To understand the big picture, sometimes you've got to focus on the details – as the proposed uses of the city's $75 million “Legacy” fund illustrate.
As The News-Sentinel's Christian Sheckler reported this week, committees appointed by Mayor Tom Henry have recommended spending money from the sale of the old City Light electric utility on everything from riverfront development (a good idea) to an expensive makeover for the old Wells Street Bridge, which has been closed to vehicular traffic for years (maybe not so good). But one broad proposal – a $5 million grant to draw colleges downtown – is especially interesting because at least one detailed plan has already been offered to make it a reality.
If the University of St. Francis gets its way, it will use $4 million of that proposed $5 million pot to expedite a major expansion of a “downtown campus” that was begun with last year's purchase of the Scottish Rite Center at 431 W. Berry St. Now called the Performing Arts Center, the facility will be part of the university's new Media Entrepreneurship Training in the Arts (META) program.
But that was only the beginning of the $12 million campus project. The university also wants to buy the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce Building at 826 Ewing St. for use by its School of Business – something that would bring about 300 students, faculty and staff downtown – along with a parking lot and vacant single-story commercial building on Main Street that could provide parking and additional room for growth. Chamber officials said two years ago a sale would allow the organization to “increase its downtown presence and potentially enhance e collaboration with fellow economic development organizations.”
“The neat part is that (Legacy funding) would take a long-term plan and accelerate it so that it could happen within 12 to 18 months. It's an exciting opportunity for Fort Wayne to become known as a 'college town,' ” university spokeswoman Trois Hart said, adding that the school's crowded main campus at 2701 Spring St. could use the space vacated by the business school.
Ironically, St. Francis' vision of a downtown campus may have ended before it even began had Indiana Tech's efforts to buy Scottish Rite for use by its new law school succeeded. Indiana Tech ultimately chose to erect a new building on its campus just east of downtown. The Scottish Rite and adjoining properties had also been considered for a possible casino.
According to St. Francis' Legacy presentation, its expanded downtown campus – just a few blocks from the Harrison Square redevelopment project – would “beautify and fully utilize stagnant buildings and land (and) positively impact nearby businesses and residential communities.” Part of that benefit, Hart said, would come from students' ability to work with and learn from businesses located near the downtown campus.
Without Legacy dollars, downtown expansion could take 10 years. And, with no deals in place, there's no guarantee the Chamber building or other targeted properties will be available that long – especially if other current and proposed projects make downtown real estate even more attractive.
That might complicate St. Francis' plans, but it would suit Bill Brown just fine.
As interim president of the Downtown Improvement District, it's Brown job to promote growth there. He's convinced St. Francis' proposed campus would “fit very well” downtown. “More students means you'll have more people living downtown,” he added – with money to spend that in turn could attract more restaurants, shops and businesses.
But the DID is not backing St. Francis only, which is why its board will discuss downtown and riverfront Legacy proposals at its meeting this week. Some of those proposals may be suspect, and even the good ones may raise questions, such as whether public funds should subsidize a private, religious institution.
The reality is that, when you put $75 million on the table and ask for ways to spend it, you're going to get plenty of ideas, good and bad. The same no doubt will prove true of the $89 million the city's Capital Improvement Board will have to spend within 15 years. Using that much money wisely, in ways that reject short-term cosmetic, emotional or political gain in favor of a lasting and dynamic “legacy” will not be easy.
But it's a problem this city is incredibly lucky to have.