In a shaded alley, covered by string lights and decorative lampshades recently installed as part of an on-going installation, the public space was the first of several that the community sought to incorporate in the newly announced Van Wert Forward. Joining me for a conversation about an exciting new project coming to the community included Van Wert County Foundation CEO Seth Baker, along with Development Director, Amanda Miller, and Property Manager, Hall Block.
Van Wert, an agricultural community of 10,000 residents, is situated half-way between Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Lima, Ohio. Built on a sense of pride and history, the downtown features several cultural institutions, including the first county library in the United States, and a rehabilitated armory turned art gallery. “We have such unique historic assets as a community, it’s time to help make them shine by establishing downtown as a place to spend time and get acquainted with one another,” said Miller.
Van Wert County Foundation (VWCF), led by Baker, has taken on transforming the historic downtown into a regional destination. The project collaborates with other community organizations and aims to revitalize several downtown blocks to create a thriving community for generations to come. VWCF is working with Historic Main Street Van Wert, the Van Wert Area Economic Development Corporation, Van Wert Area Chamber of Commerce, The Business Development Corporation, and both the City and County.
To spearhead the effort, the Foundation has purchased several buildings and is placing each of the buildings into a downtown trust through the redevelopment process. The buildings are currently in the process of being reimagined, as well as the downtown district, to provide new opportunities for mixed-use retail, office, and to dine along with upper-level residential. Hall Block is especially excited about the new street mix: “we have great businesses in our downtown core already, that have long been a part of the Van Wert Community, and this project will continue to build off of the historic nature of downtown and create a bigger community impact, one for generations to come.”
The Foundation uses the model of impact investing, which is the type of community investment intended to generate a long-term economic and social impact for Van Wert. The idea has long served as a community development tool to make urban redevelopment possible for communities of all sizes. The initiative is often used to empower citizens, investors, and institutions that are passionate about rebuilding historic downtowns and provide a unique source of long-term capital.
Core pillars of impact investing include:
With a vision to create a well-resourced and thriving quality of life in the community, Van Wert Forward will develop the downtown district over several phases. The project will cover several blocks, buildings, and significant public space improvements to support redevelopment efforts. In recent months, the downtown was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which will provide a level of historic asset protection and financial incentives to support redevelopment; it was also listed as one of Ohio’s Opportunity Zones. The Foundation has partnered with proven companies that focus on historic rehabilitation, including Pago USA. This team has worked on projects including in Over the Rhine in Cincinnati and The Landing in Fort Wayne. Other companies involved include Platte Architecture + Design in Cincinnati, Revival Design Studio in Celina, OHM Advisors in Columbus, Small Nation in Bellefontaine, and Epic Small of Delaware.
As we sat discussing the bold community development project, Baker reminded me that “the center of a community is its heart, and the more successful the heart, the more successful the community.” Van Wert Forward serves as a visionary leader for the successful redevelopment of downtown historic districts.
As the community’s former Main Street Executive Director, the project excites me, knowing that every resident of Van Wert will have access to a vibrant neighborhood and a thriving local economy. Not all redevelopment projects have the same goals and vision that this does. It’s clear from the moment we began our conversation that this project, bold and audacious, is different and will provide a significant community impact. Looking beyond the built environment, Van Wert Forward seeks to create inviting public spaces, a sense of wonder and belonging, key elements to improve the social fabric and quality of life.
While there is no specific timeline listed for project completion, the first phases should get underway as soon as the Foundation finalizes the Downtown Redevelopment Plan. We cannot wait to see what the community looks like in the coming months.