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Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
The Redevelopment Commission’s first renewal project was Three Rivers Apartments, right. Another project, One Summit Square, is on the left.

Ex-planner: Plenty of potential downtown

Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
John Stafford talks about the history of economic development in Allen County Sunday afternoon at the History Center.

After 40 years of working on the redevelopment of downtown Fort Wayne, a longtime planner said there’s hope in returning the area to its commerce potential if the city can increase its housing developments and activities that will draw in the public and entice private investors.

“The size of downtown geographically is bigger than the amount of activity that happens downtown,” said John Stafford, Director of the Community Research Institute of IPFW. “Things tend to be three or four blocks away from each other, so people have to walk by parking lots and empty storefronts from one activity center to another. People don’t like that. It detracts from the feeling of downtown being vibrant.”

The History Center launched the 2013 George R. Mather Lecture spring series Sunday with a historical perspective of the city’s downtown growth in the past 60 years.

Stafford discussed how an interest in urban renewal grew after the migration of businesses to residential areas in the 1960s, and how the city continues its revitalization today.

A Goshen native, Stafford came to the city in 1975 to work as a city planner on the Fort Wayne Redevelopment Commission, which was originally adopted in 1959 in response to the community’s growing concerns about downtown.

Stafford has been involved with a majority of the redevelopment plans.

“He’s one of our radiant leading authorities on economic development,” Todd Pelfrey, executive director of the History Center, said.

Stafford began his presentation talking about the city’s response to the decline of businesses in the early 1960s. The loss of retailers, the loss of investments and the increase of dilapidated buildings had left the downtown area “either dead or dying,” Stafford said.

“We had started to see a lot of residential development moved to the east and north of town, and retail followed that,” Stafford said. “It was pretty phenomenal the amount of business that had left downtown.”

Stafford presented six city plans from the first urban renewal project, which began the construction of Three Rivers Apartments to the most recent “Blueprint Plus” plan in 2005, which included Parkview Field.

Stafford said the city’s strong regional market continues to make the city an attractive hub for people in northeast Indiana, northwest Ohio and southern Michigan. He also said that the issue with deteriorating buildings has been addressed. Stafford said the challenge is that every project has had to be subsidized by private investors. He said it often slows the momentum and can determine the location of the project.

If the city continues to increase downtown housing, it can draw people into the area after 5 p.m., which could increase the interest of potential private sector investors.

“Here’s the tipping point: Even though it might makes sense to put something downtown, it has to be viable for the private sector,” Stafford said.