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KEVIN LEININGER: Is Fort Wayne dragging its feet on Electric Works to revive downtown arena? City denies it, but some believe otherwise

(Courtesy image)
Trine University's new basketball arena is said to be a model for a similar facility proposed for the "North River" property. (Courtesy image)
John Crawford
John Perlich
Chuck Surack

Is there a connection between a possible loss of funding and protracted negotiations concerning Electric Works and the re-emergence of plans for a new downtown arena?

Some supporters of the $220 million redevelopment of the former General Electric campus suspect there is — including a city councilman who hopes to replace the mayor he believes is working to undermine Electric Works despite public assurances to the contrary.

“It’s incredibly disappointing that the most important economic development project in the history of Fort Wayne has been intentionally delayed and blocked,” said John Crawford, R-at large, who will be a candidate in next year’s Republican primary in hopes of challenging three-term incumbent Tom Henry in the fall. “The entire project is in jeopardy now due to unreasonable demands on developers that have never been made before in Fort Wayne.”

There is no direct evidence, but plenty of suspicion, that the Henry administration is stalling negotiations with RTM Ventures in order to divert hoped-for public funds from Electric Works to the arena, or event center, which Henry last year announced would be tabled because of questionable market demand. That $100 million facility would have been erected to the west of the Grand Wayne Center, but according to several knowledgeable sources who did not want to be identified, plans were discussed during a closed session of the Capital Improvement Board last week for a scaled-down version on the 29-acre “North River” property the city bought last year for $4.63 million.

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That proposal reportedly was made by representatives of the Hagerman Group as part of an overall plan for the site by the Continental Property Group, developer of the $62 million Riverview housing and commercial project planned downtown. Development proposals for North River are due next week, Continental’s plan includes the Headwaters Junction rail-themed attraction and, reportedly, housing. Great Lakes Capital, developer of the $35 million Skyline Tower downtown housing project, has also expressed interest in North River.

But instead of a $100 million arena, I’ve been told last week’s proposal was for a 5,000-seat venue costing about $25 million, modeled after the relatively new basketball arena at Trine University in Angola. Such an arena would be a potential home for the Mad Ants and could be privately owned, but the entire North River project is expected to consume millions of dollars in public funds.

“The city of Fort Wayne doesn’t have any involvement with what might be proposed by private developers as part of the North River process,” spokesman John Perlich said.

RTM, meanwhile, is seeking $65 million in local funds for the $220 million Electric Works, and even after last year’s demise of the arena Henry continued to mention it as “Plan B” should Electric Works stall. Crawford and others say the administration may be trying to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to the latest proposal, that $65 million could include $45 million from the CIB, $10 million from the city’s Legacy fund and $7 million in income taxes from the city and county.

In June, the city released a preliminary version of a development agreement with RTM that required the developers to do certain things — some of them unprecedented, as Crawford noted — in a certain time frame. Negotiations continue, but because of the slow pace to get a development agreement RTM has lost a $16 million New Market tax credit awarded by an out-of-state private investor due to the uncertainty of the deal. The next round of tax credits isn’t expected until the spring. That complicates the search for additional funds and tenants, Electric Works spokesman Kevin Erb said. Erb said the city has been reluctant to adjust the proposed agreement to reflect the need for more time, but Perlich said the $12 million in New Market credits already approved by the city are still valid.

One of Fort Wayne’s leading businessmen shares Crawford’s skepticism about Henry’s professed support. “It seems obvious the mayor and deputy mayor (Karl Bandemer) aren’t interested,” said Sweetwater Sound founder Chuck Surack, who added he would be interested in investing Electric Works if a deal could be reached. Another prominent local company has reportedly expressed interest in investing more than $20 million to underwrite up to 80,000 square feet in Electric Works but has been dissuaded by a lack of progress. And when party supplies retailer Shindigz announced last month it was moving its headquarters downtown from South Whitley, few knew the company had at one time considered a move to Electric Works instead. Negotiation delays may or may not have influenced that decision, the sources said, but growing uncertainty about Electric Works didn’t help.

“I think both the development team and the public bodies working on the development agreement would agree that progress is being made. Unique and complex projects take time,” Perlich said. “On Monday, the Redevelopment Commission will be presented with a status report on the project/development agreement. It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to pre-empt that discussion.”

There’s no shame in being skeptical about such a massive, complex and unique project or believing the public funds requested for Electric Works could be better spent elsewhere. But it’s time for the administration to either back up its professed support for Electric Works or be honest about its reservations.

“I want the project to get done. I’m not looking for a (campaign) cause,” Crawford said. “But in December the state approved (a $50 million tax credit) for the project, and here we are in the middle of August.”

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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