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Mayor Henry reflects on what Veterans Memorial Bridge brings to the community

Fort Wayne’s newly renovated and renamed Veterans Memorial Bridge was formally dedicated in a public ceremony last Sunday evening.

After a year and a half of construction, this signature gateway bridge now provides motorist and pedestrians with safe and innovative ways to navigate Fort Wayne while enjoying its historic and cultural attractions along the city’s riverfront.

The Beacon, a sculpture by local artist, Cary Shafer, was designed to reflect the six main branches of the military and is also the base for the American flag now flying sixty feet above the plaza.

For a look at the project’s scope WBOI’s Julia Meek spoke with Mayor Henry about its evolution and intent as well as how it will impact the community.

Below is a transcript of our conversation:

Julia Meek: Mayor Henry, it is great to have you with us on the phone. Welcome.

Mayor Henry: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.

Julia Meek: Now this city has been busy. How about that new addition on our skyline, what ‘ya thinkin'?

Mayor Henry: (Laughs) Well, we're very excited about the new Veterans Memorial Bridge. It's something we've been working on for quite some time now, a couple of years. And once we were able to put the financing package together and get the design approved then it was fun watching it take shape.

Julia Meek: Before we discuss the dedication of that project and of course, the long time it took to get here, it's certainly been worth it; back to that beginning, I would ask you, Mayor Henry, why here, why now, why bother with such a really big project and commitment?

Mayor Henry: Well some time ago, I realized that the city of Fort Wayne, we were very, very honored to have a number of veterans in our community, myself included. And I also realized that except for the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum and the Vietnam Veterans Museum and overall museum out on O'Day Road, there really wasn't anything in the city itself that recognized our appreciation for our veterans.

So I sat down with my staff and felt that we needed to do something to create a structure that really presented itself as something extra special for our veterans. And so we were able to sit down with some architectural and engineering firms and come up with the current design. And we tweaked it a little bit here and there. And that was then dot and had them examine our bridge to see if in fact, it needed some state assistance as well, and because of the structure had been around for a while they agreed. So we split the costs and again, we're able to put that together.

But more than anything, Julia, it's just our attempt as a city to let the veterans know that we appreciate those that have served and those that are serving.

Julia Meek: Amen and thank you for that and for representing us in such a major move like that. Meanwhile, your affinity for illuminated public artwork is very well established and it already includes a bridge. (chuckles) How does this new project fit into your commitment to communal art and beautification, as well?

Mayor Henry: Well I don't think there's any question that the arts and culture are becoming more and more of a truly important component of our economic development toolbox. It's no longer just the financial incentives that cities can bring to the table. Employers want more than that, they want to be able to tell their employees that a city has a number of amenities that they as employees will appreciate.

So it's more of a company-wide desire more than just the brass at the top. And that's really been refreshing, quite frankly, from a couple of different perspectives. One, we no longer have to sit down and just talk finance, we can now begin to talk about our trail system and our parks and our Zoo and Parkview field and a number of other additions that we've been able to bring to our community to really make us the kind of city that people would appreciate living in. So it's been nice that we are now able to show off some of the things that we've worked so hard for.

And secondly, the more we do, and the more successful we become utilizing those tools, the more success comes. I remember years ago, you know, it was very difficult for us to attract an employer. And we would go out to other cities on a regular basis and try to steal from them ideas that they had implemented, that seemed to have some level of success. But what we're finding out now Julia, is cities are beginning to come here. As matter of fact, just in the last few years, we've had over 30 cities, visit us and take a look at some of the things that we put together.

So I think that's a tremendous compliment for our community. And a lot of that is exactly what you and I were just talking about, and that is our emphasis on arts and culture. And it's not just the bridges, but other sculptures throughout our city, other pieces of art from the murals, you know, to the alleyways, and we're in the process, now we're bringing some additional sculptures to our city, we really need to show off that part of our city.

