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Contentious landfill's legacy: Little to show for $500,000 and 200 acres

More than a decade later, plans by New Haven, ministers' group remain elusive

Saturday, June 15, 2013 - 6:10 am

A 2002 settlement of a long and bitter legal battle over a now-closed hazardous-waste landfill sent $500,000 to New Haven for a community center and nearly 200 adjacent acres to central-city ministers who hoped the land would “become a long-term source of revenue for the people of the southeast side.”

More than a decade later, however, those plans remain elusive despite the fact that New Haven spent thousands of dollars on now-outdated plans and the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance in 2007 made more than $386,000 by selling its land, which eventually became the Allen County Sheriff Department's training facility.

Both New Haven and the Alliance say they still hope to show tangible results of a deal that followed the 1998 demise of the facility at Adams Center and Paulding roads. But a civil-rights leader who remembers when critics were accusing the owners of the Adams Center Landfill of “environmental racism” insists the Alliance's sale of its property and subsequent lack of investment in the community deserve more scrutiny than they have received.

“I was stunned when they sold the property,” said the Rev. Michael Latham of Renaissance Baptist Church, who formerly served as both Alliance vice president and as president of the local NAACP chapter. “I hate to say it, but I know nothing about (where the money went), and wonder daily why I would not know.

“It bothers me. There should be an accounting.”

But the Rev. Mike Nickleson of Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, former Alliance president and the author of the “long-term source of revenue” statement, said the dream is merely deferred – not dead.

“We're working on it,” said Nickleson, who said the Alliance is especially concerned about the lack of full-service restaurants on Fort Wayne's southeast side and could consider buying property that might attract such a business.

As for New Haven, Parks Director Mike Clendenen said about $70,000 was spent on plans for a community center before it became apparent that the 110,000-square-foot, $15 million facility originally envisioned was impractical.

The city eventually gained permission from Chemical Waste Management Inc., which owned the landfill, to use the remaining funds for general parks improvements. Now, however, plans have changed again and New Haven hopes to use the settlement as “seed money” toward a more-realistic 40,000-square-foot facility on Werling Road expected to cost between $4 million and $7 million.

Was the money already spent wasted?

“You have to go through stages so you can say you've looked at all options,” Clendenen said.

Because wisdom is more important than speed where spending money is concerned, the snail-like pace of both projects is not inherently suspicious. But the presence of one of Indiana's only hazardous-waste landfills was one of Fort Wayne's most-contentious issues for many years, and it would be both unfortunate and unacceptable if the landfill's only public legacies remain its now-dormant mound and a police facility that, with little more than a shooting range, has so far fallen short of Sheriff Ken Fries' $11 million dream.

Court settlements are most often driven by legal necessity, not public policy. Still, in retrospect it might have been better had better planning and more accountability preceded distribution of the money and land. As a public entity, the city of New Haven has a legal obligation to be transparent when spending public funds. It has met that requirement, but moving forward must do more to ensure that settlement funds are spent not only openly but effectively. No capital campaign for a community center will succeed without it.

The Alliance, on the other hand, is a private organization free to use the landfill proceeds as it sees fit. But surely talk of using the property to benefit the southeast side creates at least a moral obligation to spend the money wisely and as openly as possible.

Until the group creates a credible plan and presents it to the people Cehmical Waste's donation was intended to help – preferably with the help of people skilled in economic or community development -- Latham isn't the only one who will perceive a lack of action and public accountability.

There's been enough waste because of that landfill already.