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Projects to spice up mayor’s race

September 16, 2018

As campaigning for Fort Wayne’s 2019 mayoral election begins, the issue of economic development is a major component of each candidate’s bid. 

But just how important is economic development to voters choosing a mayor? It’s an interesting question, because Fort Wayne hasn’t had a large number of projects in or near election years, said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University Fort Wayne. 

Some past city administrations have been more aggressive in pursuing major economic development projects than others, Downs said, pointing to Electric Works, Parkview Field, the former Southtown Mall, the General Motors expansion, Grand Wayne Center and attached hotel, and the Ash Skyline Tower as examples of major projects the city has seen throughout the years.

But what is more important, announcing the start of a project or the project’s opening? 

“As a rule, announcing you’re going to do something will bring about naysayers,” Downs said. “When you’re cutting the ribbon, it’s hard to be negative.” 

But that doesn’t mean candidates can’t seize upon perceived shortcomings related to a project.

Councilman John Crawford, R-at large, a supporter of the proposed Electric Works project just south of downtown, has been critical of how long it took Mayor Tom Henry’s administration to put together a public funding agreement with RTM Ventures, the developer responsible for the project. And businessman Tim Smith, who is challenging Crawford for the Republican mayoral nod, has urged fiscal caution with regard to Electric Works. 

Economic development initiatives can play a major role in a campaign if they’re made part of a larger narrative about an incumbent, namely whether the projects have “increased employment in the area or have added tangibly to local residents lives in other ways,” said Marjorie Hershey, professor of political science at Indiana University.  

“I don’t think most voters find the term ‘economic development’ to be very specific, so referring to particular projects and particular examples of benefit : a story about one individual or business who can explain in a dramatic way how the project has helped not only him or her but others : is helpful,” Hershey said in an email. 

Failure of a major initiative could spell doom for an incumbent’s campaign, as well, Downs said. 

“If a campaign is able to clearly draw a connection between failure and the actions or inaction of their opponent, then it could matter and it could matter a great deal,” Downs said.

Challengers might also use economic development issues to point out the need for more projects or to highlight negative aspects of a specific project, Hershey said. 

“If a new highway has caused big traffic jams, for instance, or a new housing project has resulted in congestion or has had shoddy construction, those can be ways in which the challenger can illustrate a claim that the incumbent has mishandled the issue or isn’t trustworthy with taxpayers’ money,” she said. 

Economic development is hugely important during election time and goes hand-in-hand with issues like public health and safety, said Steve Shine, chairman of the Allen County Republican Party. There isn’t a typical way most Republicans approach economic development, Shine said, but there are a few different schools of thought. 

“There are some conservative views as to how packages for economic development are to be created and there are less conservative views as to how we reach our economic goal,” Shine said. “Republicans as a whole are pro-economic development. The difference is the participation of the public and private sectors that constitutes the proper mix.”

The Allen County Democratic Party appears to approach economic development in a similar fashion to area Republicans, but with added focus on wages, Misti Meehan, chairwoman of the Allen County Democrats, said in an email. 

“Living wages with benefits are crucial for the working class, which is what our region is,” Meehan said. “When the working class does well, our economy does well.” 

Issues voters care about : wages, health care, public education : tie back to economic development, Meehan added. 

“If the businesses brought to our communities have living wages with benefits, our citizens become more independent,” she said. “If we have fully-funded public education, we can provide better-educated young people to our unions and colleges for that additional training or out into the workforce.” 

dgong@jg.net

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