Like liberty, perhaps, the quest to build a transformative mixed-use facility at the old General Electric site may require eternal vigilance.
Supporters of the Electric Works project may have felt entitled to relax a bit after the complex funding deal cleared the last of its public-investment hurdles last fall. But the celebrations may have been premature.
In a piece published Sunday, the leaders of the consortium behind Electric Works said the development process has reached “a critical moment” and can't move forward without more support.
RTM partners Josh Parker, Jeff Kingsbury and Kevan Biggs wrote they are still working hard to create the $248 million multi-use center. But an unnamed group of powerful, influential people “are working aggressively to thwart the progress of this project,” they charged, resulting in “skittish investors and reluctant tenant prospects.” The opponents, the writers said, are motivated by the “fear of change, financial profit or political gain.”
A number of potential tenants have announced their intent to locate in the renovated Broadway structures. But the developers have not yet landed the kind of anchor tenant Duke University has been for the American Tobacco campus in Durham, North Carolina, where the university leases more than a third of the 600,000-square-foot campus that inspired the Electric Works concept.
The Electric Works phase-one plan comprises 700,000 square feet of development; Parker told The Journal Gazette's Sherry Slater only somewhat more than 100,000 square feet is spoken for now. In its original agreement with the city, RTM promised to have leasing commitments for 250,000 square feet by July 1; that deadline has since been extended to Nov. 1, which also is the date the developers would like to begin construction. It's important to remember that no public funds will be signed over to the developers until those goals and other pieces of the puzzle are a reality.
The potential benefits of ElectricWorks to this community are many; some already reality. The project promises to turn a huge, abandoned industrial campus into a residential, commercial and entrepreneurial center. Property values are already rising in surrounding neighborhoods. As a potential site for restaurants, entertainment and a farmers market, it fits perfectly into the larger development strategy of improving Fort Wayne's quality of life and thus encouragingmore companies and workers to choose northeast Indiana and more of our young people to seek their destiny here.
One wonders, if indeed there are naysayers who believe they have important things to say against the project, why are they afraid to do so publicly?
But whatever the critics may be whispering, it's unlikely their cynicism wholly explains RTM's failure to find its “Duke.” Fort Wayne offers many pluses for economic development, including well-regarded health systems and institutions of higher education, but it is not the site of a major university. The “eds and meds” approach that has worked for developments elsewhere may need to be modified here. As City Councilman Geoff Paddock observes in an oped column today, most of Fort Wayne's most successful projects encountered delays. It may be the developers simply need more time to refine and sell the Electric Works concept to potential tenants elsewhere.
But even good ideas need steady support to succeed. Electric Works' many advocates should view the developers' letter not as a cause for despair but as a call to action.