News-Sentinel: 4 Fort Wayne projects selected as finalists for Knight Cities Challenge grants

Article originally appears in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel

By Kevin Kilbane,

Entrepreneurial spirit and talent gush from many young people in northeast Indiana. Steve Franks hopes to encourage that creativity even more through the Student Storefront project.

The project would provide an actual working retail space in downtown Fort Wayne that would sell products made by area high school and college students and also employ college students as interns to staff and manage the store, Franks said.

His idea is one of four local projects in the 144 national finalists announced today in the annual Knight Cities Challenge grant program. The finalists were selected from more than 4,500 applications, a news release said. Grant recipients will be announced in June.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation started the Knight Cities Challenge three years ago to fund innovative projects that improve life in the 26 cities where the Knight brothers once owned newspapers, including The News-Sentinel in Fort Wayne.

The program seeks projects that attract and retain talent, build economic opportunity, and increase people's civic involvement. The Knight Foundation provides $5 million to be shared among the winning projects.

Last year, the Tired A Lot project submitted by Rena Bradley of Bridge of Grace Compassionate Ministries Center in southeast Fort Wayne was selected as one of the winners. The Knight Foundation provided more than $95,000 for project, which this summer will involve youth in identifying a community problem and designing a plan to address the problem by giving a makeover to a vacant lot. The students and neighbors will collaborate to build the project.

The idea for the Student Storefront project grew out of Franks’ work with the local Believe in a Dream foundation's high school business plan competition and through the successful pop-up shop he organized last year for students at New Tech Academy at Wayne High School, he said. An entrepreneurial coach for the Start Fort Wayne entrepreneurial development program, Franks also serves on the board of Believe in a Dream, which sponsors youth development programs in orchestra and business planning.

Franks believes an opportunity exists for a permanent program that provides a product distribution channel for student entrepreneurs. He also envisions it offering real-world business experience to student product makers and to college students interested in careers in retail sales and merchandising, the latter of whom would staff and manage the Student Storefront store.

In addition, the store would allow students to test products and business ventures in a safe environment where they can fail without embarrassment or risk of hefty financial losses, he said.

“It is our job to make them understand we are completely serious about helping them become entrepreneurs,” Franks said.

The Student Storefront, which Franks envisions becoming self-supporting, already has the support of the Indiana Tech Center for Creative Collaboration, and one of the school’s business classes will help him think through the project’s business plan, he said. He hopes to work with other area colleges and universities, as well as with young entrepreneurs at high schools around northeast Indiana.

Franks said the Believe in a Dream foundation is so excited about the project, its board has approved going forward with it even if he doesn’t get a Knight Cities Challenge grant.

Believe in a Dream can only provide a small amount of seed money, however, so a Knight grant would give the project a much stronger start, he said.

Franks plans to scout for a downtown location for the store, which he hopes will open by this summer. Student entrepreneurs interested in having their products considered for sale in the store can contact Franks at

Entrepreneurship will be the key to growing and maintaining a thriving local economy, he said. The world, markets and technologies change constantly, and communities must keep creating new businesses to respond to those changes.

“We want to nurture those people,” he said of student entrepreneurs. “We want them right here to grow our economy.”