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Teen leading effort to save historic downtown building

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The Fort Report

This week's guest will be Director of Redevelopment Greg Leatherman, who will discuss the city's role in redeveloping downtown, the Southtown Mall site and future projects. The episode will premiere at 5:30 p.m. Saturday on Comcast Channel 57 and FiOS Channel 27 and later at www.news-sentinel.com.

But time, $71 million development may doom former Anthony Wayne Institute

Thursday, January 16, 2014 - 12:01 am

A century-old downtown building's historic value might have prevented its demolition and, in the end, gave the owner the leverage needed to sell it to the city for nearly three times its appraised value. Now a local student hopes to move the structure before a $71 million redevelopment project turns it and several neighbors into antique rubble.

Matthew Reibs knows he's working against time, money and the odds, but is willing to give it the old high school try. The 3,500 or so people who have visited his “Save 226 W. Wayne St.” Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/save226westwayne) in its first two weeks apparently believe it's a battle worth fighting.

Reibs' supporters, including "Rehab Edict" TV star Nicole Curtis and a descendent of the building's first owner, are right -- even if the effort is likely to be too little, far too late.

“It's an architectural masterpiece. There's nothing like it for miles,” the Concordia Lutheran High School senior said as he stood outside the columned two-story brick building that is slated to be replaced by Ash Brokerage's national headquarters, businesses, apartments, condominiums and a parking garage. “Some people think I want to stop the project, but I don't. I think it's a great thing. But I wish they had given the community more input or had offered the building to investors. The building has a unique story that deserves to be remembered.”

That story began with its construction around 1918, when it became home to the Anthony Wayne Institute, an early business school which moved to a new location by 1934 and was replaced by offices of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration, an American Legion Post and, later, several graphic-arts firms and the Better Business Bureau. City planners have deemed the structure historically significant, and in August former owner Deer Pointe Properties asked the city to designate the building a local historic district, which would have prevented demolition without approval of the Historic Preservation Review Board. But the request was withdrawn just before the meeting, apparently because the owners were negotiating a sale to the city.

In October the city's Redevelopment Commission paid $875,000 for the property even though it was appraised at $312,500. But that appraisal, Reibe and others say, indicates the recently renovated building has enough value to justify the expense of relocation. He's hoping to begin a fund-raising campaign with historic preservation group ARCH before it's too late.

If it isn't already.

“We know that many Fort Wayne citizens care deeply about our community's history and architecture, and whenever possible we work with property owners and advocates to preserve historic properties,” city spokesman John Perlich said. “Preserving property and economic development sometimes conflict, however, and in this case, the cost would be prohibitive. It would cost more than $500,000 for moving expenses, acquisition of a new site downtown, foundation work, utility work, site preparation and contingencies.

“It's great to see a young person who's committed to our city, (but) with this particular case, the demolition and construction timeline makes (moving the building) very difficult. We intend to move forward with the construction schedule."

Perlich said city officials hope to meet with Reibs soon, but demolition is scheduled to begin this spring. Clearly, however, the building's owners, city officials and developers were aware of the project even before I first reported it last Sept. 10 – two weeks before Mayor Tom Henry made the official announcement. Preservationists may have been tardy getting involved, but people with advance knowledge of the project should have been exploring whether relocation made financial sense when there was still time to do something about it.

Neither taxpayers nor developers should be expected to underwrite a relocation that doesn't work financially, but there is plenty of vacant land downtown that would instantly become more useful and valuable with the addition of such a unique building, and saving the cost of demolition is not insignificant.

It's worth remembering that Cindy's Diner, which is almost next door, will be relocated as part of the Ash project -- a much less costly move, admittedly.

Reibs hopes to make a career out of his love for such structures, possibly by restoring and selling historic buildings. As such, his efforts now will be useful training, because there will be other projects, with other old buildings in the way. That makes this a good time to consider creation of a revolving fund that could help pay for the relocation of financially viable buildings, with the money recouped through the sale of the property and used again.

What better "legacy" could we leave our children? Progress requires that some aspects of the past make room for the future – and that others become part of the future. The trick is to know the difference, and to plan accordingly.

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.