As executive director of the Reclamation Project, it's Angie Harrison's mission to convert the old Rialto Theater into an agency to assist local refugees. But, more than 10 years after her organization was founded, she knows its ultimate success depends upon the vitality of the surrounding neighborhoods.
And so, not long ago Harrison persuaded city officials to create a first for Fort Wayne: a so-called “community based development organization” encompassing the Calhoun Street corridor from the southern edge of downtown south to the Rialto at Calhoun and Pontiac streets. The details are still being finalized, but the organization, which will be a priority for city technical assistance and funding, aims to transform the area “into an anchor for economic development and neighborhood stability” and organize leadership in the area that will help plan and implement projects that will attract and support business.
“When (Harrison) came to us the timing was right, with what's going on downtown. How does Calhoun come to the downtown party?” said Heather Presley-Cowen, the city's deputy director of community development.
Eight years ago, Oyster Bar owner Steve Gard wasn't sure his restaurant at 1830 S. Calhoun was going to benefit from Harrison Square and other improvements that were just beginning to take root downtown. Gard had objected to the ultimately rejected plan that would have placed the hotel now at Harrison Street and Jefferson Boulevard further to the north, saying it would have minimized the benefit to businesses south of downtown.
Now, however, Gard says Parkview Field and other projects have sparked renewed optimism along his stretch of Calhoun – and he's optimistic the proposed organization will help continue that momentum.
“I've been here 28 years (the Oyster Bar opened in 1888), and I had my second-best year ever in 2013,” Gard said. “Some businesses have left over the years (such as Korte Paper and Irmscher Suppliers), but we've had investment, too (including Sanco Industries and Calhoun Street Soup, Salads and Spirits), and we just put $30,000 into our exterior. We're seeing some real stabilization and solid growth, and hopefully we can get more businesses to invest. Angie (Harrison) is a fireball”
Gard said a meeting of affected property owners is being organized to shape the organization's structure and mission. Part of the process, Presley-Cowen said, will be to develop a corridor revitalization strategy that will help integrate the Calhoun corridor to surrounding neighborhoods, such as Williams-Woodland Park, West Central, Creighton Home and LaRez.
That's important, Gard said, because some of the challenges faced by Calhoun Street property owners are posed by blight on nearby streets.
One of the corridor's unique features represents both an opportunity and a challenge, Gard and Presley-Cowen agree. With about 30 percent of the people working and living near Calhoun non-English speakers, communication – and hence cooperative action -- can be a problem. The city can address that by providing interpreters and other help, Presley-Cowen said.
The new organization will also have the authority, if it chooses to use it, of assessing a fee on property within the area that could be used for improvements selected by the group. The Downtown Improvement District already provides various services through such an assessment, and Gard thinks such a proposal might make sense along Calhoun, too.
“Nobody likes to pay more taxes, but I compare it to my business. My costs go up every year, and I'd be out of business if I didn't raise my prices. It's the same with taxes,” he said. “If we're successful and properties improve, it will raise everybody's values.”
Broadway and Wells, like Calhoun, were developed at a time when small shops mingled with homes and apartments – an idea that was once frowned upon by urban planners but is back in vogue. With the city already planning a study of housing needs in south Fort Wayne, the Calhoun Street corridor will now by scrutinized as well, Presley-Cowen said. And if all goes well, Calhoun Street will again be what it once was: A bustling combination of commerce and residences.
“I've already had a lot of calls from 'millennials' (people born between the early 1980s and 2000s. who are interested in South Calhoun,” Presley-Cowen said. “We want to help it organically come together.”
And if it does, she said, other urban corridors with similar challenges and potential may receive similar attention.