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KEVIN LEININGER: Do it Best’s move will be good for Electric Works and city — and could become great

Do it Best CEO Dan Starr, left, joins Mayor Tom Henry, RTM Ventures' Jeff Kingsbury and Gov. Eric Holcomb at Thursday's celebration welcoming Do it Best as Electric Works' anchor tenant. (Courtesy photo)
Josh Parker
Kevin Leininger

Gov. Eric Holcomb was there. So was Mayor Tom Henry, county commissioners, city council members, a gaggle of reporters and a host of other dignitaries public and private. Thursday’s official confirmation of Do it Best as Electric Works’ anchor tenant, in front of a large and enthusiastic crowd in the cold and cavernous former General Electric building the company will soon call home, sure seemed like a happy ending.

And yet, in a very important way, the entirely justifiable celebration also marked a beginning of sorts for the $250 million project that has seen more than its shares of highs and lows over the past three years.

“Now the rubber hits the road,” said Josh Parker of RTM Ventures, who with his partners still has to secure the millions of private dollars needed to close the deal by June 30 under the newly extended terms of the development firm’s agreement with the city. If the deadline is missed, RTM could forfeit the $65 million in local public funds already pledged to the project.

That’s one reason Do it Best’s commitment is so important, Parker and RTM partner Jeff Kingsbury told me this week: Beyond the obvious benefit of filling 200,000 square feet with 450 employees, the presence of a major and respected international company gives Electric Works instant credibility among people who previously may have been reluctant to invest or do business in a place like Fort Wayne.

“Now we can actively market outside the area. We still have 300,000 square feet to fill,” Parker said, noting the state is also still committed to finding somebody to fill at least a third of the remaining space.

“But the goal isn’t just to lease the remaining space by June,” Kingsbury said. “We want the tenants that believe in Electric Works.”

Attracting out-of-town interest in the project is more than just a good idea; it’s also part of RTM’s contract with the city. Of the first 250,000 square feet leased, at least 150,000 square feet of the commitments must come from tenants that are new to Allen County or create new jobs.

Even though most of the 19 or so prospective tenants announced to date are already in Allen County, Parker said RTM has already met the contract’s threshold. Do it Best, for example, says it plans to add between 80 and 100 employees over the next few years.

When I broke the Do it Best news a week ago, I expressed some disappointment. The reaction had nothing to do with the company itself, but instead reflected the well-cultivated expectation that Electric Works would attract new opportunities, not simply move them from one part of the county to another. I’ve since reconsidered.

For one thing, Do it Best CEO Dan Starr made it clear the company’s current headquarters on Nelson Road in New Haven is no longer adequate, meaning some sort of relocation was likely if not inevitable. That fact that a company like Do it Best chose Fort Wayne as its new home instead of someplace with beaches or mountains is hardly insignificant.

And as Parker and Kinsgbury said, attracting an anchor tenant from outside the area was unlikely, given skepticism among outside investors and site selectors. If they’re right, Do it Best’s decision has changed that equation.

Last but hardly least, Do it Best’s presence allows developers to focus on what I and others wanted from Electric Works in the first place. “We want to work on retail and entertainment so the larger community can be at Electric Works for fun,” Parker said.

French author Voltaire warned against allowing perfection to become the enemy of the good. But if Do it Best’s move accomplishes all that for the company, community and project, it will be very good indeed.

Art imitating life

Given recent events, a forthcoming TV show is especially timely.

PBS Fort Wayne will preview its latest documentary, “Electric Legacy: The Story of General Electric in Fort Wayne,” on Sunday, March 1, at 2 p.m. in the theater of the main Allen County Public Library in downtown Fort Wayne. The event is free and open to the public, with doors opening at 1:30 p.m. and the screening at 2 p.m.

The show will cover 140 years of Fort Wayne history, going back to the origins of the company in the 1880s and tracing its evolution through the product developments of the 20th century, World War II, the economic downturn of the 1980’s, the final closure of the campus in 2015 and the hope created by the Electric Works project.

PBS Fort Wayne’s Rob Rhodes, the producer of this documentary, will take questions from the audience. Reservations will be required as space is limited and can be made online at http://bit.ly/GELegacy or by calling PBS Fort Wayne at (260) 484-8839 during regular business hours.

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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