KEVIN LEININGER: Mayor Tom Henry is proud of the seeds he’s planted and can’t wait to reap the harvest

Despite a "heck of a year," Mayor Tom Henry still won't say whether he'll seek re-election in 2019. (File photo by Kevin Leininger of The News-Sentinel)
News-Sentinel columnist Kevin Leininger, left, enjoys photos of Fort Wayne Christmas past with U.S. Rep. Jim Banks and Steve Shine during last year's "Holiday Movie Marathon." Leininger and Shine will do it again Monday between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. (Courtesy photo)

As winter begins and another year recedes, Mayor Tom Henry seems almost like an expectant farmer: Good seeds have been planted; now it’s time to watch them grow.

“2017 was a heck of a year,” Henry recalled as he looked back at a series of accomplishments expected to sprout or reach maturity in the next 12 months, any of one of which would have challenged for the top story in previous years and together more than justify Henry’s overused but accurate assertion that Fort Wayne has “momentum” — and means to keep it.

As Henry runs down the list, the enormity of the ongoing transformation of our once-sleepy downtown into something so potentially trendy Fort Wayne was recently named one of America’s “hippest” cities becomes obvious. The $44 million, 124-unit Skyline residential tower should open next year, and construction on the $32 million conversion of the Columbia Street Landing into shops, restaurants and apartments should begin. Work should also begin on two downtown hotels: a $27 million, 125-room facility by Oregon-based Provenance at Main and Harrison streets and a $20 million, 125-room Hampton Inn near Parkview Field.

And as I first reported this month, the $61.7 million “Riverview” project will add new shops, apartments and a 1,000-space parking garage to the mix and Ruoff Home Mortgage is also planning a $36 million headquarters at West Jefferson Boulevard and Ewing streets — a facility Henry said would feature up to nine stories and another parking garage.

Last but far from least is the Electric Works project on the former General Electric campus, the $213 million first phase of which is expected to begin this summer. Indiana Tech recently became the project’s first announced tenant, and Henry said another tenant is expected to be announced soon.

All of that doesn’t even include the 30-acre ” North River” property city recently bought for $4.6 million and is being eyed by IU Health, among others. With Riverview planned on the south bank of the St. Marys River, Henry said, it might just be possible to see another “mixed use” project announced on the north shore on land that was most recently a scrap yard. The city will begin to seek potential developers in January

“And one of us (city officials) could get a call tomorrow about a potential project, the way developers of Riverview called us a year ago,” Henry said.

City Councilman John Crawford has said Riverview could represent a “tipping point” for downtown redevelopment because it contains a greater percentage of private investment than most previous projects. That’s good, because the restaurant tax controlled by the Capital Improvement Board and the city’s Legacy fund are being stretched to their limits. With Electric Works developers projecting a $65 million local funding commitment, both sources are likely to be asked for more in the coming weeks and months.

Add to that $30 million in neighborhood improvements planned for 2018 and major improvements to State Boulevard, Ardmore Avenue and Goshen Road on the books and it’s easy to see why Henry backed off plans for a $105 million downtown arena. With local resources stretched, the project would have needed help from state officials, and without widespread public support Henry wisely decided against asking for an increase in sports development revenues.

“We needed to make a bold statement (in support of the arena), but it was a significant investment and I was asking the city to absorb a lot,” Henry said.

Fully recovered from 2016 heart surgery, Henry insists he has the “greatest job in the world” but remains non-committal about seeking a fourth term in 2019. “I’ve not ruled it out, but we’ll see,” he said. Businessman Tim Smith is a likely Republican candidate, and Crawford is also leaning that way.

Not everyone has been thrilled with the degree to which Henry has been willing to subsidize private projects with public money, but there’s no denying Fort Wayne is a different — and I would suggest better — place because of it. Fort Wayne’s next mayor, whoever it is, will reap the benefits along with the rest of us.

Have a movie Christmas

Monday is Christmas Day, which means it’s time for Steve Shine’s annual “Holiday Movie Marathon on MyTV Fort Wayne Channel 21.3 (over the air), Comcast Channel 252 and 1024 and Frontier/FiOS Channel 9, Mediacom Channel 10 and DirectTV Channel 22.

The marathon will run from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and I’ll be Shine’s guest during breaks in “Gulliver’s Travels” from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. as we reminisce about local Christmases past with the help of photos from The News-Sentinel archives.

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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