As exciting as the prospect of a revitalized General Electric complex is, it's difficult to imagine exactly how that empty campus will look after the transformation is complete. Can a 31-acre cluster of aging buildings really be refurbished into a center for retail, business and residences?
As The Journal Gazette's Sherry Slater reported Sunday, the American Tobacco Campus in Durham, North Carolina, offers a good example of how a community can begin to pull off such a metamorphosis.
Development of the million-square-foot ATC followed construction of a new park for the Durham Bulls baseball team in the mid-1990s. But as Slater reported, even as the ballpark thrived, a vast complex of warehouses that was once home to the world's largest tobacco company lay vacant and uninviting just across the street.
Today, it's a center of recreational and business activity that includes tech operations, law offices and banks, administrative space for nearby Duke University, a smattering of retail and residential development, and a world-renowned arts center. Those involved in the massive development told Slater they would like to see more shops and more residences. But the area has been a catalyst for explosive growth in downtown Durham. Employment in the area, for instance, has ballooned from 3,800 in 1993 to 16,500 today. An ambitious business incubator called American Underground has led to more than 300 startups within a mile of the campus.
Wednesday, a group of business leaders and elected officials looking for ideas and inspiration began touring ATC and its environs under the aegis of Greater Fort Wayne Inc. Two of the group who spoke briefly with us Wednesday afternoon said they haven't been disappointed with their visit, which concludes today.
“What we hope for, for GE, is coming to life here,” said Crystal Vann Wallstrom of the Center for Creative Collaboration at Indiana Tech. She was struck by “the sense of community, the water features, the advertising and design agencies, the architecture – it really creates an energy.”
“There's a real buzz of activity in what used to be the armpit of town,” said Ray Kusisto of Ortho Northeast. “This has shifted the center of gravity of downtown.”
Kusisto and Vann Wallstrom both found a compelling analogy in the way the ATC and the baseball park had been able to connect what had been disparate pockets of growth.
“We can do the same thing in Fort Wayne,” said Kusisto, who envisions development eventually linking the GE area and Parkview Field. “We can see a renaissance of the area if we do the same kind of things here,” he said.
“It will broaden and expand the downtown,” Vann Wallstrom said.
In its specifics, the $284 million plan to remake the GE campus may turn out to be far different from Durham's. But it is encouraging to know that such ambitious dreams have become reality, at least in one North Carolina city.