KEVIN LEININGER: West Central residents pressuring city to support Electric Works; county official seeks another job

West Central Neighborhood Association President Ben Wahli hopes new yard signs can persuade local officials to support the Electric Works project. (News-Sentinel.com photo by Kevin Leininger)
Eric Tippmann
James McIntosh
Kevin Leininger

Contractors are a common site in Fort Wayne’s historic West Central neighborhood these days, but so is something else: a series of yard signs imploring Mayor Tom Henry and City Council members to get behind the massive Electric Works project.

There’s a definite connection between the two, insists Ben Wahli, president of the association that represents about 2,500 households in the mostly residential area immediately to the west of downtown.

“There are a lot of folks who are becoming concerned (Electric Works) won’t be successful, but it’s the key to the southern half of our neighborhood,” said Ben Wahli, who quit his job as an executive at Do it Best last year to devote all his energies to the restoration of old homes. Today, his Wahli Enterprises owns seven properties in West Central, where recent downtown improvements and the prospect of a $220 million mixed-use project on the old General Electric campus have spawned a home-improvement boom Wahli fears will stall if Electric Works does.

And that, frankly, increasingly seems like a real possibility. Developer RTM Ventures says it needs $65 million from local public sources but to date has secured only $3 million from the Allen County Commissioners and Capital Improvement Board for environmental remediation. Mayor Tom Henry last month said he wants to cap the contribution from the city and CIB at $50 million, and county officials have not exactly been eager to close the remaining $12 million gap despite Henry’s public prodding.

Thus the signs — 200 of them so far, more if needed — informing passersby that West Central residents support Electric Works and want Henry and the nine City Council members to do the same. That goes for county officials too, Wahli said. Developers are scheduled to brief County Council on their plans this week.

RELATED: Allen County Commissioners seek meeting, details before increasing Electric Works support

RELATED: Mayor Tom Henry: Electric Works developers must provide more details if they hope to get $65M from public

As I wrote in 2016, passage of the city’s $160 million Harrison Square project a decade earlier marked the beginning of an influx of public and private dollars into big downtown projects, which over time increased the value of nearby residential properties and justified improvements that previously would have been financially risky. The value of downtown residential construction permits increased from $253,744 to more than $1.6 million in 2016, and Wahli said that trend has continued, spreading even into the southern and previously less-trendy portion of the neighborhood anchored by the old GE campus.

“That would be unlikely if not for Electric Works, and we’re worried that if the project fails the investment (in that area) will stop,” he said. Wahli figures that possibility makes the $600 the neighborhood association spent on signs a good investment.

The signs went up last week, and Wahli said the response so far has been positive. “We’ve been calling and e-mailing (public officials), and we talk to the developers weekly,” he said. “If the city doesn’t support this project, it won’t happen. The mayor needs to hear from all of us that we support this project and what it means to our neighborhood.”

In fairness to Henry, $50 million is a lot of money by anybody’s definition and — as he stressed at a press conference last week — elected officials have a duty to spend public money wisely. If he and others honestly believe they need more information before making a decision, they shouldn’t be faulted for that. The developers, in fact, clearly need to do a better job of explaining why Electric Works justifies such a massive taxpayer investment.

But neither should members of the public be faulted for promoting their self interest. Wahli figures some additional traffic would be a small price to pay for millions of dollars of new investment in his neighborhood, and believes the jobs, taxes and economic activity that would result would benefit the entire county, not just his little corner of it.

The political process is supposed to weigh all those competing interests, and that’s exactly what’s happening now. Whatever Electric Works’ fate, it’s a promising sign.

Public service

As an at-large member of County Council, Eric Tippmann represents every resident of Allen County — more than 368,000 of them. So why is he challenging incumbent James McIntosh in the May 8 Republican primary for Perry Township Trustee, a job with about 30,000 constituents?

“I don’t quite understand why, but it’s good for voters to have choices,” said McIntosh, who is seeking a second term but suggested one possible motive: Tippmann earns $16,950 as a councilman but would make $36,500 as trustee. Tippmann, however, said money has nothing to do with it.

“There’s no agenda. I can just have a bigger impact (as trustee), said Tippmann, who was elected to the seven-member council in 2016 and will not have to resign if he loses in May.

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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