reminiscent of the tussle that presaged approval of the ballpark. Dr. Crawford, you may or may not remember, cast the sixth vote on the ballpark, putting it well over the top. He was excoriated by the local right and lost his re-election bid for that vote and his leadership in ridding restaurants of cigarette smoke. He was right on both counts.

Years ago David Foster — Foster Park-Foster, the founder of the Park Board, the builder of boulevards and city parks — had a vision for Fort Wayne that included development of the riverfront and a grand park at the confluence, but back in 1914 a truly stingy city council turned down a modest funding request for what was a revolutionary concept and would have made Fort Wayne comparable to great European cities with grand plazas showcasing our great buildings, and our greatest asset, the rivers. Headwaters Park, his dream, was finally built in the late 80s-90s, thanks to Win Moses, Paul Helmke, John Shoaff, and the late Eric Kuhne. It took a recalcitrant Fort Wayne 60 years to get that project done.

So, we have before us the opportunity to write another chapter in our community’s history that will be read by generations to come. The question is should that chapter read that we so favored our community and our children’s children that we voted for progress, or instead chose the alternative of delayed maintenance, and delayed development of our greatest asset, the reason we are all here, the rivers. See you the 27th and 11th.

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