If you talk to anyone from Fort Wayne, they’ll probably say our location is a perk.
We’re a mid-size city right between bigger cities like Chicago, Columbus, Indianapolis and Grand Rapids. So we don't have the daily hassles of big city life. And we can still get anywhere we want to go within a few hours.
But when I read an article about Fort Wayne in the Chicago Tribune a few months ago, I started to see our location in a different light.
Travel writer Alan Solomon said Fort Wayne “might be the Midwest's best-kept secret," and while it was awesome to see our city finally getting some good press on a national scale, the "secret" part of Solomon's observation didn't sit well with me.
The problem with being a "best-kept secret" is that even though you’re doing awesome stuff, nobody knows about you yet. Why?
In our case, Curt Witcher of the city's Genealogy Center puts it into perspective.
“Fort Wayne is on the way to nowhere,” he told Solomon. “No one goes to Chicago via Fort Wayne. No one goes to Detroit via Fort Wayne. We're not on anyone's way."
So while those of us living in Fort Wayne might think we have a great location, the people who live in bigger cities around us consider us out-of-the-way to anywhere they want to go.
If you want to get to Chicago from Indy, Cleveland, or Columbus, you can do it without going through Fort Wayne at all.
So I started to think about ways we could get travelers to stop here, and the best idea that came to mind was a passenger rail service.
Now, I’ve heard the argument that we shouldn’t have train transportation in Fort Wayne because it would drive traffic out of the city. But as someone who frequently travels on the weekends, I’d like to make the opposite case.
The more connected Fort Wayne is to cities around us, the more we can help people discover what we have to offer — before they read about it in the Chicago Tribune.
Right now, people from bigger cities don’t have a reason to come Fort Wayne, so our traffic is only flowing out.
But if we had a rail system or some sort of convenient mass transit from Indy or Columbus to Chicago, then Fort Wayne would be a natural center of regional activity along the way.
A few years ago, a high-speed rail service to Chicago was all the hype in local news. So what’s happened to the plan since then?
I called Geoffrey Paddock with the Northeast Indiana Public Rail Association (NIPRA) to find out.
Paddock has been working to bring passenger train service back to Fort Wayne since it left in 90s.
But even though public talk about high-speed rail has died down for now, plans to bring a slower passenger rail to Fort Wayne are still going strong — and could get the nod to proceed with an environmental study any day now.
Paddock said the problem with the high-speed rail was that it required a separate track to be built to accommodate speeds up to 110 mph.
But if we can harness existing tracks and run an Amtrack service traveling 50-60 mph, we can have a train station similar to Waterloo's or South Bend's right here in Fort Wayne and still get to Chicago in about three hours.
Compare that to a hectic four-hour drive, and the choice is easy.
Since 2013, Paddock has been working with NIPRA, city officials and Allen County commissioners to raise funds for the project. Between public and private funding sources, they’ve raised about half the funds needed for an environmental impact study to get started.
Paddock hopes the rest of the funding will come from INDOT and the Federal Rail Administration in Washington, DC, which is currently reviewing the project.
If everything goes as planned, Paddock said restored rail service would run from Columbus, OH, to Chicago, IL, right through the heart of downtown Fort Wayne at the Baker Street Station, and the experience would be similar to the Hoosier State train from Indy to Chicago with dining cars, wifi and places to sleep onboard.
It’s an exciting thought, and some young professionals are already supporting the cause.
Megan Butler, a YLNI supporter and friend of NIPRA, spoke to city council about the benefits of passenger rail service in December 2013.
Working for Visit Fort Wayne at the time, she saw incredible potential for the project to increase tourism around town.
“More than 5 million people visit Fort Wayne every year, and the economic impact is incredible. But I think the rail would increase that dramatically,” Butler said.
More than that, rail service would give young professionals more reasons to settle down in Fort Wayne, too.
“One of the things I told City Council is, ‘Listen, you’re making people choose between living in a smaller city that they love and living in a bigger city with more conveniences,” Butler said. “If you don’t make them choose, they will be more likely to live here and then travel to Chicago when they need to.”
Although restoring passenger rail service to Fort Wayne is a long, slow process, Paddock is optimistic about it for two big reasons.
First, our project is following the same process as a successful bid for upgraded rail service from Indianapolis to Chicago that was just granted last year.
And second, Columbus is the largest city in the US without any rail service to date.
“It makes a very strong case for the connection, and we’re halfway between Columbus and Chicago,” Paddock said.
Fort Wayne’s central location might work to our advantage after all.
(Location map courtesy of Visit Fort Wayne)
HereSay, in partnership with YLNI, is a frequent blog about our say on what’s happening here. It is written by YLNI member Kara Hackett, and the opinions are her own. Photo by Matt Thomas. HereSay@ylni.org