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KEVIN LEININGER: City seeks $37.8M for four downtown projects after denying $23M for Electric Works

The city has asked the Capital Improvement Board to contribute $6.5 million to the proposed $43.5 million Ruoff Home Mortgage headquarters. (Courtesy image)
The city is seeking $13.2 million for this $88.7 million to be developed by Barrett & Stokely of Indianapolis to the east of Promenade Park. (Courtes image)
The city wants the Capital Improvement Board to provide $1.4 million toward the $67.5 million "Lofts at Headwaters Park." Courtesy image)
The city is asking the Capital Improvement Board for $16.7 million toward construction of a $20.8 million project on this parking lot near Parkview Field that would include a parking garage that could be used by Ruoff employees and Cityscape Flats residents (News-Sentinel.com file photo by Kevin Leininger)
Kevin Leininger

Last week, even as it was denying Electric Works developers’ request for a $23 million loan guarantee, city officials were also asking the CIB for $37.85 million they consider essential to the future of four downtown projects.

It’s unclear whether there’s a connection (the city appears to believe the CIB can support the downtown projects without affecting its previous commitment to Electric Works), but the latest requests — coming on the heels of a city election — makes it clear taxpayers are being asked for far more help than than had been previously disclosed.

The proposed Ruoff Home Mortgage headquarters at Jefferson Boulevard and Ewing Street would appear to benefit most from the city’s requests and, according to the application, could be in jeopardy if the grants are not approved. The city is seeking a direct $6.5 million paid over 22 years for Ruoff’s $43.5 million, nine-story project. But the city is also asking $16.7 million, payable over 25 years, toward construction of a $20.8 million mixed use project on the current “Silver Lot” at Parkview Field to be anchored by an 800-space parking garage that would accommodate, among others, Ruoff and the nearby Cityscape Flats housing complex.

The city’s application notes that while a garage within the Ruoff building could serve about half of the 500 daily parkers the project would bring downtown, “available public parking for the remaining employees simply doesn’t exist within a reasonable distance of the site, creating a significant barrier to project feasibility that must be addressed if the project is to move forward.”

The $27 million Cityscape Flats, which opened in 2017 just to the west of Parkview Field, also has its own parking garage but the new facility would give residents there “the opportunity to have access to more than one parking space per dwelling unit.”

As I first reported in October, The city has reconfigured some “tax increment financing” (TIF) districts so these and other downtown projects could be funded in part by the new taxes they generate. But city officials had largely been silent about other subsidies that might be sought — until now. The CIB controls revenue generated by the county’s food and beverage tax.

The CIB is also being asked to underwrite two previously announced projects to be developed by Indianapolis-based Barrett & Stokely. The city has requested $13.25 million, to be paid over 25 years, toward construction of an $88.7 million, six-story project just east of Promenade Park that will include 229 apartments, commercial space and a 912-space garage. Another $1.4 million is being sought for the $67.75 million “Lofts at Headwaters Park” at Clinton and Barr that would include 232 apartments and townhouses, commercial space and a 651-space garage.

For now, let’s put aside the politics of delaying such a huge request for public subsidies until after the election. Let’s also grant, for the sake of argument, that the CIB really can approve them and still meet its commitment as the major source of the $65 million public pledge toward Electric Works.

The real question is: Does the city’s $37.85 million deserve support from the CIB — and the public?

On one hand, of course, taxpayers are again being asked to subsidize private companies and developers who announced (with the full support of politicians) their projects first and sought the public’s help after the fact. I can’t remember when a completed project like Cityscape Flats, which has already received land and $7 million in incentives from the city, has been targeted for more help. Doesn’t that indicate a lack of foresight or investment by the developers?

But the election, which saw Mayor Tom Henry handily win a fourth term and his Democratic Party gain two seats on City Council, left no doubt the public likes what has been happening downtown. These projects, as the city’s application notes, will generate jobs and millions of dollars in taxes, and downtown revitalization has been so successful that parking is in short supply. People enjoying the riverfront, Parkview Field, new hotels and a host of other attractions need someplace to put their car.

The Ruoff project, it seems to me, is especially important. As the city’s application notes, the company is growing and “remaining in Fort Wayne is not without challenges. Compared to larger markets, Fort Wayne’s smaller labor pool and lesser name recognition creates challenges in attracting talented employees. So an essential part of Ruoff’s strategy includes development of an iconic corporate headquarters in the heart of downtown.”

That’s a strong argument. But the argument isn’t really about the value of the projects; it’s about whether taxpayers should subsidize them, and if so by how much.

As little as possible, I’d say, but I’m glad I don’t have to make the decision.

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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