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Nancy Townsend retires after three decades in Fort Wayne development

Nancy Townsend, left, joined city leadership to open the McKinnie Commons pocket park to the public in June.
Ella Abbott
/
WBOI News
Nancy Townsend, left, joined city leadership to open the McKinnie Commons pocket park to the public in June.

After nearly 33 years working with the City of Fort Wayne, Community Development Director Nancy Townsend is retiring Friday.

She's served in the position since 2020, but she’s been working for the city her entire adult life. That means she’s gotten to see a lot of change in Fort Wayne, going back to the 1990s when debates were just raging over annexation.

But before all of that, Townsend was a little girl with a father who loved public service.

Townsend said her dad was self-educated and read like crazy. He ran for office once and served on boards and commissions. And his favorite person was Abraham Lincoln.

“Abraham Lincoln’s most influential person in his life was his mother Nancy Todd Lincoln, so I’m named after her actually," Townsend said. "So, maybe that’s what started planting the seeds for public service.”

But it was really in college, at IPFW, now Purdue Fort Wayne, that public service really became a consideration for Townsend. Her counselor her freshman year was the late Jim Owen, a professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

“And he just took a shine to me and I liked him and he was a SPEA professor and we were talking about it, and so I got into the SPEA program," she said. "And he was my mentor all through college. And he actually was community development director years prior to that.”

Mayor Tom Henry, several council members and representatives from the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department cut the ribbon on the new pocket park, McKinnie Commons, Wednesday, June 28, 2023.
Ella Abbott
/
WBOI News
Mayor Tom Henry, several council members and representatives from the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department cut the ribbon on the new pocket park, McKinnie Commons, Wednesday, June 28, 2023.

During college, Townsend was able to intern with the planning department for the city of Fort Wayne, which led to a position in long-range planning.

That job offered a learning opportunity for Townsend. It was during Mayor Paul Helmke’s administration when annexation was the big development topic. She was part of both the planning and implementation of the annexations.

“It was the best opportunity any young person could have in terms of learning about policy, learning about public finance, public services," Townsend said.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Fort Wayne's pursuit of annexation to expand size and services was hotly debated. From north in the Pine Valley area southwest to Aboite township, annexation fights occupied legislative time and generated cases heard by the state's highest court.

“That’s why I told people, like, I grew up learning how to manage meetings where people were hostile and communicating something that was not well received," Townsend said. "After some of those meetings I thought ‘boy, this is as bad as it gets.’ You know, as uncomfortable as it gets.”

She says that was a great learning experience, despite her discomfort, because it gave her the skills to build relationships in order to get projects done.

In her time with the city, Townsend has held several different positions, worked under three different mayoral administrations and has helped Fort Wayne’s downtown develop into the busy central hub it is now.

She had a hand in the creation of the Downtown Blueprint, which she says involved a lot of input from residents, businesses, schools and other stakeholders in the community.

“Planning 101," she said. "If a community doesn’t have a strong downtown, then it’s not going to be successful in job creation, job retention, keeping people here, schools. You know, it’s just the heart, it’s the pulse of a city.”

Parkview Field now sits as a staple of Downtown Fort Wayne, but back when it was being proposed, the city looked very different and the idea of trying to bring people downtown seemed outlandish.
Ella Abbott
/
WBOI News
Parkview Field now sits as a staple of Downtown Fort Wayne, but back when it was being proposed, the city looked very different and the idea of trying to bring people downtown seemed outlandish.

But developing downtown was also not without its opponents.

Today, Parkview Field is a busy spot for summer nights with friends or a nice way for families to spend a weekend, watching their home baseball team. But before the project broke ground in 2007, the decision to move the field from the Coliseum was a controversial one.

In March 2007, the Journal-Gazette reported hundreds coming together at United Methodist Church to discuss the proposed $125 million project that would move the baseball stadium downtown, as well as build a new hotel, shopping and condominiums in Harrison Square.

Townsend was working in City Utilities at the time.

“Very controversial project," she said. "I mean, hardly anyone supported it. Literally, the day of the vote of city council, didn’t think we had. Businesses supported it. There was a long line of people there to speak in favor, a long line of people to speak against. People like Glynn Hines, Tom Didier, and enough supported the bond issue to build that stadium. I mean it could have gone either way that day.”

Ultimately, city council approved the Harrison Square project be funded with $63 million in public money and $67 million in private funds with a vote of 6-3, after three and a half hours of public testimony and 90 more minutes of council discussion.

Parkview Field opened on April 16, 2009.

“And, so then we just started working the rest of the plan, the Downtown Blueprint, just started working it, working it," Townsend said. "One project after another, getting the real estate. And, momentum, you know, you cannot underestimate the power and value of momentum.”

As development stabilized on the south side of downtown, city leaders and residents began to look to the north and, in particular, the riverfronts. Now, Promenade Park offers a gathering space and recreation for people all over the city to come and enjoy the natural waterways.
Rebecca Green
/
WBOI News
As development stabilized on the south side of downtown, city leaders and residents began to look to the north and, in particular, the riverfronts. Now, Promenade Park offers a gathering space and recreation for people all over the city to come and enjoy the natural waterways.

Despite the controversy of the plan, surveys at the time found that people widely thought that downtown development was important. As the south side of downtown began to finish development, it became time to look to the north, where the rivers bracket the city.

By that time, letters in newspapers were already calling for the city to make better use of the natural waterways that ran through it.

“The planning department here started a three year effort of, again, community engagement," Townsend said. "I mean, all of our plans, you know we’re very plan focused, but they have to be informed and developed from what the community wants. If we’re not giving the community what they want it’s a colossal mistake.”

Townsend said they used the momentum of the Downtown Blueprint working to bring money and people into downtown. They looked for public input at meetings and in response to surveys to build a plan.

“And it formed this concept of riverfront development and knew that there had to be some public space," she said. "Places for people to gather that the community owns and controls. And then to be flanked in with private investment to help support and fund our private work.”

City council approved a tax increase that, Townsend said, was the catalyst to funding the creation of Promenade Park, which opened to the public in 2019.

At the front of the store, fresh and local produce lines one wall.
Ella Abbott
/
WBOI News
In November, the Pontiac Street Market opened, which Townsend helped develop. The grocery store offers a low-cost, close to home option for residents in Southeast Fort Wayne.

Townsend gives credit where it’s due, she said the parks department led the charge on the park, while the community development department was assembling adjacent real estate and putting out requests for proposals for development concepts.

Townsend said a lot of it came down to being fortunate enough to find the right developers at the right time to do the right projects.

“I think the best indication that we’re doing the right things is that every developer that we’ve done a project with has wanted to do another one," she said. "And that shows the strength of our economy, the strength of our community and our leadership, including city council. And people can be successful here.”

In more than three years as community development director, Townsend has had a hand in increasing riverfront development, helping open parks and a grocery store on the southeast side and opening the Bradley Hotel.

She said, with the Pontiac Street Market opened and Project Zodiac getting final approvals, it created a window for her to step away before getting wrapped up in another project.

“I think it’s just, I wanna do something different," Townsend said. "I mean, maybe related but just work in a different place. But I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunities the city of Fort Wayne has given me.”

She doesn’t know exactly what’s next, but she still has a fire to work and continue making a difference, either in Fort Wayne or somewhere else.

Townsend's last day in her position is tomorrow.

Ella Abbott is a multimedia reporter for 89.1 WBOI. She is a strong believer in the ways audio storytelling can engage an audience and create a sensory experience.