KEVIN LEININGER: State could help bring another headquarters to downtown Fort Wayne, boost GE project and hotel

The CIB has been asked for $45 million for Electric Works, but the real total would be far higher. (Courtesy image)

A state agency is poised to provide a huge boost to three major Fort Wayne projects — one of which could continue the trend of corporate headquarters relocating downtown.

In addition to requests for a $50 million tax credit for the redevelopment of the former General Electric campus and a credit of about $4 million for a new “boutique” hotel on Harrison Street, the Indiana Economic Development Corp. on Thursday is scheduled to consider tax credits for Ruoff Mortgage Co., which is considering moving its headquarters from its current location at 1700 Magnavox Way. Company and state officials declined to comment or specify the size of the amount of the credit sought, but one possible location for the new Ruoff headquarters appears to be at the corner of Jefferson and Ewing Boulevards on vacant city-owned land that was once occupied by J&M Auto but is now being used as a staging area for contractors on the adjacent Cityscape Flats housing project.

City spokeswoman Mary Tyndall, however, confirmed the company’s interest.

“Ruoff Mortgage having interest in investing in the heart of Fort Wayne would be good news for our community and region,” she said. “The city has had discussions with Ruoff about their interest in doing a project, however, no agreements are in place.”

Even so, adding another 150 jobs downtown would be a fitting addition to a similar decision made four years ago by another financial-services firm — a decision that took what was already a downtown renaissance to new heights. Ash Brokerage’s new $29 million headquarters and the adjacent parking garage and residential tower were followed by still more investment and jobs, including the decision by the moving company SIRVA last year to move its 400-employee headquarters into the Indiana Michigan Power Center.

Developers raise money for their projects by selling tax credits to investors, approval of a $50 million credit would mark a major step forward for the “Electric Works” project on the GE campus that to date has seemed to have more big plans and appealing pictures than cash.

“They wouldn’t be the first dollars in, but (the credit) is a very important piece of our ‘capital stack,’ ” said Kevan Biggs of Decatur-based Biggs Property Management, who is developing the project with Baltimore-based Cross Street Partners estimated to cost $300 million — and that’s probably conservative. Biggs said he expects the private sector to account for at least 40 percent of the cost, but said the state tax credit could be used as a match for local public dollars, such as the city’s Legacy fund or food and beverage taxes controlled by the Capital Improvement Board.

Confirming what I reported last month, Biggs said the project will seek $3 million from the CIB to cover costs associated with environmental clean up of the site. That decision could come as soon as next week.

The former GE buildings contain more than 300,000 square feet of space, and development plans include a mix of residential, commercial, educational and other uses. Biggs said the search for “anchor” large tenants and others occupants continues, and developers have said they hope to begin construction next year.

Whether that ambitious timetable can be met remains to be seen, of course, but there’s little doubt Fort Wayne is on a roll or, as Mayor Tom Henry likes to say, has built “momentum.” The public sector has perhaps done more than its share to make that happen, but perhaps City Councilman John Crawford will be proven right this week when he labeled the amount of private investment in the proposed $61.7 million riverfront commercial, housing and parking project a “tipping point” in a positive direction.

Hopefully the Electric Works will continue that trend, as will the $27 million, 125-room boutique project by Oregon-based Provenance Hotels, which has received millions of dollars in public incentives but also has the backing and vision of Vera Bradley co-founder Barbara Baekgaard. The arrival downtown of Ruoff, which since 1984 has grown to 500 employees in four states, a $2 billion annual loan volume and recently made a national splash by acquiring the naming rights to the former Klipsch Music Center in Noblesville, could prove momentous, too.

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.

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