FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – From downtown development to a Republican-dominated city council to public safety, Mayor Tom Henry is looking back at the past year and planning ahead to 2016. He sat down with NewsChannel 15 Tuesday afternoon and covered everything from the Ash Project to the biggest lessons learned during his eight years in office.
There have of course been ups and downs during that time, but Henry thinks the city is now in a great place.
“To see people begin to believe in themselves and beginning to walk with a little bit of swagger because Fort Wayne is the talk of the state right now with the stuff that we’ve been doing, that’s been neat to see and to experience,” Mayor Tom Henry said.
2015 proved to be a very busy and demanding year for Henry as he campaigned for and eventually won a third term in office.
“Campaign years are always tough. No matter if you’re running for city council or mayor or governor or whatever, it takes a lot of time and it takes you away from your family. So, it’s quite a commitment running for office. To try to juggle that with running the city sometimes was rather stressful. It was long days, but it was well worth it,” Henry said.
With the parking garage nearly complete, the Ash Project made significant gains in the past year. Henry expects the first phase of the garage to open within the next month. The spots designated for public parking should be ready to go sometime in the spring. Several businesses have announced plans to move in, but there is still no word on the residential component.
“We’re still working on that. I know I sound like a broken record when I say that, but it’s been very important to me and to the administration to make sure that every I is dotted and every T is crossed before we commit to spending taxpayers’ dollars. This is a very complex project. It’s about a $40 million project, and we’ve had several developers interested in it. We’re now down to one that we’re very interested in, but we have to make sure that he has the financial wherewithal to be able to take this to completion. I want to make sure that he’s got the finances in place or enough guarantees and commitments by others or by financial institutions to raise my comfort level enough to be able to say to the citizens of Fort Wayne we have a project, we have a developer that’s going to take place in downtown Fort Wayne and it’s going to be there for the betterment of our community. Until I’m satisfied, I cannot go any further,” Henry said.
Riverfront development is also a big priority for Henry, but said it’s still in the planning and property acquisition phases.
“I don’t think you’re going to see much construction in the next year because we have a lot of land to be cleared. We have buildings to buy. Those buildings have to be demolished. The property has to be prepared. So, there’s a lot of bridges that have to be crossed before in order to make sure that the next level of development which would be the boardwalk, the promenade, and the buildings themselves, that all of that’s ready to go. So, it’s probably going to take a year or 18 months to get all of that ready,” Henry said.
While Henry, a Democrat, beat Republican Mitch Harper to win the mayoral seat, Fort Wayne’s City Council is a different story. Seven of the nine seats are now held by Republicans, with four of the members new to their positions. Immediately following the election, Henry said he planned to meet with the new members as soon as possible. It’s a promise he’s fulfilled.
“I’ve shared with them some of my vision for the city and some of my goals and aspirations for the community. They’ve shared with me some of theirs. For the most part, we agree with where we want to take the city. Unquestionably, there will be some periods of discussion and debate on certain issues, but that’s okay. I think that form of checks and balances is fine. What it’s going to do more than anything is to make me really be able to prove to them financially and otherwise that the direction we want to take the city is the right direction,” Henry said.
With 27 homicides on the books for the city in 2015 compared to 14 in 2014, the crime rate is up. Henry said the numbers are frustrating, but not completely unexpected.
“I don’t know if we’re ever going to get them a lot lower. If you take a look at the past ten years in the city of Fort Wayne, unfortunately 24-27 is about the average. We had a very good year in 2014. We had a spike in 2013. It does go up and down, but if you look at it, that’s about our average for a city of about 250,000 people. We never want any homicides, but unfortunately, in the world that we live in, there are going to be tragic situations that occur. I think our police department is doing the best they can do. We do have certain elements in this community that cause us some grave concern, but I think that our police department is very well aware of that and I think that our partnerships with the county police and state police, FBI, and other agencies, we try to stay on top of it as best we can,” Henry said.
Public safety is one of Henry’s top priorities as he heads into the new year.
“One of the areas I’m very concerned about is public safety, especially in light of what’s going on in our country today. Almost every mayor is very sensitive to that, and I’m no different. We have to make sure that we have an adequate police force and fire department to meet the needs of our community,” Henry said.
Another major project during the last couple of years has focused on neighborhood infrastructure, a component Henry thinks will help lower the crime rate around the city.
“The nicer you can make neighborhoods, the better they feel about themselves. The better they feel about themselves, the more protective they become of their respective neighborhoods. The better that they feel, the higher the pride, the stronger the neighborhood association, so it’s kind of a domino-type thing. So, we have to make sure that we address infrastructure because of what can happen as a result of that. To have over $60 million invested in the community’s infrastructure over a three year period is unheard of, but we decided to do it and we’ve been doing it and we’ll get it finished,” Henry said.
As for the biggest challenge in the year ahead, Henry said it will be getting all of the major players invested and involved in developing the south part of town.
“We realized that we needed to invest in the south part of our city, that it had been neglected for too long not necessarily by the city, we’ve put a lot of money in the south part of the town. But, the private sector has had a hard time realizing the potential that we have in the south part of town. There is disposable income out there. There is a desire for additional retail and hospitality and business investment, but it’s never really taken off. So, I think that my biggest challenge as the mayor and my administration’s biggest challenge is to convince the private sector to invest in the south part of our town, that it’s got a tremendous amount of potential, but we need to have that investment,” Henry said.
When it comes to what Henry is most looking forward to in 2016, downtown development again tops the list.
“I think changing the skyline of downtown. We’ve worked very hard to make downtown Fort Wayne something different, something unique, something exciting, and I think that we’re going to see a lot of that take place in ’16 and some additional development as well. I think that can do nothing, but add to the value of our city,” Henry said.
Aside from looking at the past year and looking ahead to the year ahead, NewsChannel 15 also asked Henry questions about his time overall in office, like his biggest regret so far.
“Probably one of the regrets I have is that I can’t do more. Mayors are limited a lot of times in what they can do either for financial reasons or legislative reasons. You can’t always do what you want to do, and that hurts. When people come into my office or I meet them walking through neighborhoods or the emails that I get, there are always needs in our community. Many of them, there’s nothing I can do, and it’s hard to tell people no. I know their problem is very real, and it’s a need that they have and that they’re very passionate about, but sometimes I have to tell them no and that’s hard. That’s probably the hardest part of the job,” Henry said. “If your skin gets so thick that it doesn’t bother you, then you shouldn’t be in that position. You need to be constantly sensitive and constantly aware of what’s going on in the community as far as social ills. You need to be compassionate and understand what people are going through when they have a particular need or desire. It has to hurt when you have to say no, and if it doesn’t hurt, then you’re in the wrong job.”
After eight years in office, Henry said he’s learned many lessons, including how many people and how much work it takes to run a city like Fort Wayne.
“I think it’s made me acutely aware that there are problems that are much, much bigger than the problems I have. We are a community and it does take a village to address a lot of the needs of our city. Being in the mayor’s office increases that tenfold,” Henry said.