The Journal Gazette
Sunday, August 30, 2020 1:00 am

Our past and our future

Electric Works would be a link in city's tradition of education

Wendy Robinson

Fort Wayne has always been a city that takes our destiny into our own hands.

When tough times come, we don't sit by and wait for someone to save us. We excel at taking lemons and turning them into lemonade.

When other Midwestern cities were losing manufacturing jobs and becoming another notch on the country's Rust Belt, Fort Wayne sought out new businesses in diverse industries. This helped us not only recover in the 1980s but poised the region for continued economic growth for the following decades.

When a flood ravaged the city in 1982, not only did we recover and use the opportunity to improve the city's flood mitigation, we developed a magnificent downtown attraction in Headwaters Park.

As other urban centers watched as residents moved to the suburbs, leaving neighborhoods and schools to fall into decay, Fort Wayne continued to support its public schools. Through strong partnerships that support students and the passage of three building referendums to keep neighborhood anchors in place, Fort Wayne Community Schools remains a vibrant school corporation with rigorous educational programs preparing students to be the next leaders in our region.

That is why it is shocking that as a city we are on the brink of losing the most exciting economic development opportunity since Harrison Square catapulted our downtown revitalization.

In 2017, as news emerged about the potential development of the former GE campus, FWCS learned the developers were interested in having a school located within the development. As superintendent of Fort Wayne Community Schools at the time, it was a no-brainer that we would get involved. There is no other educational institution better poised to serve students in the heart of the city.

My leadership team explored a variety of ideas for education programs from early childhood to K-8 to high school. We allowed ourselves to dream big with no boundaries. Ultimately, we settled on high school students, focusing on career pathways that would provide students with skills that would be transferable to a variety of careers – not one specific job. The programs – entrepreneurship, digital animation, music technology and urban farming – would sync directly with businesses located at Electric Works, as well as higher education partnerships, to provide students a clear transition from high school to post-secondary education to a career in the region.

Too often, students and young adults are bystanders in economic development. They might be considered as customers or future customers, but not as an integral part of developing a strong economy. Electric Works placed students in the heart of the development, allowing young people to influence and learn from the industries around them.

One of those key partners is one that has been a strong supporter of our students for years. It was former Do it Best Corp. President and CEO Don Wolf who helped launch Study Connection, FWCS' after-school tutoring program. His vision has helped thousands of students over more than two decades receive tutoring support from area businesses and community organizations.

That commitment has been carried on by subsequent leaders, including current President and CEO Dan Starr. Do it Best continues to be one of Study Connection's strongest partners, providing tutors for dozens of students each week. Do it Best is the kind of business that makes our community a better place to live. We cannot afford to lose such a community-centered employer.

The GE campus was once a bustling mini-city with thousands of employees. Now, it sits dark – 1.2 million square feet of urban blight on downtown's doorstep. Just as so many times before, we have the opportunity to step up and create something better out of something lost. If we fail to move forward, not only will we lose the chance to return the GE campus to a bright spot in the city, we will miss a unique opportunity to provide our young people the skills they need to create new, currently unimaginable businesses and jobs for decades to come.

While I am no longer superintendent of Fort Wayne Community Schools, I am a lifelong city resident, and I continue to support this project. It's time for community leaders to come together to take control of our destiny and figure out a solution.

Wendy Robinson retired in June as superintendent of Fort Wayne Community Schools.

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