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Accentuate the positive…

And always look on the bright side. FWR takes a look at a few things you like about Fort Wayne

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2005-02-07


Last issue, we gathered a few of the gripes people had about Fort Wayne, and explored them a little further. We talked about lack of all-ages concert venues, the fact that it takes forever for non-mainstream movies to get here, and the old fort just sitting there, among other things. We’ve also heard a few new gripes since then.

But fair is fair: we’ve done the bad, and now we’re going to look at some of the things you like about this living in this city.

To be honest, we weren’t sure what kind of responses we would get. We were afraid that they would be boring. It’s always more fun to complain about things. Ask people what they don’t like, and you’ll usually get a pretty passionate response; ask people what they do like, and many of them will get all wishy-washy.

As it turns out, we got some interesting responses. Sure, there are some of the obvious ones, but then again, we got one or two that hadn’t occurred to us before. We have to warn you though: many of these positive traits were followed with the qualifier “… for a town this size.”


Cost of Living/Housing
We all have friends who live in “the Big City,” whether that city is Chicago, New York, Los Angeles… pick your major metropolitan area. We’ll even throw Indianapolis in there. When you’re talking to these people, the topic of “how-much-you’re-paying-to-live-in-the-place-you’re-living” will come up at some point. Tell them what you’re paying in Fort Wayne. Whether you own a home or you rent, they’ll either think you’re putting them on, or that your domicile lacks some of the basic amenities of early 21st century living in the Western world — like electricity and indoor plumbing.

Scott Naltner, Executive Vice President of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance, says cost of living plays a part in bringing businesses to Fort Wayne, though not as big as you might think. “It’s a miniscule slice of what we talk about,” he says. “Obviously, the cost of living is awesome around here, and housing is a part of that. Does it stand out as a deal breaker? I think it’s probably one of the reasons they’re looking here in the first place.”

As far as business wanting to set up shop here, Natlner says Fort Wayne “shows very well. There’s a lot of growth growing on.”

Affordable housing may only be a small slice of the incentive pie, but according to Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance, the median price range for a house in Fort Wayne is in the low 90K range — not too bad, especially when you compare us to some of the country’s biggest cities. But that’s the thing: we’re not in the same league as the country’s biggest cities, which means it’s not what you’re paying for where you live that’s the important point, it’s (a) what you get for your money; and (b) what the community offers.

Betty Sue Rowe is a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Roth Wehrly Graber in Fort Wayne who works with a lot of out-of-town clients. “It does your heart good, how they feel when they come into town,” Rowe says. She adds they’re usually pretty pleased with how much house they can get for the price, but it’s all the amenities that the community offers that seals the deal with her customers. She says they’re surprised by the restaurants, by the schools, by the arts community… “ Recently, I had two doctors from Toledo, Ohio, and they’re just amazed by what we have to offer,” she says. “I have a doctor coming from San Francisco and he’s just thrilled that he could secure something in this price range. He’s absolutely blown away.”

And the #1 amenity? “It’s the people here, don’t you think?” Rowe says. “They’re very accommodating.”

More on that later…


The Arts
We have the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. We have the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. We have the Lincoln Museum. We have Youtheatre and Civic Theater and the First Presbyterian Theater and the Fort Wayne Ballet. We have a decent number of galleries and a heck of a lot of artists doing enough quality work to fill them… And all that’s just some of the “mainstream” stuff. Look around, and you’ll realize we have a pretty substantial arts community for (say it with me now) a city our size.

But so what? What’s the big deal? Sure, maybe Michigan City doesn’t have an orchestra, but is that really important?

Yes, it is. Usually, when you ask someone why “the Arts” are important to a city, you get a lot of what are called intangibles. You’ll hear how a strong arts scene improves the quality of life in a community, etc. Which is all well, good, and true. But we’re Midwesterners. We like things we can grab on to. Geoff Gephardt, President of Arts United, a private, non-profit organization that helps fund various arts organizations in Fort Wayne, is refreshingly straightforward about why the arts benefits a community.

“We are a community that is not blessed with a lot of natural attributes, so we have to sort of manufacture whatever it is that will make us special,” Gephardt says. “For the last 50 years or so, Fort Wayne has done a great job of manufacturing an exceptional arts community that sets it apart from other communities its size. Why does it mean anything? The arts community attracts people to our city. They spend money, which helps the economy. The arts also benefit the educational system. There’s no doubt that students who use the arts as a basis for learning are smarter, more engaged, and stay in school. It helps make our kids smarter students and eventually better citizens.”

The arts don’t just bring money into the city; Gephardt sites a 1997 study that shows how the organizations who are members of Arts United contributed over 16 million dollars annually to the local economy and supported nearly 900 full-time jobs.

The trickle down isn’t strictly economic. “There’s no question that the more formal or established arts organizations in town provide impetus and support for the individual artists who work here,” he adds. “There are artists making a living in this community as artists, and that’s extremely rare.”

Great education opportunities for working adults
This came up a lot, and while we never necessarily thought of Fort Wayne as a hotbed of higher education, once we started sniffing around, we discovered something interesting. There are plenty of working adults in this town going back to school for their Bachelor’s or Master’s degree, or to just add a skill or two to their resume, and many of the schools in the area are doing everything they can to make it easy for someone already juggling work and family to add school to the mix.

