KEVIN LEININGER: Electric Works’ potential will be realized through cooperation, not Darwinism

Karl LaPan, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, hopes Electric Works will grow the region's entrepreneurial pie, not cut it into smaller pieces. (File photo by Kevin Leininger of The News-Sentinel)
City Council is willing to consider millions for the Electric Works project as part of $65 million in local funds sought by developers. (Courtesy image)
Crystal Vann Wallstrom

With its $213 million first phase anticipating about $65 million in local government incentives, the conversion of the decrepit former General Electric campus into the glitzy “Electric Works” is, of course, worthy of Fort Wayne City Council’s attention. And as council members prepare for Tuesday’s special meeting devoted exclusively to the project, they should make certain this question is among those asked and answered:

With that much public money at stake, how can we best ensure it will build upon previous community investments — not duplicate or undermine them?

That topic is very much on Karl LaPan’s mind these days, and the fact that his concern is influenced by self-interest does not make it any less legitimate. As president and CEO of the not-for-profit Northeast Indiana Innovation Center and Park, LaPan knows the importance of creating an environment in which entrepreneurs can thrive, but he also wonders whether Electric Works’ planned 83,000-square-foot innovation center will prove to be a valuable collaborator — or a competitor.

“My hope is that one plus one will equal three. But we’ll see. If it’s Darwinian, it could be a problem,” he said. But while survival of the fittest may be a reality in nature and business and can even prove beneficial, the prospect of additional public subsidies demands more forethought.

The NIIC, which opened in 2001 and as filled 75,000 square feet at 3201 Stellhorn Road since 2005, has received about $4.6 million from city and county governments since it opened, LaPan said, along with $16.4 million from the state.

About 60 percent of its annual budget of about $2.5 million comes from fees generated by the center’s programs for new and emerging businesses, which include a conference center, women’s economic opportunity center, business incubator, coaching, shared workspace and a student venture lab. For now, at least, the NIIC is the largest entrepreneurial community under one roof in northeast Indiana and since 2006 has generated a total payroll of more than $105 million, more than 2,100 jobs and an average salary of nearly $53,000 — 30 percent higher than the regional average. The NIIC makes a special effort to work with female and minority entrepreneurs and works to create sustainable companies, LaPan said, not just self-employment.

“There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors about what entrepreneurialism is,” LaPan said. “It’s not clear to me what (Electric Works) is going to focus on.”

Defining that vision will be the job of Crystal Vann Wallsrtom, who earlier this month was named the project’s managing director of innovation. Vann Wallstrom, who most recently served as director of the Center for Creative Collaboration at Indiana Tech, said that group was helpful specifically because it allowed people involved in the entrepreneurial community to “get to know each other and make sure we don’t duplicate, so we can grow the region collaboratively.”

When she took the job, Vann Wallstrom said she wants “innovation and entrepreneurship to permeate everything (at Electric Works) . . . We want to attract new talent, inspire and develop existing talent and create innovations and new businesses that drive our economy forward.” But LaPan could say the same, and probably has, so the question is: Is Fort Wayne big enough for both of them, and the smaller entrepreneurial programs that already exist or may spring up?

The potential for mutual prosperity certainly is there. Indiana Tech has already announced plans for an Electric Works presence, and the NIIC is located near IPFW and Ivy Tech. GE will have the ability to offer a “live-work” option the NIIC cannot. And, of course, the potentially awesome GE project is central to efforts by Greater Fort Wayne and others to grow the regional population to 1 million by making the area more attractive to millennials.

But that opportunity presents a challenge, too, LaPan said, because, “This can’t be about just millennials. Millennials aren’t starting companies. They’re ‘solopreneurs.’ ”

LaPan knows a vibrant downtown is good for all of Fort Wayne, including his corner of it. But the Electric Works and the NIIC are just 5 miles apart, and their missions are closer than that. LaPan, Vann Wallstrom and others should be talking, even now, about how best to enlarge Fort Wayne’s entrepreneurial pie — not simply cut it into smaller pieces.

The Allen County Commissioners, who recently loaned Electric Works $1 million for environmental cleanup, also provide the NIIC with about $100,000 per year. “All we can do is impress on each of them the need to work together,” Commissioner Nelson Peters said.

“We certainly are of the mindset that Electric Works will be additive to and supportive of, not competitive with, the NIIC and the entrepreneurial community in Fort Wayne,” project spokesman Kevin Erb added.

“This community loves the shiny new penny, but we’ve got to get better together,” LaPan agreed. Electric Works shines very brightly right now, but in the long term, everybody’s luster can be made a little brighter by working together now.

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.

COMMENTS