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Game time

The pressure is on the D.I.D.’s Dan Carmody to deliver

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2006-04-24


It’s an election year in Fort Wayne, and everywhere you go, you can see campaign signs from candidates for public office, begging for your attention in the upcoming primaries. But right now, there are probably few public figures in Fort Wayne that come to a job under more scrutiny and with more expectations than Dan Carmody.

Carmody was named the director of the Downtown Improvement District last year. His mission, as he sees it, is to lead an organization whose job is to “…wake up every morning trying to figure out how to get more retail, more office, more food and beverage, more housing, downtown.”

Carmody’s appointment comes at a time when the public’s attitude about downtown revitalization seems to have reached new levels of exasperation. Ideas? We’ve got plenty of ideas. For supposedly being a city packed with morons, we’re practically drowning in good ideas about downtown. What we’re short on these days is patience.

You might be encouraged to hear that Carmody feels your pain. “Downtown has been over planned and under implemented for years,” he says. “Every time there’s a new plan announced, it sets a level of expectation, and when it’s not implemented, it’s a let down. So, people are very cynical and sarcastic about the opportunities downtown, because we’ve had these multiple planning processes that have been… inconsistently implemented. I think it’s a shared frustration that’s understandable.”

And Carmody knows how frustrating downtown development can be, and how turning it around can be a long, long process. Before taking the position at the D.I.D., he spent 18 years as the head of Renaissance Rock Island. Its mission: revitalize downtown Rock Island, IL. “ It started out with one person and a budget of $70,000, and ended with a staff of 14 and a core operating budget over $3 million,” he says.

Before that, he played a different sort of role in the revitalization of downtown Rock Island — he owned several food and beverage establishments with his brother and father. For the record, Rock Island is one of the “Quad Cities,” a group of mid-sized Midwest cities flanking the Mississippi River in Iowa and Illinois, once thriving manufacturing communities that took an economic hit when International Harvester left town. Sound familiar? “We share a lot of the same issues with regard to reinventing ourselves… and trying to figure out how we fit in to a much different future than our immediate past,” Carmody says.

Carmody took the job of director at Fort Wayne’s Downtown Improvement District because he was “ready for a new challenge, and Fort Wayne seemed like an exciting opportunity.”

But adding to Carmody’s challenge is that he’s taking over an organization that’s role, previously, has seemed a little difficult to define. The Downtown Improvement District began in 1995, and initially encompassed Superior on the north, Jefferson on the south, Webster on the west and Lafayette on the east (though it “bubbled out” in a few instances to include places like the Embassy Centre). The D.I.D.’s basic mission back then was “beautification,” with a secondary focus on marketing and economic development.

As the organization grew, its secondary mission took the spotlight. Funding for the D.I.D. comes partly from an annual assessment voluntarily paid by downtown property owners based on property value. It’s basically a self-imposed tax. “A state law had been passed that allowed them to form this district where they basically taxed themselves,” says Allen County Council President Paula Hughes, who was the D.I.D.’s first full-time director. “It’s a special taxing district so the district’s annual assessment is collected along with a property tax bill. Only the people in the district who benefit from the activities (of the D.I.D.) are taxed.”

When the D.I.D. was formed, all property owners — both residential and commercial — paid the annual assessment, but that eventually changed to just commercial owners. “What some of the residential property owners wanted for downtown was different than what the commercial property owners wanted, so there was almost an inevitable conflict between the ideals that they both strove for,” Hughes says. “ They wanted their property values to stabilize and go up — that everyone agreed on — but they disagreed on what the priorities should be to get us there.”

Just last year, the D.I.D. expanded its boundaries to include Clay street on the east, the railroad tracks on the south, the river on the north and St Joe’s hospital to the west. It also redefined its role. “I think we need to move from planning to detailed strategy about how to reestablish market share in some of these core industries that build downtown on a day-to-day basis,” Carmody says. “That’s what I perceive the work of the D.I.D. to be. Not necessarily doing the big stuff, because we don’t have a big budget, but doing a lot of little things that helps prepare the way for big projects and most importantly helps leverage those big projects with small projects that happen because DID’s out there working.”

This entails the public and private sector working closely together. Not that they’re working badly together now; Carmody just thinks there needs to be more correlation between some major public investments and how it impacts some of the important markets and services downtown. “The public sector has made a huge investment downtown and continues to make a huge investment,” he says. “$100 million between the Grand Wayne Center and the expansion of the library. That’s a lot of dollars in public venues, and that’s important to downtown that those investments get made. It’s also important that we do a better job at leveraging those dollars to get more private sector investment to happen.”

