The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc and disrupted most facets of life in Fort Wayne and across the nation. To address a wide array of needs felt across the country, Congress and President Joe Biden enacted a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package in March 2021 known as the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Its objective is to aid the United States in its recovery—both economic and otherwise—from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The City of Fort Wayne received $50.8 million in ARPA funding, and on April 12, Fort Wayne City Council presented its official Recovery Plan for ARPA money. A total of $18.2 million is set aside for strengthening neighborhoods in the city; $13.3 million is available for making city operations more resilient; $13 million is allocated toward building stronger and healthier communities; and $6.3 million is earmarked for “re-energizing” Fort Wayne.
Megan Butler, a Grant Administrator with the City of Fort Wayne, says there are three general categories of needs the fund addresses: 1) Healthcare, 2) City services that have been impacted by the pandemic, and 3) Resiliency, in case another pandemic arises.
“We had effects on our trash pickup; we had effects on our police department that were attributed to COVID,” Butler says. “We hope to make our community more resilient to any future waves of COVID-19 or future pandemics.”
Last fall, says Butler, the city sent public input surveys to stakeholders. The City of Fort Wayne and the Fort Wayne City Council collaborated in ensuring funds would address the needs of constituents.
So what are some examples of specific projects being funded?
Some of the funding allocated for strengthening neighborhoods has helped the City, in cooperation with the Northeastern Indiana Regional Coordinating Council, replace storm drains with wetlands, which will reduce erosion. Sewers on the South East side of Fort Wayne are not adequate to support new large-scale development, so improving sewer infrastructure there will lead to greater economic development and job opportunities, Butler says. ARPA funds are also going toward improving neighborhood parks across the city.
To make city operations more resilient, some funding is being set aside for cybersecurity improvements, expanding solid waste services (which have been hit hard by the pandemic), upgrading public safety technology, and expanding animal foster care services.
To build a healthier community, one of the city’s main priorities is bolstering mental healthcare, as the pandemic, due to lockdowns, closures, and more, worsened many people’s mental health. Fort Wayne is also working with Super Shot to increase accessibility to vaccines. Public health agencies will benefit from a grant program that helps communities most impacted by the pandemic bolster their defenses, too.
Because South East Fort Wayne has been classified as a food desert, the City of Fort Wayne is using ARPA funds to incubate a full-service grocery store at 918 E. Pontiac St. According to John Perlich, Director of Public Information for Fort Wayne, a formal project update is scheduled for later this week.
Major improvements are set to be made to Franke Park, and the Fort Wayne Fire Department is receiving new personal protective equipment that will lessen the risk of transmissible diseases and better block lung-damaging particles.
“Re-energizing” Fort Wayne includes three grant programs: One to support small businesses, especially those that suffered from the pandemic; another to aid nonprofits that support people or causes that were particularly impacted by COVID-19; and another for tourism, especially for cultural events and services that draw tourists and boost the local economy.
Money is also being used to improve the Pontiac streetscape along the north and south sides of Pontiac St. from Hanna Street to Oliver St. Proposed improvements include a new eight-foot-wide trail on the north side and a five-foot-wide sidewalk on the south side, landscaping, ADA ramp updates, and new street light locations, traffic signals, and storm drainage apparatuses.
Overall, an emphasis has been placed on equitable distribution of the ARPA funding, Butler says.
“A big push with these funds is promotion of equity,” she says. “Because COVID disproportionately impacted certain sectors of the community, the (U.S.) Treasury really does want us pushing and prioritizing funding back into those disproportionately impacted areas. So, even with our grants, that was something we really looked for.”
So how are some of the funds already being put to use? We spoke with two organizations who received grants.
Neighborhood Health is a federally qualified healthcare center, meaning that it intentionally reaches underserved communities by offering longer hours of operation, providing a sliding fee scale, and working with patients who do not have insurance. About a quarter of the population falls into the latter category, according to Sarah Neace, Director of Mission Advancement at Neighborhood Health. Neace says 25 percent of Neighborhood Health’s clientele speak a primary language other than English, so interpreters are also available.
According to Neace, many residents of South East Fort Wayne have “astronomical” health issues.
“There are 10,000 patients who still don’t have insurance in the 46806 zip code,” Neace says. “Being able to tap into a whole new group of people, in which health disparities are real, is super important to us.”
ARPA is helping to provide funding for Neighborhood Health’s Ward project, which entails opening a clinic in the Ward building, located in the Oxford community in South East Fort Wayne. The new clinic will utilize modern infection-preventing approaches.
“I’m excited to see ARPA dollars go toward this location,” says Angie Zaegel, President and CEO of Neighborhood Health. “I think it’s appropriate for ARPA dollars to help fund a site in South East Fort Wayne that will have negative-air-pressure rooms and a separate entrance for people if they have some sort of infectious disease.”
Ultimately, Zaegel says ARPA money will help Neighborhood Health sustain its workforce and expand, as well as continue to help those who are currently underserved.
“I think that everybody knew health disparities were a real problem with certain communities, but to actually see it, through the data on the higher rates of hospitalization and death during the pandemic, was very, very alarming,” Zaegel says.
Hands On Services of Indiana
ARPA is the source of $25,000 received by Hands On Services of Indiana, a Fort Wayne mental healthcare agency that provides services to children and their caregivers (who may or may not be biological parents). Hands On is operated by Regenia Frison Jones and Edward Jones, a husband and wife team. Edward works with young people in the care of Hands On, and Regenia often works with caregivers. Hands On helps kids develop their communication and coping skills, and it assists caregivers in better handling their children’s mental health needs. Hands On also provides respite care in the form of a place for young people to temporarily stay that is safe and offers care.
ARPA funding is helping Hands On expand its respite-care services.
“Generally, children with mental health needs don’t have access to mental health respite homes in a home-like setting,” says Regenia. “Generally, they end up in hospitalization, in an institutional-like setting. So this is a great opportunity for our community, as well as for my husband and me, to provide a home-like setting for children.”
The respite home should be open by mid-December.
COVID-19 impacted children and family mental health in many ways, says Regenia.
“There has always been a need (for children’s mental health care and respite care), and fast-forward to the pandemic, that has really increased the need. I have some parents on my caseload who say they no longer want to parent, and being able to provide a safety net to allow them to emotionally recharge decreases child abuse and decreases children being left alone. So it is a big need.”
Butler believes ARPA funding allocated by the City of Fort Wayne is going to make a tremendous difference.
“I don’t really love to speculate, but I would say there are projects that would be very difficult to do without these funds or that would have been put off for a very long time.”
This story is part of a series on the 8 Domains of Livability in Northeast Indiana, underwritten by AARP.
This story was originally published in Input Fort Wayne with reporting by AJ Hughes and photography by Rachel Von Stroup.
This article is distributed in partnership with the Fort Wayne Media Collaborative, a group of media outlets and educational institutions in Fort Wayne committed to solutions-oriented reporting. More information is available at fwmediacollaborative.com.