KEVIN LEININGER: Is Do it Best moving to Electric Works? And where should MLK memorial go?

Do it Best is currently headquartered in New Haven on Nelson Road. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
A bust of John Nuckols, Fort Wayne's first black City Council member, is in a park just east of downtown. Could the addition of a memorial to Martin Luther King's visit in 1963 see the beginning of a "civil rights" park there? (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is greeted by several Fort Wayne civil rights activists during his visit to speak in June 1963 at the Scottish Rite Auditorium. From left are, City Councilman John Nuckols; dentist Dr. Allan Wilson; the Rev. Clyde Adams, pastor of Union Baptist Church; King; and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
Kevin Leininger

Electric Works developers plan to reveal the project’s anchor tenant Feb. 13, but the rumors are already flying and one name dominates them: Do it Best, the international hardware wholesaler currently headquartered on Nelson Road in New Haven.

As I first reported last month, RTM Ventures says a firm has signed a letter of intent to locate its headquarters in 200,000 square feet of the former General Electric campus. And while I can’t say for sure that will be Do it Best — developers and local officials aren’t commenting because of a confidentiality agreement — I’ve heard it from enough credible sources to believe there is something to it even though, frankly, the company’s move to Electric Works would be puzzling and even disappointing in many ways.

It’s not just that a lot of money, public and otherwise, would be spent to move hundreds of jobs from one part of Allen County to another. Developers have previously said the anchor tenant is not currently in Fort Wayne (would being in New Haven be a technical loophole?), and RTM’s agreement with the city calls for a certain percentage of Electric Works tenants to be new to the area.

What’s more, various local governments spent $50 million a decade ago to extend and improve Maplecrest Road, in large part for Do it Best’s benefit. In fact, when ground was broken for the project in 2010, the ceremony was held at Do it Best’s headquarters and then-Executive Vice President Dave Haist praised the project as solving “a lot of issues for businesses and residents.”

The company’s current location, it seems to me, is more suitable to its distribution operations. So maybe the move, if it happens at all, would include only office personnel. On the other hand, the city has suggested an amendment to its agreement with RTM that would require the developers to address parking and traffic issues “raised by the advent of the new anchor tenant.” And a move could be bad for New Haven and East Allen County Schools.

Still, if Do it Best is unhappy with its current location, keeping them in the area would justify expected state incentives for the Electric Works’ anchor tenant. After all, when BAE was considering a move out of town, the city and Capital Improvement Board provided $4.5 million for a new building near the airport. And in 2013 Bluffton-based Franklin Electric got more than $5 million in incentives to move to Fort Wayne.

We’ll know for sure soon enough. But remember, if the mystery tenant is Do it Best, you heard it hear first. If not, forget I even mentioned it.

Location, location

Speaking of locations, this week’s City Council endorsement of a proposal to create some sort of public memorial to Martin Luther King Jr.’s June 1963 visit to Fort Wayne marked a fitting beginning to African-American History Month. The rest of February still offers plenty of time to begin thinking about how and where that event should be remembered.

Several spots would be faithful to King’s vision that the struggle for civil rights was for everybody and would ultimately unite and benefit people regardless of race.

* The most obvious is the actual location of King’s address: the former Scottish Rite Auditorium on West Berry Street. The facility has the unique advantage of being historically accurate, and its central location and current ownership and use by the University of Saint Francis, along with periodic public events, would ensure a memorial there would be viewed by the general public and, perhaps more important, by people too young to remember King and his times.

* Another obvious choice would be the African/African American Historical Society Museum at 436 E Douglas Ave. Placement there would give the institution some much-needed visibility, but its current lack of visibility could also make the off-the-beaten-path site less desirable than others.

* There is also, of course, the Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge on Clinton Street that serves as the gateway into downtown from the north. The bridge is adorned with many of King’s most famous quotes, but none from his local appearance. Incorporation of a local memorial would give the bridge added significance but could detract from the unique nature of King’s visit here.

* A less obvious but intriguing possibility, suggested by former City Councilman and Art Commission member Tom Smith, is the small park on Maumee Avenue just east of downtown originally known as Hayden Park. Today it is known as John Nuckols Memorial Park and is home to a bust of Fort Wayne’s first African-American City Councilman, who served from 1959 until the day he died in 1982. The park is close to the Indiana Tech campus and major arteries leading to and from downtown. It is also across the street from the city’s oldest black church, Turner Chapel. And Nuckols greeted King at the airport when he arrived here.

Would it be fitting to locate the King exhibit at the park, possibly making it a tribute to the entire civil-rights era, with plenty of space available for future additions? I think so.

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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