Of course, the decline of downtown didn’t happen overnight. It took 40 years for downtown to get to where it is today, and it’s not likely that it’s suddenly going to turn around in a year. Former D.I.D. director Paula Hughes says that many people think that there’s a “silver bullet” that’s going to do the trick for downtown, when what’s needed is a tremendous amount of patience and partnership. “No one project or idea is going to revolutionize our downtown,” she says. “It is going to take a very focused, coordinated effort, bringing a lot of projects together, to get to the goal that we have as a community.”
The good news is that Fort Wayne’s downtown is starting off in a pretty good place, for a couple reasons. The first is that it’s better than it was 10 or 15 years ago. “There’s very little blight downtown,” Carmody says. “It’s very clean, it’s safe, values are not rising but they’re not falling either. For a lot of downtowns that would be an improvement for where they are right now.”

And the second thing is that, despite the frustration many feel when they hear about another big idea, another plan, another proposed study, people still seem to care. “There’s a lot of passion to see a successful downtown,” Carmody says. “Look at the people who have done their own planning. I joke that every time I open the newspaper, someone’s got a new plan for downtown.”

Even better, Carmody has a sketchy time frame. “I think you should start to see significant fruit 2 – 3 years out,” he says. “Then, in a 3 – 5 year time frame, you’ve built a team and really have momentum going. Sustain that, and after 7 – 10 years, people look back and get excited at where you’ve come.”

The three keys to a successful downtown are office space, housing, and restaurant/retail. Of the three, Fort Wayne’s downtown office space is in the best shape, though Carmody thinks we could do a better job marketing that.

As far as downtown housing goes, Carmody says that some of the biggest markets in the country (Chicago, Philidelphia) have seen a boom in urban housing in the last decade, fuelled by traffic congestion, lengthy commute times in suburban areas, and shrinking family size. Fort Wayne isn’t exactly troubled by long commutes and congestion (we like to complain about traffic here, but really, we’re spoiled) but offering convenient downtown housing is important for another reason: according to countless studies, that’s the kind of environment that many recent college graduates — the educated, motivated “creative class” types that communities spend so much energy trying to attract and retain — are looking for (that’s the common wisdom, at least). “What I like about mid-sized metropolitan areas is that if we could build a good urban neighborhood, people moving to Fort Wayne could have that option,” Carmody says. “They could live in rural areas, quality suburban neighborhoods, or a lively urban setting. Now we can only offer two of those lifestyles, and I think it’s important for this community to be able to offer that third option.”

That third option helps build a day-to-day base for restaurants and retail, which is the most difficult element of a successful downtown to establish, but also probably the most essential. But even in this area, Carmody believes Fort Wayne has a strength we haven’t really explored yet. “Fort Wayne actually has a very lively and successful local restaurant core, much more so than many metropolitan areas this size,” he says. “There are a lot more destination restaurants than destination retail in Fort Wayne. I think the food and beverage side and the housing side are probably early steps we can take to put more action on the street and help fill those store fronts.”

Action on the street and filling those store fronts is what it comes down to, and could solve a lot of smaller complaints people have about downtown, like parking. The truth is, you could probably fit the template of downtown into the parking lot of a Super Wal-Mart, but nobody complains about that hike, because they can see their destination. For downtown, it’s not so much the distance, it’s making the walk more interesting. “I think it (downtown) needs more of that storefront activity,” Carmody says. “If everyone could close their eyes say what would a successful downtown look like, it would mean there would be crowded sidewalks and busy storefronts. I think if we achieved that, people would say downtown is successful.”

“Now, the $64 question is how do we achieve that? How do we get there from having not busy sidewalks and not very many store fronts. And how do you build on surface parking lots when it costs on the order of $18 - $20/square foot to build that space, when maybe the businesses can pay $7 or $8/square foot? That’s where we need to get creative and work in close cooperation between the public and private sector.”

As I write this, it was recently announced that that much-talked-about new hotel has once again made the leap from the site of Cindy’s Diner, over the newly expanded Grand Wayne Center, back to the site of Belmont Liquors, where it was last year about this time. Yesterday, the sign out in front of Belmont Liquors read “Future Home of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Today, it reads “Future Home of the Fort Wayne International Airport.”

The Downtown Improvement District has its work cut out for it.

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