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River, Rail, and Trail at TEDxFort Wayne

Headwaters Junction’s project manager Kelly Lynch gave a speech at TEDxFortWayne on the need to start challenging the “what’s in it for me?” mentality “with a shift to making imaginative and authentic investments – fusing arts and culture, trails and rivers, historical cornerstones and inspiring considerations of who we can become.” Below is the original text from the presentation.

These days, I try to really only do two things: tell compelling stories through visual mediums and physical places. My great passion is storytelling, and I’ve come to love Fort Wayne’s story, and I especially love where it’s at now, because it’s become a choose your own adventure story.

In the last few years I’ve been fortunate to stumble into an ongoing conversation on how to grow, change, and elevate Fort Wayne. There’s talk about trails, a downtown arts campus, riverfront development, passenger rail, economic development organizations working together. All of these efforts have specific niches and focuses, but ultimately one goal: to improve our quality of life.

I came into these conversations because of my work with a local non-profit called the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, which maintain an iconic piece of Fort Wayne — a steam locomotive preserved for its role in opening the downtown railroad overpass in the 1950s, which at the time was a major economic development project that inspired city growth northward for the remainder of the century. This locomotive has taught me the city’s story and part of how I ended up here was my desire to tell and share that story. Because it’s wild – a city with its own steam locomotive! It’s only happened a handful of other times around the country. This locomotive inspired a vision called Headwaters Junction, which would combine river, tourist rail, and trail development into an attraction on the North River property that is experiential, romantic, and uniquely Fort Wayne. Four years ago I barged into the city county building and said “I’m a 23 year old kid and what does anyone in this town do with an idea?” And here I am.

And these conversations that I’ve been involved with are powerful, inspiring, and also vexing. Many of the topics of these conversations – riverfronts, trails, rail resurgence, culture, arts – are similar, but they remain adjacent to each other. They remain to be interwoven. And that’s a problem, because though these things are physically separate most of the time, they remain separate in action, planning, implementation, and visioning.

Early on in 2008 when I barged into these talks, I found that there were some in Fort Wayne with shiny-object syndrome. They wanted carbon copies of what was successful for other cities, almost like they could just drag and drop a big box retailer or entertainment district from another city and it would work just as well here. Some people have advocated waterparks, but here we want to develop our rivers. What will a waterpark say about Fort Wayne that we can’t say with something that is entirely our own to begin with?

When I first started thinking on the subject of rivers, rails, and trails, I spoke with someone tightly involved with passenger rail development. And he asked me what trails had to do with rails. And that’s the problem: they can have everything to do with each other. They need each other. They need each others visions and supporters. If the trail supporters only continue to appeal to bike owners, the rest of the population will shrug and say “what’s in it for me?” And its the same for every group, every niche.

Today we’re addressing our big problem: a negative self-perception – a perception that has some intimidating, unimaginative walls to break down. And an fundamental piece of that perception is an entitlement mentality: “What’s in it for me?” does not do a community any favors. It is a detrimentally conservative outlook (and thanks to my friend Alex Smith for the phrase.)

Another example of this perception issue is one that’s not necessarily negative, but limiting, and certainly conservative. During the Legacy Fort Wayne meetings one of the committee members wanted to table a proposal from the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, as it was, in their words, “not downtown” — an area on which the Legacy Task Force ultimately decided would become a target for potential funding.

I couldn’t believe it. Why wouldn’t you want to make the Zoo part of the downtown experience? This doesn’t mean you bring the animals downtown on parade, or physically move the zoo, but at least consider ways to make it part of downtown, at least perceptually. Why wouldn’t we want to tie into one of Northeast Indiana’s biggest attractions? Why ignore an asset because it’s just two miles from downtown?

Speaking of assets, take our rivers, historically significant as they are. We wouldn’t be here without them. And then there are the rails; we were strengthened into what we became by the railroads. And we are now traversed by trails. These are assets from our past, present, and future, and they are powerful enough to be combined in thought, in perception, in planning, in action. In a compelling narrative about who we are, what we want to become. And ultimately we need to be ourselves and be awesome at being like us.

What does a riverfront in Fort Wayne mean for the region? What do trails mean to people who don’t own bikes? Many have questions why our downtown needs to be meaningful to the region. And there are good statistics that can support the need for a lively urban core and nightlife, but maybe we need to sell the story of an emerging, brimming-with-potential-Fort-Wayne a little better than we are now. The retail visions of our city aren’t always surviving the negative perceptions. We need something more powerful. We have always been a place where we do and make great things. And now we need to get better at telling our own story.

What could a city that communicates its story effectively, romantically, authentically, and visually accomplish? Right now there are countless good groups working on critical retail visions for the city — arts campuses, downtown schools, riverfronts, cultural attractions — but we need to rethink how to create and promote a wholesale vision of the city, too. One that is unmistakable, undeniable.

And we need to change that sense of entitlement into ownership. A key component is not to just inspire with visions and speeches and designs, but inspire with some vexation and some anger. Let’s get mad, collectively, because it can’t just be the same three people in the same old room talking about problems and solutions. More people need to be having these conversations. We need to bust the doors off the church and stop preaching to the choir.

“What’s in it for me?” is just an excuse for not bothering to find out for yourself. It needs to become more “Why not us, too?” Maybe Fort Wayne’s lost its swagger because so many perceptions have allowed it to happen. The growth of our story deserves more than indifference, it demands audience participation, too.

A knowledge-based economy should be enriched by perspective, and perspective influences value. People don’t value what they don’t know or understand. And the more people learn, the more they should get mad enough to understand what these quality of life projects mean for everyone, not just the target audience or select few.

Did you know that in addition to being a railroad mecca 60 years ago, you could get on a train at baker street and go 120 miles an hour. In 1940. On a train that runs on steam. That sort of perspective should see the way the city was once, the potential it has now, and the way our city could be.

Why not us, too? Why not us again?

We need to stop simply telling our story, we need to show it, live it. We need to be better story makers, not just storytellers. A good narrative weaves together different, opposing plot lines and characters, and engages the reader. A good storyteller knows the backgrounds of its settings and characters. Our background is sexy. Our characters undulate with swagger.

What I’m advocating is not a new group, or organization to promote this idea. All it is an attitude renewal. Lets dust off the soapbox, remake the platform, start a campaign, and not just inspire, but carry out a vision, a broad one not limited to a bird’s eye view, but expansive and rich at 32,000 feet. And why not start with the rivers, rails, and trails.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • danee says:

    Yes to authenticity. Yes to getting angry. Yes to loving Fort Wayne’s story. But, most of all, yes to choosing the next chapter by being better story makers. Great post!