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COLUMN

Plan for downtown 'culinary corridor' is an appetizing idea

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For more information on the proposed Fort Wayne Culinary Institute, email Jason Smith at jason@jtsmith.net

Student-operated restaurant, year-round public market proposed for Barr Street

Saturday, October 5, 2013 - 12:01 am

Imagine a downtown “culinary corridor” that includes not only classrooms and a restaurant run for and by future restaurateurs, but also a year-round public market.

It will still take a little luck and a lot of money to make it happen, but significant progress has already been made toward the realization of the two visions that are separate, yet made for each other.

Incorporated in July, the directors of the not-for-profit Fort Wayne Culinary Institute hope to buy the mostly vacant historic building at 825 Barr St. and convert it into classrooms that will provide students the skills needed to run a restaurant – with a ground-floor restaurant in which they can put those skills to use while generating the income needed to sustain the program and provide start-up grants to food-related entrepreneurs.

Ivy Tech, which already provides culinary instruction, has tentatively pledged to participate, as has Arts United. Both organizations are represented on the board, which also includes Leadership Fort Wayne Director Cheri Becker, Karl Bandemer of Greater Fort Wayne Inc. and City Councilman Tom Smith, R-1st.

The proposed location is appropriate, because Barr Street has been identified with food since the 1830s, when city father Sam Hanna donated land there for a public market and city hall. At a cost of $20,000, permanent pavilions were built in 1910 but were town down in the late 1950s, and market activity there has been sporadic ever since.

But now a downtown public market committee created a few years ago with the help of the city and the Downtown Improvement District has identified the building at 315 E. Washington Blvd. as the preferred site of a year-round enclosed market that would also feature outside pavilions reminiscent of the good old days.

The city paid $30,000 to bring a well-known consultant to town in 2011, and he ultimately recommended putting the facility in Lawton Park, in part to reduce start-up costs. But isolating the market north of the confluence of the three rivers generated little enthusiasm, said board member Angie Quinn.

A market on Barr Street would not only be historically appropriate but would make

practical sense, she said – especially if a culinary institute is just a block away.

Jason Smith, who helped create a local restaurant and bar, is executive director of the Culinary Institute and hopes to be operational a year from now. Its first year could see the graduation of 12 students, sales of $975,000 and distribution of $100,000 in start-up grants, and Smith's business plan calls for the operation to be self-sustaining. Quinn has a similar goal for the market. Both facilities would have some excess space that could generate rental income.

But both projects will need some help with start-up costs first.

Quinn put market start-up costs at about $650,000. As for the institute, it must buy the building and spend another $750,000 in renovations. Smith has been talking to potential private donors, but like Quinn also hopes to attract public funds – such as capital improvement dollars or money from the city's Legacy fund, some of which is earmarked for downtown educational uses.

Tom Smith, who will have something to say about such things in his role as councilman, likes the idea.

“Working with Ivy Tech is a winner. If we can pull this off it will be the talk of the town,” he said. “This could continue the transformation of downtown. People like the idea.”

Attorney Andy Boxberger, president of the Arts United Board, certainly does.

“It's really exciting. We're here to support the arts and culture, and culinary arts are an art form,” he said, noting financial support may be available down the line.

With other restaurants and cultural attractions already nearby, the presence of the Culinary Institute and year-round market on Barr Street would indeed continue the momentum that been building downtown for the past several years. Jason Smith said the Institute's restaurant would offer “new American” cuisine at affordable prices, creating up to 25 jobs. The proposed combination of culinary arts training and entrepreneurship could be unique in the nation, he said.

Whether such cool, symbiotic ideas are enough to attract the needed investment remains to be seen. One person who has been asked for a contribution toward the Culinary Institute said he is interested and supportive but not yet ready to commit. But there's no denying the appeal of projects that pay homage to the city's past while working to boost its future, and with so many credible people and institutions involved, the creation of a culinary corridor in downtown Fort Wayne is an idea that can't be dismissed as half-baked.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.