According to most metrics, the Downtown Development Trust was a bust over the past year: It sold only one building, which still sits empty 12 months later.
But those closest to the organization defend it, saying development is tedious work that must be measured in deals discussed rather than deals done.
It’s all gestating, said Bob Walters, a trust board member. You really can’t judge progress by looking at a year time frame.
The nonprofit was formed in early 2011 to buy and sell properties at a discount to entrepreneurs who promise to draw diners and shoppers to downtown Fort Wayne. Anyone who fails to make good on that promise within 12 months can be forced to sell the property back to the trust, Karl Bandemer said last year.
The trust’s goal is to get some languishing properties into the hands of people with ideas and the energy to convert them into thriving destinations.
Bandemer, a senior development officer with the Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance, was interviewed again two weeks ago about the trust’s accomplishments during the past year. The Alliance is now part of Greater Fort Wayne Inc.
The trust closed its first sale in May 2012, when Scott Glaze, chairman and CEO of Fort Wayne Metals Research Products Corp., bought the former Instant Copy building at 232 W. Wayne St. The price was not disclosed, but the Fort Wayne assessor’s office recorded the sale at $250,000.
Bandemer said in the recent interview that trust officials might talk to the new owner about plans for the building if a business doesn’t open there within 18 months – allowing six more months than previously stated.
Glaze has earned some leeway, Bandemer said. The entrepreneur is busy renovating another downtown building – bought without trust participation – and hasn’t turned his attention to 232 W. Wayne.
Glaze, his wife, Melissa, and business partner David Corcoran are restoring 821 S. Calhoun St., creating two apartments each on the second and third floors. They also are prepping the first floor for a restaurant, which they would lease to someone else to run.
The 7,000-square-foot building was built in the 1890s. It has housed a bank, a brokerage firm and an art gallery over the years.
It’s coming along well. It’s just taking a lot longer than we had hoped, Glaze said of the Calhoun Street project.
He expects the apartments to be ready for renters before July, and he’s talking to folks interested in operating a restaurant.
This isn’t the Glazes’ first downtown development project. They and their partners own and operate J.K. O’Donnell’s, a popular Irish restaurant that opened six years ago in a formerly underused building at 121 W. Wayne St.
Glaze also owns another downtown property, which he declined to disclose.
We see buildings, he said, then paused. We just see promise in them.
Deals fall through
But for every success story, there is a tale of woe. Or two or three.
When he was interviewed last year, Bandemer had hoped that the trust could buy and sell two or three more buildings before the end of 2012. He tried to make it happen, but not all discussions lead to deals.
Bandemer, who devotes about half of his working hours to trust business, spent three months last summer putting together a four-building deal with a private developer. But, in the end, he said the developer dropped out.
It’s an interesting process, Bandemer said of economic development. There’s been a lot more activity than one might perceive.
Two trust board members and one former local development leader agreed.
Walters, who practices law with Barrett & McNagny, said the trust was formed to act as an encourager on small projects that would fill in the gaps left by splashier projects, such as Harrison Square.
We’re not going to be doing $30 million development projects, he said.
Months of work go into identifying locations, negotiating with owners, lining up financing and finding buyers who are interested and capable of renovating buildings into something that fits with a busy, pedestrian-friendly downtown, Walters said.
We’re trying to act responsibly to keep that process moving, he said. And it is a slow process.
Mac Parker, the trust’s chairman, stressed that the nonprofit’s board is comprised of volunteers who are committed to the community. He, for one, talks to Bandemer for trust business two or three times a week.
There are a number of things going on behind the scenes, some of them very big. But we can’t release it yet, he said.
The trust’s offer on a major downtown property has been orally accepted by the out-of-state corporation that owns it, Parker said. While the company waits for its next board meeting to make the sale official, trust officials are busy lining up financing and looking for a buyer.
There’s going to be interest in it, Parker said of the property, which he declined to name. You can’t negotiate a property sale like that out in the public.
The trust hasn’t bought anything since the Instant Copy building, but it has that deal pending and options to buy four buildings, Bandemer said. The nonprofit will exercise those options if it can line up buyers.
Karen Goldner, Fort Wayne’s former economic development director, was on the Downtown Improvement District’s board when the trust was formed.
The former city councilwoman, who is now a consultant in Chicago, left her city development job because she longed to work on ventures from start to finish.
If (these projects) were easy and quick to do, by and large, somebody else would be doing them, she said of downtown development. There’s so much work that’s done behind the scenes.
The trust’s priorities include getting a grocery, more restaurants and affordable apartments to open downtown.
The Harrison, which opened March 20 and was developed by New Harrison partners Mark Hagerman and Simon Dragan, includes 43 apartments along with retail shops, a restaurant, a bank and a law firm. The $18.5 million, four-story building on the southeast corner of Jefferson Boulevard and Ewing Street, faces Jefferson Boulevard on one side and Parkview Field on the other.
Another high-profile project will bring even more residential options to downtown. Tenants are already moving into the Anthony Wayne Building, a $15 million renovation project that created 39 condominiums, retail and office space. The developer of that project is RCI Development.
Economic developers know it’s tough to get people to move into urban areas unless they have ready access to groceries and other needs.
Show me the money
Bandemer also knows the trust doesn’t have enough money to get into a bidding war on downtown properties – although it does have some resources to call on.
In December, the City Council granted the trust $1 million of the $75 million Legacy Fund, which came from the lease and sale of City Light to I&M.
Parker emphasized that the trust started with no money and hasn’t been supported by tax dollars. The Legacy Fund grant is from a pool of taxpayer money, however.
That grant doubles the pot of money the trust can access.
The nonprofit has a $1 million line of credit authorized by the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne. That credit allows the trust to acquire real estate that has been approved by a foundation subcommittee. The loan is structured so it doesn’t have to be repaid until after the trust sells the property.
Trust officials are working with the city’s Planning Department on accessing the Legacy grant, Parker said.
Despite support from city officials and a major local nonprofit, the trust prefers to stay out of the public eye. Any buzz surrounding a specific property could cause the owner to raise the price.
Also, Bandemer doesn’t want to talk about potential deals that might not happen.
It leads to false expectations on everybody’s part, he said. Until you have a project that’s ready to go, you’re chasing windmills.