Julia Meek: Great point, and it is coming together so beautifully. Now curious enough, that signature gateway bridge that we're talking about? It's a main thoroughfare as well. How would you say the dynamic change all happens because it's a pedestrian-friendly point of interest now as well?

Mayor Henry: Right. Obviously, it's going to be included eventually in our whole Riverfront Park atmosphere. You know, Phase One is done, Promenade Park. We're in the process now is starting Phase Two, which will consist of additional park-like atmosphere along with some private investment.

Well, we're going to continue that with Phase Three and ultimately Phase Four. And this is going to be spread over a number of years. But each one of those phases consists of additional offerings and some additional public-private partnerships. But one of the things we're going to be doing obviously is moving along the riverfront all the way down to our new bridge. Phase Two will take us to the Martin Luther King bridge,

Phase Three should take us then to the Veterans Memorial Bridge. The whole idea is, again, to recognize the value of our rivers, that was really the primary thrust initially, a decade ago or so was, you know, we needed to turn our impression of our rivers around and try to turn them from being enemies to being assets, to embrace our rivers. And that's what we're in the process of doing. And these bridges are a very important part of it.

Julia Meek: It's kind of coming full circle to the spaces and the places and the rivers and the city that we've always respected and honored now bringing it into the 21st century. That's kind of what you're saying, as well, through all of this.

Mayor Henry: You're absolutely right, that's exactly right.

Julia Meek: Now moving along, besides the bridge, and besides every single other wonderful thing that's going along, it also includes a beautiful, beautiful sculpture, a work by Carry Shafer, a local, very, very talented person, representing all of the services. Again, you are part of that, the city's a part of that.

What does it say? That structure itself, it also supports the flag that's around it, it just brings it all together as sort of the heart of that center, what does it represent as the heart of our city?

Mayor Henry: Well Julia, that's, you know, you really, you're spot on, we wanted to make sure number one that all of the branches of service are recognized. So on the bridge proper, you'll see six plaques representing the six major military branches, the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Space Force, and so on.

But then in the plaza area where the flagpole is, there are some additional plaques, where we recognize, continue to recognize our efforts with POWs and MIAs. And some of the other branches of the service that are not considered a primary branch, but a spin-off branch, like the Air National Guard, for instance, you know, there's spin off of the Air Force, but we wanted to recognize them so there's a plaque on the plaza just for them.

And then the whole sculpture itself, I was just extremely impressed with the design and the fact that the flagpole is 60 feet up in the air. We do light it up 24 hours a day, so the flag never has to come down. The worst case it would be would be half staff, but we have no intention of taking it down except to replace it when it gets too weatherbeaten. The whole idea is to keep that flag flying.

Julia Meek: What a message it sends to the world--and about all of us.

Mayor Henry: Right.

Julia Meek: So onto that grand dedication day last weekend, where you were surrounded by a legion of dignitaries, military honorees, amazing citizens. Can you share your impression of the evening as a Fort Wayne native right now, as well as its mayor?

Mayor Henry: I've been involved in a lot of ribbon cuttings, a lot of groundbreakings and all of them have special meanings. But this one, I think took an even bigger step than some of the other ones, I think it was because again, we recognized a portion of our community, the veterans, who in many cases went above and beyond what normal citizens would be asked to do. And that is to put themselves potentially in harm's way.

So to be able to recognize that contribution and recognize those who are no longer with us, you know, this is a Memorial Bridge. It's for all veterans, I think that made such a powerful statement. And then as I looked out throughout the crowd, I saw a number of veterans, some of them wore their uniforms, which was amazing.

And even some of the younger ones who sometimes we don't think really care about the military anymore; once they served, you know, they were done and gone. Well, they came back. It was just a tremendous outpouring and not only of our veterans, but so many people were there that I think truly appreciated what the veterans have done for our community.

And I think they appreciated the fact we were going to address their contribution in a physical way that will last for years to come.

