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KEVIN LEININGER: Plan for ‘North River’ site has Headwaters Junction down but not out, supporters insist

A turntable that would allow trains to move in many directions is included in plans for Headwaters Junction. (Courtesy image)
Don Steininger
John Perlich
Kevin Leininger

Headwaters Junction advocates aren’t giving up despite a consultant’s recommendation that appears to exclude the railroad-themed attraction from its preferred site just north of downtown.

In the planning stages for more than 10 years, Headwaters Junction was one component of the plan for the so-called “North River” site submitted last August by the Minnesota-based Continental Property Group — the only proposal the city received for redevelopment of the 29-acre former industrial site it bought for $4.63 million in 2017. But the city never accepted Continental’s bid, preferring instead to include the site in a comprehensive plan for phases two and three of riverfront development led by DAVID RUBIN Land Collective of Philadelphia.

But according to a preliminary report I have seen, the firm is suggesting North River be developed primarily for residential use, which would indicate Headwaters Junction will have to move on down the track.

Or does it?

“We’re very disappointed, but we’re not going away,” said Don Steininger, a veteran local developer who chairs the Headwaters Junction Board of Directors. “It’s a disappointment that for that amount of money, (Rubin) couldn’t be more creative. I’ve been doing this for 50 years and I know more than they do about how to develop (the site).”

In fact, Steininger said he’s working on a proposal that would include not only Headwaters Junction but also townhouses, restaurants and other commercial activity. The city would have to allow others to submit proposals as well before making a decision, but Steininger said he’s still optimistic Headwaters Junction, which could cost $20 million to develop and include an old-fashioned railroad turntable, roundhouse and interpretive facility built around Nickle Plate steam engine 765 and other artifacts owned by the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, will end up at North River.

The location is important, because the project would also include a narrow-gauge train to the nearby Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo.

But city spokesman John Perlich offered little reason for Steininger’s optimism.

Rubin’s recommendation, he said, “reflects consideration for the positive and negative impacts that the proposed railroad tourism program would have on the immediate area as well as the corridors extending beyond the limits of the Riverfront planning area. In the end, the recommendation acknowledges that the Headwaters Junction proposal and vision is authentic to Fort Wayne and has significant support across the community. However, those positive attributes are not enough to compensate for the conflicts with a vision for an densely-urbanized and pedestrian-oriented environment that enhances access to the natural assets of our riverfront neighborhood.”

Specifically, the recommendation concluded that Headwaters Junction would act as a physical and psychological barrier to the rivers; reduce the site’s development capacity; create safety concerns; add to noise, vibration and pollution; and open the site to other unknown risks.

“Headwaters Junction has a lot of merit and will benefit the Fort Wayne community if it is located in the right location,” Perlich said. “It’s been determined the Riverfront District is not the right location. The city’s Community Development Division staff will work with the Headwaters Junction team to review alternative locations.”

Although there is much to admire about Headwaters Junction and the persistence and vision of its creator, Kelly Lynch, many of Perlich’s points are also well-taken. Why pay a consultant about $2.5 million if you aren’t going to listen to him? I previously wrote about the wisdom of considering future use the North River site as part of the overall riverfront plan instead of piecemeal, and I still believe that’s the best course.

And if the city is indeed planning to pay for streets and other improvements in the area using taxes generated there, homes would provide more property tax revenue than a not-for-profit theme park even though, as Steininger noted, 120,000 visitors a year would generate restaurant and hotel taxes.

But there are other considerations. Earlier this month the city announced it had received a $283,400 grant to remove contaminants from the site and said even more remediation may be needed — an expense that would be the city’s under the purchase agreement. That additional expense, Redevelopment Director Nancy Townsend said, would be influenced by how the land is used.

Residential use would likely require more remediation than Headwaters Junction.

What’s more, Steininger said Headwaters Junction is moving forward with plans to run a rail line over 1.4 miles of right-of-way it acquired from Norfolk Southern earlier this year. The route runs from near Polk and Osage streets west of downtown to Fourth street and could bring trains to the edge of North River.

“They’re going to have to deal with us sooner or later,” he said.

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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