Being inclined to hyperbole, politicians and economic development officials have done a lot of talking these past few years about the need to continue Fort Wayne's momentum by investing in "transformational" projects.
Parkview Field is beautiful and has attracted more investment downtown, but at the cost of the fairly new and perfectly functional stadium it replaced. A new downtown arena would be nice, but even supporters admit it's a want, not a need. The rivers will be here no matter how much we spend to improve their banks.
But with Monday's announcement of a proposed $300 million redevelopment of the hulking, vacant 31-acre General Electric campus just south of downtown, the hype is justified. In my 38 years as a journalist in this town, only General Motors' decision to build a 3,000-employee, $500 million truck plant in Southwest Allen County in the mid-1980s rivals this project's potential for boosting the city's economy, image and self-esteem. It's that big a deal.
But not yet, of course. Most of the funding has not been secured, and although a substantial amount of private capital has been promised, the large amount of government subsidy anticipated will be thoroughly scrutinized and debated, as it should be. And with more than 1 million square feet to fill, not a single tenant has yet been signed.
Doden should know, because Fort Wayne might not even be competing for the dollars and shops, restaurants, apartments and other businesses needed to fill the sprawling campus if not for his direct involvement over the past three years.
In 2010, Doden's predecessor openly suggested GE was unmotivated to do anything with its dormant campus because redevelopment might require removal of hazardous materials left over from the production of motors, transformers and other products — possibly at the company's expense.
Company spokesman Matt Conkrite said GE has spent the past few years conducting testing and reviewing proposals and "is confident the vision articulated by Cross Street for the entire campus should benefit both the local community and meet the needs of the local market."
But in his former role as head of the Indiana Economic Development Corp., Doden had worked with GE on other projects, developing relationships that proved invaluable during efforts to move redevelopment of the local campus forward. It was also in that role that Doden helped create the Regional Cities program that is making $42 million available for projects in 11 northeast Indiana counties — some of which no doubt will be requested for the GE project.
"I had GE in mind when we were doing Regional Cities," Doden acknowledged.
Eventually, those conversations with GE also included Cross Street Partners, a Baltimore firm with experience in similarly massive industrial makeovers, including the American Tobacco Campus in Durham, N.C. When principal Josh Parker visited Fort Wayne and saw the campus for the first time two years ago, he was blown away.
"I knew Fort Wayne was in Indiana, but that was about it," he said. "When I saw the campus, I was in love. There's much work to be done, and we're arriving just before Fort Wayne hits its 'tipping point.' I won't stop until Fort Wayne is one of the best places in America."
One project can't do that, of course, but its very magnitude makes the potential undeniable, especially when you remember that redevelopment would give us something we don't already have while replacing huge swaths of crumbling industrial eyesores with new apartments, shops, businesses, a hotel and other attractions that could bring thousands of people downtown every day and, possibly, keep and attract the skilled residents the area needs to compete for new high-paying jobs.
"I dreamed about this day for some time," said City Councilman Geoff Paddock, who led community discussions about the future of the GE property. "This is more about people that it is real estate. Neighborhoods in the area flourished when GE did, and the potential is almost unimaginable."
"This will be a great anchor for the southern part of West Central," said Ben Wahli, president of the nearby neighborhood known for its restored historic homes and, perhaps one day soon, a restored industrial complex that not too long ago seemed as though time had passed it by.
So, by all means, celebrate the start of the race. Because now the work really begins.
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.
What about that sign?
What the proposed project means for the iconic rooftop General Electric sign that was a fixture for so many years is unclear. The GE logo has been moved to a plant in Ohio, and company spokesman Matt Conkrite said the letters are still stored in a building on the local campus "and there are no further plans for them at this time."