Julia Meek: Isn't that a great part of the point? It's a beautiful sculpture as a matter of fact, it's a beautiful facility. And of course we need that bridge--it's a major artery but above all that put it all together and it just makes a tremendous, a tremendous statement of how we regard, well, everything we're talking about and more, city-wide.

Mayor Henry: And you know, Julia, what's nice too is when now have a major bridge bringing people into downtown, some 20 to 25,000 cars a day and a similar type facility, a grand facility as they leave town. So the entrance and the exit from downtown, I think it's really something very powerful.

Julia Meek: It is and getting better and bigger and more beautiful all the time. Now this city has a reputation for supporting its citizens and their causes and the military as it should be.

How would you say they are responding during this whole journey, adventure, we might say to get everything done in this project, especially as regards last Sunday's dedication and the feeling and the warmth that you felt there?

Mayor Henry: There were a couple of occurrences that were taking place that didn't necessarily meet the media's eyes. For instance, we did have veterans groups checking with us from time to time on the progress to make sure that we were moving along in a timely fashion, but also everybody, from the architects to the engineers to the builders, they were all pressing extremely hard and I had a chance to meet with them on a number of occasions.

But they wanted to make sure this was done before winter set in. They wanted to be able to be in a position to let people be there when they cut the ribbon where the weather hopefully was not going to put them in harm's way. And it worked out. So there was a lot of pressure on a lot of people to get it done. Get it done, right, make it a showcase. So there was a lot of communication that was taking place behind the scenes that the public didn't necessarily see or hear, but it was there. (chuckles) And we also had individuals in our community, you said it a few minutes ago, we have such a giving community.

We have a philanthropic base that said if we needed additional help financially, that they would step up. Now fortunately, the state of Indiana came through with their share and we had our monies put together so we didn't have to tap into it that resource. But the fact that they came to the table and said if you need additional capital, it's that important to us that we'll contribute. I think that speaks volumes about our community.

Julia Meek: Oh as, as our mayor and as a citizen, it has to make your heart sing. Yes, we are a city that gets things done to be sure. (chuckles) So going forward, what do you want everyone specifically to take away from all of this and carry with them.

Mayor Henry: One of the things that we've been trying to establish, Julia, for a number of years is wanting the city of Fort Wayne to be known as a welcoming city, as a welcoming community, as a city that prides itself in inclusivity. And I think by adding this additional effort to our portfolio that we recognize the veterans contributions, I think that's going to help us out immensely.

You know, we work regularly with the immigrants and refugees from other countries, and I think that attempt is going well through the efforts of Catholic Charities and others. We...I think we're taking some great strides from that perspective. But now to be able to say to the veterans, we appreciate your contribution so much that we built something for you. Now we can add that to our again, our box of tools that we're able to take to the marketplace and say this is another area that we've addressed as far as trying to be inclusive.

Julia Meek: Yeah, making a great city greater. (chuckles)

Mayor Henry: Well, (chuckles) thank you. You're right! (laughs)

Julia Meek: And last question, Mayor Henry, what does all of this including the overwhelming community support of this project and the city itself--what does it all mean to you?

Mayor Henry: More than anything, all the years that I've been mayor and the years that I was on city council, all I ever really wanted to do was to create a foundation where my children and my grandchildren would be proud to stand on, that they would want to stay in Fort Wayne because of what the previous generation did, because that's the reason I stayed and a lot of my siblings stayed.

Because my parents, my grandparents, and others left us with the city that had done so much already, but still had a tremendous amount of potential. And I'd like to continue that legacy that Fort Wayne continues to reinvent itself if you will, to meet the current needs and wants and desires of whatever generation is present in a city.

That's all I've ever really wanted was to continue the image of Fort Wayne as a true family-friendly community, one that certainly is conservative in certain arenas, but not afraid to take risks if it could possibly make the city an even better place to live.

Julia Meek: Thank you so much for sharing your time and story and your spirit with us, Mayor Henry, carry it on.

Mayor Henry: Thank you.

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.