KEVIN LEININGER: A story of how a cigar shop helped light the flame of something bigger in downtown Fort Wayne

Rudy Mahara, left, and Ron Buskirk hope to turn the area near the former Wood Shack on Baker Street into a housing, residential and commercial district known as "Brackenridge Village." (Photo by Kevin Leininger of News-Sentinel.com)
Kevin Leininger

When Rudy Mahara opened his self-named cigar bar in a restored Victorian house at 409 W. Brackenridge St. five years ago, the area just west of Parkview Field was mostly dotted with dilapidated old homes that gave little reason for optimism that additional investment would come anytime soon. Then the $22 million Cityscape Flats housing project transformed 2.7 acres across the street, real estate prices and renovations took off and Mahara and some of his patrons began to ponder the possibilities:

What if someone could acquire and upgrade enough of the remaining homes to really make a difference in the neighborhood by attracting more residents and the shops to serve them?

“Brackenridge Village” is the exciting result.

A group of about 15 “Rudy’s” patrons has just bought the recently closed Wood Shack architectural remnant store at 444 W. Baker Street and nine surrounding homes and lots with the long-term goal of renovating them into a mixed-use area featuring apartments on the upper floors and street-level commercial space. Mahara, an investment advisor who manages the group but is not involved in Brackenridge Village LLC, will include about three houses he already owned on Brackenridge in the plan.

“Almost all of the members (of the LLC) are regulars,” Mahara said. “We had fantasized about what the area might look like, and we closed (on the properties) last week. We want to restore their history.”

Located just south of such recent downtown improvements as the riverfront project, Ash Brokerage Building and the Skyline residential tower and north of the proposed Electric Works project, Brackenridge Village seems like a diamond in the rough. Having acquired the properties for an undisclosed price from community activist Jerry Vandeveer, the group does not yet have the capital to finish the project, Mahara admits. So in the short term, they may simply make the vacant homes on Brackenridge, Baker and Fairfield Avenue habitable in order to generate rent that could underwrite further improvements.

The fledgling project epitomizes the goal voiced by city officials when the latest round of publicly-funded downtown improvements began more than a decade ago: that tax dollars would “prime the pump” for future private investment.

Mahara, who has also bought two homes on Fairfield — he lives in one and is restoring the other — said the group includes a contractor, attorney and others with skills and backgrounds that can convert Brackenridge Village from dream to reality. The group would like to acquire additional properties if possible, but Mahara knows public disclosure of the plan will make that efforts more difficult and costly.

Even so, he said, the group has assembled the “critical mass” of properties needed to start what could be a multi-year project that has already drawn interest from such potential businesses as a hard-cider bar, diner and bake shop. In the past, he said, the city had expressed interest in helping to redevelop the area, and the group may seek some form of public funding in the future — perhaps for infrastructure such as lighting, parking and facade improvements.

One of the plan’s greatest asset will be Mahara’s understanding of the bureaucracy governing such things. As I reported in 2011, Mahara’s effort to open Rudy’s was more time-consuming and costly than he initially anticipated, in part because he had to navigate a morass of regulations — such as moving a toilet an inch farther from the wall in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“I just saw an old building and wanted to tear it down. But then my perception changed and I saw its hidden beauty and knew it would be wonderful to preserve it,” he said. Now Mahara and his group want to do the same for much of the surrounding neighborhood, and the city as a whole will benefit if they succeed.

Former Fort Wayne Police officer and health-care consultant and current tour promoter Ron Buskirk doesn’t smoke cigars but he is a friend Mahara’s and one of the people involved in the LLC. “This isn’t anything that will fatten anybody’s wallet, but is is an investment in the long-term future of the area,” he said.

For Rudy’s cigar bar, what initially looked like a risky investment of $175,000 has already paid off. Sales have increased 50 percent every year, and there is a waiting list for the 50 available memberships, although Rudy’s also sells cigars, Indiana wine and beer and other products to the public. Here’s hoping Brackenridge Village enjoys similar success, and inspires still more dreams that no longer seem quite so impossible.

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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