Did IU Health’s plans influence Fort Wayne City Council’s ‘North River’ vote?

As the billboard along Interstate 69 says, IU Health is coming to Fort Wayne, and maybe even downtown. (Photo by Lisa Esquivel Long of The News-Sentinel)
John Crawford

When five members of City Council on Tuesday agreed to buy 29 acres north of downtown for $4.63 million despite the uncertain cost of removing leftover industrial waste, some members said they believed the rewards ultimately would justify the risk.

Their votes might have been based on more than faith, The News-Sentinel has learned.

Prior to Tuesday’s vote, representatives of IU Health — which in October announced plans to enter the market next year — met with council members to outline IU’s plans for Fort Wayne. Those plans potentially include the development of the so-called “North River” site, possibly for a hospital or other medical facilities.

John Crawford, R-at large and also a physician, said he was briefed by former Lutheran Health Network CEO Brian Bauer, who is now working to organize IU Health’s local operations. “They are interested in (the property), it’s an actionable plan and I very much agree with their vision,” said Crawford, who when he voted in favor of the purchase expressed confidence development of the property would generate more than enough economic activity and taxes to justify the decision.

Although some IU Health facilities are not-for-profit, Crawford said a facility on the North River site probably would be taxable. That’s important, because city officials hope to use income from the development to pay for clean up and other costs. Vacant for years, the land was most recently the site of an OmniSource scrap yard, and a 2007 study indicates clean-up could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, city officials say.

Russ Jehl, R-2nd, also spoke with IU Health representatives. He opposed the purchase but said he might have been willing to support the agreement had the property’s owners been willing to share the results of that decade-old study with council prior to the vote. Without access to the information, he said, not even IU Health’s plans could justify a breach of his responsibility to protect tax dollars.

Council President Tom Didier, R-3rd said he spent 20 minutes reviewing IU Health’s preliminary plans for Fort Wayne. “I got a feeling a hospital would work there,” Didier said, noting his vote was based in part on nearby neighborhoods’ support for the purchase.

IU officials made no commitments about North River, council members said, and would not have been in a position to do so in any case. City officials have said nothing will happen until they seek proposals from potential developers of the site. A timeline for that process will be established in the coming weeks, city spokesman John Perlich said.

IU Health officials did not respond to requests for comment. As The News-Sentinel first reported, they are planning a primary care facility in an existing building at Engle Road and West Jefferson Boulevard and two large outpatient facilities, with additional facilities possible later.

Bauer was fired by Lutheran Health’s Tennessee-based parent company, Community Health Systems, after a group led by local doctors was unsuccessful in its effort to buy the local network for $2.4 billion in May. Lutheran Health also previously expressed interest in the North River site for a possible replacement for St. Joseph Hospital but announced earlier this month it had decided to look elsewhere.