KEVIN LEININGER: National attention for ‘Electric Works’ is justified, but so is caution
No less than the Wall Street Journal has just recognized the vision and potential of the most ambitious redevelopment project in Fort Wayne’s history — and tempered the justified enthusiasm over recent successes with an appropriate note of caution.
“Today: An Abandoned GE Factory. Tomorrow: Hip Lofts” read the headline above the story about the proposed conversion of the city’s 39-acre former General Electric campus into the “Electric Works” at a cost of $440 million or so. But as the article by Shibani Mahtani makes clear, the metamorphosis from an abandoned former industrial site into a trendy community focal point won’t happen tomorrow or anytime soon even if everything continues to go well.
Electric Works has been compared to the redevelopment of the former American Tobacco campus in Durham, N.C., which has brought new economic activity and vitality to that city’s core. A similar makeover produced similar results in St. Louis, the Journal notes.
It just didn’t happen overnight.
Electric Works developers Kevan Biggs of Decatur and Baltimore-based Cross Street Partners hope to start work this summer and be ready for leasing in 2020. But as Mahtani noted, the Durham project opened in 2004 “but has only become a serious magnet for millennial talent in the past six years or so . . . It will take almost a decade to completely overhaul the entire factory space (in Fort Wayne) that made motors and transformers for GE.”
The first of two phase will focus on buildings west of Broadway and is expected to cost $213 million, producing 224,000 square feet of office space, 113,000 square feet of institutional/education space, 83,000 square feet for retail/restaurants and a food hall, 83,000 square feet of dedicated innovation space/facilities, 82,000 square feet of residential space and 31,000 square feet of amenity/recreational space. That doesn’t even include equally ambitious plans for the campus east of Broadway.
I mention this not to minimize what has already been achieved but to stress the need for good stewardship of public funds in lights of the daunting challenges that remain. The Allen County Commissioners and the Capital Improvement Board last month pledged a total of $3 million in loans to begin environmental clean up and the Indiana Economic Development Corp. approved a $50 million tax credit — reportedly the largest in its history. But investors must still be found to buy those and millions of dollars in other anticipated credits. Additional private capital is being sought, along with an undetermined amount from the city’s Legacy fund and, possibly, additional contributions from the CIB, which controls food and beverage tax revenues.
Indiana Tech announced last month its intention to occupy 10,000 square feet, but Brian Engelhart, vice president of marketing and communication said “There isn’t a lease yet . . . We are currently working with the developer on potential ideas for the space, which could be the home of a new program, or space for an existing, growing program, or potentially a partnership with an area company or organization. Once those details are firmed up, the associated costs and lease would be created.”
Meanwhile, according to project spokesman Kevin Erb of Ferguson Advertising, “We are in the midst of conversations with a number of high-quality potential tenants, and we expect to have an announcement on another one relatively soon.”
So perhaps it easy to see why Rob Paral of the Chicago Council of Global Affairs told Mahtani be believes the Electric Works is “swimming upstream.” But that just means the journey is more difficult, not unimportant or impossible.
As the story acknowledged, downtown Fort Wayne is already being transformed, with a variety of new offices, restaurants and apartments already open, under construction or planned. And as I reported last month, population downtown increased by more than 14 percent between 2000 and 2017 compared to just 5 percent for Fort Wayne as a whole.
If that trend continues, and there is no indication it won’t, that can’t help but be good news for Electric Works and justify the attention it is receiving. As long as the developers, officials and the public don’t expect to much too soon.
New president Tom Freistroffer may be City Council’s least-political member, but that may mean 2018 is just the calm before the storm. New Vice President John Crawford, R-at large, is expected to lead council next year — a year in which he says he is “99 percent sure” he’ll run for mayor.
Would that influence the actions of the Republican-dominated council, especially if Democratic incumbent Tom Henry seeks a fourth term? Stay tuned.
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 email@example.com or call him at 461-8355.