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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

Bigger economic, political issues fuel south-side gas station debate

Police searched for shell casings after three people were wounded in an early morning shooting at the BP gas station at 4224 S. Anthony Blvd. in 2008. (News-Sentinel file photo)
Police searched for shell casings after three people were wounded in an early morning shooting at the BP gas station at 4224 S. Anthony Blvd. in 2008. (News-Sentinel file photo)
Sharon Tucker
Sharon Tucker
Tom Niezer
Tom Niezer
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Tuesday, April 18, 2017 12:01 am

 "We're primarily concerned with whether a project fits the neighborhood. A place with lights and congestion 24 hours a day is not neighborhood friendly," city planner Pam Holocher said, explaining the alarm created by the growing number of gas station-convenience stores on the southeast side.

That was eight years ago, which means the current controversy over similar proposals on Paulding Road and South Anthony Boulevard has less to do with the individual projects and everything to do with why some types of economic development continue to lag in certain parts of town despite substantial efforts to the contrary.

"We need and want development, but not gas pumps," said Allen County Councilwoman Sharon Tucker, whose 1st District includes much of southeast Fort Wayne. Tucker and many other officials and residents say the two latest proposals will only further saturate the area with convenience stores, making it even more difficult to attract the kinds of businesses the southeast side really needs and wants, including a full-service grocery store. The Fort Wayne Plan Commission was scheduled to conduct a public hearing on the two projects last week, but the developers sought and received a 30-day delay after more than 100 opponents showed up.

"More time is needed to determine whether we can develop a business model for a larger grocery that is sustainable in the area," explained Tom Niezer, attorney for Virk Brothers LLC, which wants to put gas pumps, an 8,000-square-foot retail building and 4,000-square-foot "mini-market" at South Anthony and Pontiac Streets. In other words, if Niezer's client substitutes its preferred and presumably sustainable project for one the neighborhood says it wants, can it survive? Kauffmann LLC, which wants to convert the former Wells Fargo Bank at Paulding near Hessen Cassel Road, is no doubt wondering the same thing.

The question is entirely legitimate, because it's not as though the southeast side has always lagged economically or that nothing has been done to reverse the decline. As I first reported in January, the city's $5,000-a-month contract with a Detroit-area firm to attract more stores to the southeast side expired with little to show for it. And several years ago my church, Zion Lutheran, and nearby St. Peter's Catholic Church began a renewal effort in the Hanna-Creighton area that led to construction of new homes, a library, Urban League headquarters and other improvements that preceded the city's Renaissance Pointe improvements.

I mention this because for the past several months we've also been working, without success, to bring a discount grocer to the area. One said it was looking at other specific sites; another feared a new store would draw sales from its existing locations. We'll keep trying, but the point is this: Just because you want to attract a business doesn't mean it's going to come. The deal has to make financial sense.

As Tucker pointed out, the Wal-Mart and Menards stores built on the former Southtown Mall site more than 10 years ago are still operating, as is the Save-a-Lot  grocery in the Casselwood shopping center at Paulding and Hessen Cassel adjacent to the new would-be convenience store. But all three projects opened with the help of government incentives, which indicates opponents of convenience stores should spend more time building an economic case for doing business on the southeast side and less time on talks of boycotts and other quasi-political tactics that have done little to build the southeast side's economic base over the past several decades.

It's worth remembering that, not long before the now-praised Southtown Wal-Mart opened, then NAACP-President Michael Latham called for a boycott of the store because he initially believed its lack of some features found in other stores was discriminatory. And as I reported in 2013, an alliance of central-city pastors has never made good on its promise to boost southeast-side economic development with the $386,000 it received from selling 200 acres it received from the former Adams Center Road landfill to the county. Such things indicate a lack of seriousness.

Tucker may be right that southeast-side crime receives unequal media attention, but the opposition to gas stations as a potential source of crime indicates the issue is not entirely media-driven. The Casselwood Save-a-Lot, after all, replaced the Tom's SuperValu that had closed in 1998 after being robbed five times in just two years.

Given the opposition, it might be wise for the developers to withdraw their  proposals regardless of what the Plan Commission might decide. But keeping more gas stations out of the southeast side won't bring other businesses in. Continued housing growth will help but, as Tucker correctly noted, it will also require trail-blazing business owners and a community determined to minimize and reward risk.

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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