It’s hard to quantify the improvements made to Downtown Fort Wayne in the recent past. There are just too many to count. But walking through Downtown, it’s pretty easy to qualify even just a few improvements that have dramatically impacted our city’s quality of life.
If you’ve been Downtown recently, you know what I mean:
Promenade Park has literally transformed the riverfront, without compromising the green and brown beauty of our most vital natural resource.
The Landing, which began as a bustling commercial hub in the 19th century, had a sleepy 20th century, lined with half-empty buildings and a few bars. Now it’s one of the most lively spots in the city: cuisines aplenty, Latin music dance parties, welcoming storefronts, smiling faces, and plenty of space to just exist and take in the positive vibes.
Artists from all over have breathed life into once-bare walls throughout the 99 blocks. Good luck finding a view that doesn’t include a vibrant mural!
All this to say, it’s taken a lot of people with collective vision doing a lot of hard work to get to this point. One of those drivers is Downtown Fort Wayne’s very own Michael Galbraith. This month marks Mike’s fourth year as president of Downtown Fort Wayne, but he’s been a community advocate much longer than that.
I had the privilege of speaking with Mike as he reflected upon his last four years of service to Downtown Fort Wayne and the community he cares so deeply for.
Meet the president and CEO of Downtown Fort Wayne, Michael Galbraith!
Molly: Prior to joining the staff at Downtown Fort Wayne, what were you doing, and what inspired you to dive into this role?
Mike: I was working at the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership administering the Regional Development Authority and the Road to One Million plan. This involved the $42M grant the region received from the state’s Regional Cities Initiative, and that helped fund 28 different projects in 11 counties. In Fort Wayne, that included the Skyline Tower, USF’s Downtown campus, the Riverfront Phase I, the Embassy renovation, The Landing, the Clyde, and trail expansion.
I was also working on regional talent attraction which included things like immigration and housing studies, branding, military talent attraction planning, and a regional jobs portal. These were awesome projects, but some of them were really focused on big, difficult-to-quantify, strategic goals that will take many years to achieve. I was ready to focus on some more immediate tactical goals. Downtown’s dynamic growth offered that opportunity. I was coming into an organization that my predecessor, Bill Brown, had teed up for success and growth. I’ve worked downtown for thirty years, and I wanted to play a bigger part in all of the great things that were happening.
Molly: What a perfect fit! Thinking back over the last four years, what memories stand out to you the most?
Mike: Certainly, COVID has dominated the four years that I’ve been here. Our organization was able to respond pretty quickly to having all of our events canceled, our messaging abruptly changed, and every storefront thrown into crisis. Our response as a community to the George Floyd demonstrations was amazing. The day after we had windows broken downtown, we had hundreds of volunteers spontaneously show up to clean up the debris. Later that week our Art This Way team, assisted by Adam Garland and dozens of local artists, organized a plywood paint out that drew attention to the dialogue in a positive way.
Other memories include starting our Friday night Downtown Live! series, instituting our alley and street furniture programs, and the never-ending dedication of our Clean & Green team.
Molly: What accomplishments are you most proud of — for you personally and for your team as a whole?
Mike: The response to COVID and to the George Floyd demonstrations stand out. We were able to step in with Waiter on the Way to underwrite free food delivery from our downtown restaurants, and later, joined by the City of Fort Wayne, free delivery from all of Fort Wayne’s restaurants.
Another point of pride — spearheaded by our Art This Way Director Alex Hall — is the continued and conscious transformation of Downtown into a mural-centric outdoor art gallery that attracts both visitors and residents. Starting in 2016 and ramping up during the pandemic, Art This Way has facilitated dozens of murals throughout Downtown and concentrated on our Double Plus alleyway network.
Molly: All great achievements! What are some of your favorite parts about serving the Downtown community?
Mike: The fact that almost 100% of the time what we do is greeted with thanks by the community. Getting to know the shop and business owners of Downtown. Seeing transformation spark unexpected joy. Watching somebody at one of our events smile, or seeing them take a selfie in our alley network totally makes my day.
Molly: Sounds very rewarding. I hear you also play the French horn for the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, and that you’ve been doing so since the 90s. What skills do you think you’ve learned from playing in an orchestra that translate to leading a nonprofit?
Mike: Playing in the Phil has brought some perspective to this other side of my brain. Music demands an attempt every day at perfect performance, which is almost never realized. Every time I miss a note (and I’ve missed my fair share!), I try to forget as soon as possible, so that I don’t mess up all the notes that follow. The same concept applies to every event we have Downtown.
Teamwork and listening are just as critical in community development as in music. The idea of “tension and repose” — that you need soft and loud, fast and slow, big and little — has implications that carry over from music.
It’s also made me less afraid of risk. I play the French horn, an instrument notorious for explosive wrong notes and misses heard by everyone. I’ve tried to approach that possibility with as much care and preparation as possible, but in the end you just have to go for it wholeheartedly. Usually, the timid or fearful approach guarantees bad results.
Molly: Last question. Looking forward, what do you think the future holds for Downtown Fort Wayne, and what on the horizon are you most excited about?
Mike: One of the things that we did in the last four years — led by our social marketing whiz, Stephen J. Bailey — was to move away from our “Downtown Improvement District” branding to a “Downtown Fort Wayne” brand. That’s because Fort Wayne, and especially Downtown, is becoming known beyond Allen County. We’re finally taking a bigger national role. Our growth as a region, city and county is incredibly exciting, and I’m glad that we can be part of the larger efforts making that happen.
I’m also excited and hopeful about the resurgence of Downtown living and all of the new buildings going up. Downtown is firing on so many cylinders, and I can’t wait to increase capacity and bring new possibilities to bear.
Want to get in touch with Mike? Drop him a line!
Molly Conner is a Fort Wayne native and freelance writer. Having lived in Downtown Fort Wayne throughout her twenties, she loves watching her stomping grounds grow. With her love of storytelling and community in tow, she’s eager to tell Downtown Fort Wayne’s story piece-by-piece—exploring the people, spaces, and organizations that make it thrive.