KEVIN LEININGER: Which mayor would be best for future of Electric Works: Tom Henry or Tim Smith?

Electric Works developer Kevan Biggs shows members of a tour a section of the old General Electric plant that would be converted into a food court. Biggs has also indirectly supported Republican Tim Smith for mayor. (Photo by Kevin Leininger of News-Sentinel.com)
Tim Smith
Tom Henry
Kevin Leininger

I ran into Mayor Tom Henry as we both shopped for clothes at Stein Mart last week, but it didn’t take long for the conversation to shift to Electric Works — especially since some people (including the developers, apparently) believe he hasn’t done enough to promote the project despite the commitment of $65 million in local public funds.

The main reason the $250 million project appears to be at a crossroads, he said, is developer RTM Venture’s inability to land an “anchor” tenant that would help achieve the 250,000 square feet of signed leases required under the agreement signed with the city last August. Performance deadlines contained in the agreement have already been extended once, but with financing requirements looming in July and September and closing set for November, RTM’s ability to comply remains questionable.

As a result, Henry said, he’d be willing to grant another extension through at least the end of the year. But with a city election coming Nov. 5 and a new or renewed administration Jan. 1, that raises an obvious question: How will the next mayor shape the future of Electric Works?

If the Democrat Henry wins a fourth term, the status quo will continue, at least for a while. In terms of local public funding, RTM has received everything it asked for but should not expect Henry — who was openly speculating about a “Plan B” months ago — to spend much political capital on the project’s behalf.

If Republican Tim Smith prevails the project would have a cheerleader in city hall, but also one who believes Electric Works has received too much of the public’s money already.

“I’m in favor of Electric Works. It would eliminate blight, create construction jobs and is very important for the future of Fort Wayne,” said Smith, who handily defeated City Councilman John Crawford in the May GOP primary. “But the ratio of public vs. private funding is too high.”

So if RTM can’t expect more cash from a Smith administration, what could he deliver? The same thing Henry should have been doing for the past 11 years, Smith insisted: Use the mayor’s office to personally encourage corporate headquarters and other employers to come to Fort Wayne.

“We don’t have the corporate sponsors we once had,” said Smith. “I want to find corporations that will need space, and the only way to get that done is to bring in employers from outside Fort Wayne. The mayor needs to do more than dole out tax money (for projects like Electric Works). He needs to be supportive and get involved in recruiting.”

My experience, however, is that Fort Wayne’s loss of Lincoln Life, Tokheim, Central Soya and other corporate headquarters had more to do with corporate strategy and economics than anything city officials did or did not do. Nor have those officials failed to seek replacement jobs, sometimes successfully. Two years after International Harvester closed its 10,000-employee truck plant in 1983, General Motors was lured to Allen County with the help of millions in publicly funded incentives.

What’s more, Smith’s aversion to government “picking winners and losers” indicates he would not single out any one project for special attention but would instead work to create more economic activity across the board, trusting that Electric Works would get its share.

RTM recently enlisted Eric Doden, former head of Greater Fort Wayne Inc. and the Indiana Economic Development Commission, in the search for private equity and tenants. Doden’s father, Daryle, contributed $50,000 to Smith’s campaign in 2017 and last year received $10,000 from Ambassador Enterprises, which was founded by Daryle Doden and for whom Eric Doden once worked. The campaign has also received several large contributions from the Northeast Indiana PAC for Better Government, which last year received $5,000 from the firm headed by Electric Works co-developer Kevan Biggs.

“I haven’t received one penny from Eric Doden,” Smith said. “(The contributions) will have zero influence (on what I do about Electric Works).”

Even with another extension from the city, however, it remains unclear whether RTM will be able to satisfy private lenders who supposedly are demanding performance that at times exceeds even the city’s expectations. If RTM believes it cannot get the job done, the partners have stated they would work with Doden to restructure the deal or sell the property. Smith is willing to listen.

“I don’t want the project to languish. One of the first things I would do (as mayor) would be to sit down with the developers and establish trust and to arrange new terms of the deal if necessary. To the extent that I could help attract companies that need space, Electric Works would have a greater likelihood of success,” Smith said.

Easy to promise; much harder to achieve. But at the very least, the Electric Works contrast between the two candidates should give a jolt to an already fascinating campaign. Henry could wear his new blue blazer to the debate.

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.