“We take registration over the phone, we call them before classes start, we send them a map, we have the books in the classroom so we don’t have to go to the bookstore,” says Joyce Preest, Manager of Continuing Education at Ivy Tech. She jokes, “My husband calls it babying. I call it accommodating.”

Preest adds that a lot of classes meet in the evenings, some on Saturdays, and there are even a few all-day classes for people who want to get the basics of, say, a new computer program in one fell swoop. “We try to appeal to their needs and their hours,” Preest says.

Appealing to their needs and their hours is a common theme. Greg Craghead of Indiana Tech (IIT) says that people pursing an Associate’s, Master’s or Bachelor’s degree can take advantage of Indiana Tech’s accelerated degree program. It’s an intensive schedule, with classes meeting one evening a week for five weeks (six weeks for master’s program), with nine sessions a year. But the students seem to enjoy it. “These are for working adults with families. It just makes it more accommodating,” says Craghead. “We have a lot of people who have been in business or the professional world for a while. They’re running into some hurdles or roadblocks, and the way to remove that is to finish their degree.”

Dan Hoeye, a student at Indiana Tech studying for a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Business with a minor in marketing, works full-time, has a family, and went back to school to finish up the college degree he had started before leaving to work. He says programs like Indiana Tech’s make it easy to go back. “The classes are only one night a week,” he says. “You can double up on classes if you want to, but even with a schedule like mine, you can figure out one night a week. They also send you your books, so about a week or two ahead of your next class, you get all your books and your syllabus. That’s great, because as a working adult, there’s no way you’d have time to go to the bookstore in the middle of the day.”

Hoeye adds that most of the people in his classes are, like him, already in careers at some level, and are going for another degree. This was true of many people we heard from. Whether they were going for another degree, or just taking a course for their own edification and to “get their mind working again” (as one person we talked to put it), they said there was plenty of opportunity to do that in Fort Wayne. (And the men’s glossies say we’re stoopid).


“People here are really nice.”
Oh yeah? Tell that to the jerk who rang up FWR towers last week just to shout “you suck” before slamming the phone down (blocked call, of course).

We didn’t want to touch this one. How do you measure “nice?” What is “nice?” We assume, in this context, “nice” means friendly and polite in a general, unobtrusive, non-showy way. It means that if you ask a civil question, you’ll get a civil answer. It might also mean a perfect stranger helps you push your car out of a snow bank, says “you’re welcome,” and goes on his way. But how do you measure something like that? Are the people in Fort Wayne really any “nicer” than any other place you could name?

So, we didn’t want to touch it. But it kept coming up: “people are nice here. Really. It’s the people.” We turned to social psychologist Dr. Jay Jackson, Associate Professor of Psychology at IPFW, to see if there could be more at work here than just our perception. Does the assertion that people here are “nice” have any basis in reality?

“Ummm… that’s not an area I’ve really seen much on,” says Dr. Jackson. “I know the stereotype of Midwesterners being polite, or Southerners being polite. I don’t know if there’s been any studies on that. It wouldn’t surprise me if there’s a kernel of truth to the stereotype, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if the stereotype is exaggerated.”

Jackson points out that negative stereotypes about surly New Yorkers or flakey Californians are probably overexaggerated. “And people see their own traits in different ways,” Jackson explains. “We might see them as flakey, they might see themselves as innovative. We might see ourselves as nice, other people might see us as a gullible or…”

“Simpletons?”

“Well, maybe…”

Though Jackson says he hasn’t seen any studies that attempt to quantify the personality traits of a population in a particular area (and he can’t really see a reliable way to do that), he says there might be something to the phenomenon from a social identity perspective. Everyone has a self-concept, which includes your individual traits, like being a male, 5’9” with brown hair, etc. But part of your self-concept also includes your group identity. “So, for example, I’m a Midwesterner, and I want to think good of the group I belong to because it’s a reflection of who I am,” says Dr. Jackson. “There’s a natural human tendency to have a positive self-conceptualization, and there’s a strong tendency for people to want to see their groups as having positive qualities relative to other groups.”

We might concede we have negative traits, but generally, we’ll think that the positive traits are more important overall; for example, we may not be sophisticated, but we have higher moral values, or we may be slow, but we’re reliable. Of course, all this varies depending on how much we identify with our group at any given time, or even what situation we’re in. If you were visiting a foreign country, you might identify more with being an English-speaker, for example.

But self-perception is one thing, reality is another, and here’s where they might cross. If you have a perception of your group as being comprised of people who help strangers jump start their car, or give clear directions, or let people with fewer items in their shopping cart go ahead of you in the line at the grocery store so they don’t have to wait, you might be more inclined to behave that way, too. “You act in a way that is expected of you in your group,” Jackson says.

So, basically, we might be “nice” here because we don’t want to be jerks “like those other guys.”

Heady stuff. “I don’t know if there’s a real way of quantifying the ‘niceness’ of a culture,” Jackson says when I keep bugging him. “There probably is a way you could do it. Are we more altruistic? Do we give more to charity? Maybe you could sort of do a pencil and paper measure… I don’t know…”

I ended the interview soon afterwards. I may not be too bright, but I can take a hint.

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