KEVIN LEININGER: Site of major 1986 fire finally redeveloped; trail and Fire Department concerns exposed

The former I.J. Recycling plant next to Glenbrook Square was torn down in 1993 after a chemical reaction that forced a mass evacuation in 1986. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
Tall grass and downed branches make it hard to use the bike rack at the park near the trail along North River Road (News-Sentinel.com photo by Kevin Leininger)
The grass grows tall under the aging picnic table in the park along North River Road as a grill tilts in the background. (News-Sentinel.com photo by Kevin Leininger)
An anonymous road side sign asks Mayor Tom Henry to do something about alleged leadership problems within the Fort Wayne Fire Department. (News-Sentinel.com photo by Kevin Leininger)
Kevin Leininger

Development of a used-car lot wouldn’t normally rate much attention, but what’s happening along North Clinton Street is notable for two reasons: the Fort Wayne debut of the nation’s largest “pre-owned” auto dealer and — more important still — rebirth of the once-contaminated site of a 1986 fire that forced the evacuation of 3,000 people from a 20-block area around Glenbrook Square.

They’re moving a lot of dirt at 3705 N. Clinton, and by early next year the property just south of Glenbrook should be home to the CarMax store Indiana. CarMax, based in Richmond, VA., was founded in 1999 and operates about 195 locations, including Indianapolis and Merrillville, and had sales of more than $17 billion in 2017. A Fortune 500 company, CarMax has an extensive on-line presence and plans to erect a 7,600-square-foot facility on the former I.J. Recycling site.

The “I.J.” name should sound familiar to long-time Fort Wayne residents, because the hazardous-waste recycling facility was controversial long before a worker’s mistake led to one of the most infamous fires in city history. Despite numerous objections, the city Board of Zoning Appeals in 1980 somehow concluded it would be a good idea to convert the former Wayne Dairy Co-op into a hazardous industrial waste facility near homes and one of the state’s busiest shopping districts. It took just six years to prove the critics right.

I.J. declared bankruptcy following the accident, and Allen County government took ownership of the 5.3-acre site for non-payment of taxes. Eventually, the Environmental Protection Agency declared it a “Superfund” site and spent $8 million to remove contaminated soil. The EPA in turn billed General Electric and other companies that had sent waste to I.J. for millions of dollars, and the county spent another $800,000 on clean-up before dropping plans to locate a juvenile detention center there.

The vacant land finally returned to private ownership in 2005 when Dar Highlen, who is closing his porch and patio store across the street, bought it for $600,000 before selling it to CarMax.

That’s a lot of history to digest, I know, but the important thing is that “brownfields” can return to productive use, and should whenever possible. It doesn’t happen often enough, but this episode should induce at least a little optimism as development plans progress for the former General Electric campus and the 29-acre “North River” property the city bought in 2017 for $4.63 million despite its history of industrial use and environmental remediation.

Wrong trail

Fort Wayne is understandably proud of its 116-mile regional trail system, but the condition of the small park near the trail head and boat launch on North River Road between Fort Wayne and New Haven is a notable exception.

The grass is so long it is obscuring bike racks and picnic tables, and some of the other facilities are not in good shape either. The land is owned by the city but is not part of the parks system — ironic, since the conditions appear to violate the city’s weed ordinance — and spokesman John Perlich said “This property has been on our priority list to be mowed. The contractor is a bit behind due to the wet spring we’ve experienced.”

The weather has indeed complicated things, but Kent Castleman, executive director at the non-profit Fort Wayne Trails, said he gets complaints about the site every year and is frustrated by the pattern of inaction. And not even the weather can explain why some of the tables and grills have been allowed to fall into disrepair.

Hopefully things will change for the better, soon and for good.

Sign of the times

My recent column on a just-retired Fort Wayne Fire Department captain indicated a degree of turmoil within the department, which still does not have a contract more than four months into the year. A sign posted at Hobson and Stellhorn roads as of Friday morning reinforces that notion. Featuring a photo of Chief Eric Lahey and two assistant chiefs, Adam O’Connor and Todd Prindle, the sign alleges a toxic work environment, abuse of power and asks: “Mayor Henry, why are these men still running the fire department?”

I don’t know who posted the sign or whether others have been or will be posted.

“We were made aware of the sign (Friday). Our focus is on our commitment to protecting the public and finalizing a contract with the fire union,” Perlich said. “The men and women of the FWFD continue to provide excellent, life-saving services for our community each day.”

Perlich added: “Adam O’Connor’s name is misspelled (O’Conner) on the sign.”

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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