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The Journal Gazette

  • Doden

Friday, June 07, 2019 1:00 am

Editorial

Static Electric

Recalibrated project can still be transformative

“Recalibrate” seems to be the word of the hour for those trying to push the Electric Works project over the finish line. The word connotes flexibility – something that's clearly going to be required of those who want to see the ambitious enterprise succeed.

Two weekends ago, in a piece published in The Journal Gazette, the three partners in the RTM development consortium said the effort was stalling at a “critical moment,” and laid some of the blame at unnamed detractors they alleged were scaring investors away.

By the end of last week, Josh Parker, Kevan Biggs and Jeff Kingsley seemed to have regrouped and ... recalibrated – a verb they used several times to describe the new strategies they plan to attract the critical mass of investors and lessees they need to start construction.

At times, the effort to rework the huge, empty General Electric campus has seemed to move at a glacial pace. Negotiations between RTM and the city crawled on for months last year, and the U.S. government shutdown that ended in January – the longest in history – delayed the quest to nail down federal New Market Tax Credits. That was a critical part of the mix of public and private commitments required to make the deal originally scheduled to close by July 1 work, so the city allowed developers until Nov. 1 to pull everything together. Parker says the developers now are close to confirming the remaining New Market Tax Credits they need, which RTM had always assumed would come not from Fort Wayne but from entities elsewhere.

But if the slow pace has lulled the community into lassitude, it's time to wake up. RTM warns it might look at selling the property or other contingencies if this year ends with the project in limbo.

As The Journal Gazette's Sherry Slater reported Sunday, the developers are finally facing that they may not find the major “anchor” that would give Electric Works the kind of ballast the American Tobacco Campus received from Duke University, which leased more than a third of the space in the Raleigh, North Carolina facility. RTM has asked former Greater Fort Wayne CEO Eric Doden, who helped lead the early efforts to develop the site, to become a point person in the final push for investors and lessees.

As Doden expands the search for potential big tenants, he is also hoping to persuade businesses or foundations to sponsor Electric Works' planned public market and innovation and entrepreneurship areas. The developers also want Doden, a former head of the Indiana Economic Development Corp., to take advantage of what is potentially a major assist from Gov. Eric Holcomb's administration. Under a new federal program created by the 2017 tax-cut bill, Holcomb designated an area that includes the GE campus as one of Indiana's Opportunity Zones, which could allow investors here or elsewhere to defer capital-gains taxes by putting their money into Electric Works projects and leaving it there for at least a decade.

“It now puts another tool in the toolbox that says, 'Well, you can be more patient with your investment and hold it for a longer period of time and the federal government will mitigate your federal income taxes on that,' ” Parker said.

Will appeals to those inclined to become “patient investors” or philanthropic sponsors help RTM reach the finish line this year? It's certainly a better strategy than trying to deflect shadowy critics and waiting for skittish potential tenants to commit.

“We've got to close on the full financing and start construction,” Parker said. “Because the bottom line is, if we don't, the New Market Tax Credits – everything starts to unravel. That doesn't mean you can't put Humpty together again, but it takes longer and costs more.”

Those who believe in Electric Works should remember the project has a lot going for it, including wide public support, assistance from all levels of government and many of the pieces in an admittedly complicated capital plan already in place. A respected consulting firm confirmed the need for residential and commercial space.

Sometimes forgotten is that if the Electric Works plan disappeared tomorrow, the city might have to spend millions to demolish the site. Instead, there is the historically resonant plan to turn a major symbol of Fort Wayne's industrial past into a cutting-edge, 21st-century center.