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KEVIN LEININGER: $65M for Electric Works got plenty of scrutiny; shouldn’t $38M get at least half as much?

The proposed Ruoff Home Mortgage headquarters is one of four downtown projects for which the city is seeking nearly $38 million from the Capital Improvement Board. (Courtesy image)
Jim Cook
Josh Parker
Sheila Curry-Campbell (Courtesy photo)
Kevin Leininger

When the Allen County-Fort Wayne Capital Improvement Board approved a bond of up to $45 million for Electric Works in November 2018, it capped nearly a year of examination and debate over a public financing commitment totaling $65 million.

And yet, except for a column I wrote two months ago, the city’s request for $37.85 million toward construction of four major downtown projects has received virtually no scrutiny from the public or media even though CIB members could be asked for a vote as soon as their Jan. 23 meeting.

That would be a case of too much, far too fast. Luckily, CIB President Jim Cook appears ready to apply the brakes if necessary.

“The (Jan. 23) agenda has not been determined. We’ve been briefed (in private by city officials), and my goal is to have a two-step process,” Cook said — meaning the board would publicly discuss the city’s applications, followed by votes at a subsequent meeting or meetings. He also believes CIB members, who oversee county food and beverage tax revenues, should have a chance to question the projects’ developers before committing so much of the public’s money.

That desire was echoed by Josh Parker, who with other Electric Works developers appeared before the CIB and other public bodies numerous times before securing the public commitments they say are needed to move the $250 million project forward. Parker’s RTM Ventures risks losing the $65 million in public pledges if it does not meet the city’s private financing and leasing requirements by Feb. 1, but Parker said he is confident the deadline can be met.

“We’re feeling good; we have some pretty exciting announcements coming,” he said. Whether those announcements include additional long-rumored support from the state remains to be seen.

Although CIB advisor John Stafford said he’s still examining the board’s cash flow to determine whether it can fund the four projects and keep its commitment to Electric Works, city spokeswoman Mary Tyndall said the latest four applications “were made with full consideration of all CIB commitments for other projects, including Electric Works.”

As I reported in November, the projects for which the city is now seeking support include:

* The proposed Ruoff Home Mortgage headquarters at Jefferson Boulevard and Ewing Street. The city is seeking $6.5 million paid over 22 years for Ruoff’s $43.5 million, nine-story project.

* 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 is asking the CIB for $16.7 million, payable over 25 years.

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.

These projects all seem worthy and, even taken together, would receive less in public funding (at least so far) than Electric Works. But even if Electric Works’ size and somewhat speculative nature justifies extra caution and scrutiny, there is no inverse rationale to give these four projects millions of tax dollars without a thorough public vetting. Cook, in fact, suggested the four projects should go to the city’s Redevelopment Commission first, since any funding commitment from the CIB would be made to the city, not the developer. City Council may also have to weigh in.

Mayor Tom Henry held press conferences on the Ruoff and Barrett & Stokely projects last year, but his administration asked the CIB for nearly $38 million only after his election to a fourth term had been secured Nov. 5. That’s politics. But now we’re talking real money, and the people who provide the dollars and oversee their use deserve to fully understand what they’re being asked to support. And that hasn’t happened yet.

Second time a charm

Sheila Curry-Campbell took office as an Allen County Council member Jan. 1 as planned, but not without a little drama.

Democratic precinct officials on Nov. 22 elected Curry-Campbell to serve the rest of now-City Councilwoman Sharon Tucker’s term. But according to Director of Elections Beth Dlug, the paperwork was not filed by the Nov. 27 deadline, meaning the party had to conduct a second caucus. That happened Dec. 13, with identical results.

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.