The Journal Gazette
Sunday, October 10, 2021 1:00 am

Riverfront projects vying for state cash

11-county area could get up to $50 million in grants

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

Northeast Indiana's application for the state's READI grant program includes four local riverfront development projects totaling almost $1 billion in public and private investment.

The proposed projects would continue the momentum of national-design-award-winning Promenade Park, which has become a popular destination.   

Problem is: The projects, combined, are requesting almost $150 million in Indiana Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative money, but the maximum READI grant the region could receive is $50 million.

A significant roadblock for one of the projects could be a lack of city support.

There's still another issue. The grant application was made on behalf of the entire 11-county region – Adams, Allen, DeKalb, Huntington, LaGrange, Kosciusko, Noble, Steuben, Wabash, Wells and Whitley counties.

Although there is consensus that the region benefits from Fort Wayne's recent momentum, it's doubtful one area of one city would receive the full windfall.

Not even Fort Wayne's biggest cheerleaders are angling for that outcome.

Ellen Cutter, vice president of economic development for Greater Fort Wayne Inc., said local officials understand that riverfront development can't – and shouldn't – be the region's sole focus.

She sees investments in more housing, entrepreneurship, nursing training, entrepreneurship and southeast Fort Wayne as also being priorities. 

Mike Galbraith supports the Regional Development Authority as a consultant. He said it “would be very unlikely” that all the READI money northeast Indiana might receive would be designated to Fort Wayne's riverfront projects.

“I would expect it to be dispersed more widely than that,” he said. “You want to do things building consensus and building momentum in northeast Indiana.”

So why were all four projects included in the submission? In some ways, it's like throwing a handful of spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks.

Calculating the odds

Each county's local economic development organization compiled a list of projects for the region's READI application, which the Northeast Indiana Regional Development Authority submitted to state officials late last month.

Cutter was the point person for Allen County's projects. An online form was available to anyone wishing to make a submission. City officials, developers and others answered the open call for projects and programs.

The Regional Development Authority decided to include almost every submission that could make a reasonable argument that it supported at least one of the region's three priorities: workforce growth, downtown vibrancy or entrepreneurship and innovation.

The region's 308-page, 130-project submission is meant to reflect residents' vision for future development, Cutter said.

“Their thought was to really demonstrate all the projects in the pipeline,” she said during a phone interview.

The Indiana Economic Development Corp. will decide which regions' proposals will be funded from the $500 million set aside for the program. With a limit of $50 million per award, at least 10 regions are expected to win approval.

Gov. Eric Holcomb last week announced 17 regions representing all 92 Indiana counties submitted proposals requesting more than $1 billion in READI funds. Northeast Indiana's requests account for more than $400 million of the total.

Assuming northeast Indiana gets the nod, the Regional Development Authority will evaluate and accept or reject applications for a piece of the READI pie. The five-member board served the same role in doling out the $42 million grant awarded in 2015 under the state's Regional Cities Initiative.

Galbraith also supported the Regional Development Authority during the Regional Cities grantmaking activity. He expects the process, which relied to a large extent on timing, to be similar this time around.

Large number of 'great projects'

“There's not going to be a shortage of great projects,” Galbraith said, adding that the Regional Development Authority's challenge will be deciding how to stretch the money to get the most value possible. 

As with Regional Cities grants, there is a three-year deadline to spend READI money, a deadline that will weed out some projects if they can't get the remaining funding lined up in time, he said.

The state's money is intended to be the last money committed to a project. Developers are expected to have all their other funding sources guaranteed before asking for a READI grant.

“If the math doesn't add up, that's a project hurdle,” Galbraith said. 

About one-third of projects that received Regional Cities funds weren't included in the region's “The Road to One Million” submission, he said.

Assuming the READI grantmaking process unfolds in a similar way, that's good news for projects not included in the region's submission. But it also makes the odds even longer for the 130 projects that are listed.

Regional Development Authority members don't want to adopt an ironclad first-come, first-served rule, but projects that take longer to get financing in line risk the region's funds running out before they can submit a final application.

Galbraith said it's a balancing act, choosing between projects ready to go and the projects that would be the most transformational.

“We want the best projects to come forward,” he said. “We want to make sure this money is transformative.”

And just because a project isn't chosen to receive state grant money doesn't mean it won't happen, Galbraith added. Electric Works is a good example, he said. It didn't have enough other funding guaranteed to qualify for Regional Cities Initiative money before it ran out, but the project went forward without it.

Competing projects

The riverfront project requesting the most READI money is referred to as Superior Street – Riverfront's Main Street. It accounts for more than $71 million of the grant requests. Total project cost is estimated at almost $356 million.

“This application describes catalytic projects along the corridor that will collectively (transform) the area into a regional center of activity,” the project's description says.

It includes constructing the mixed-use Lofts at Headwaters Park, redeveloping the historic Canal House and Cambray buildings, creating an urban trail and buying additional property not owned by the city.

The riverfront project requesting the least READI money – just $9 million – is referred to in the region's submission as Fort Wayne Riverfront Development – Cumberland Development. Total project cost is estimated at almost $212 million.

The two-phase, mixed-use project would include more than 240,000 square feet of commercial space, more than 600 apartments, 1,170 parking spaces, gardens, and a plaza park.

It's the same project put forth by Eric Doden in April and rejected by city development staff as being ill-timed.

Nancy Townsend, director of community development, said in April that the area on the north side of the St. Marys River is part of the riverfront plan's third phase and the city is just starting the second phase.

“The High Street project would require us to shift to designing and planning” another phase, she said then, using the project's original title. “We are not ready.”

Townsend said her department is responsible for protecting “the public trust” and “the public treasure.” For a project to move forward, she said, “we have to have the right project with the right partner in the right place at the right time.”

On Friday, Townsend said through email that the city's evaluation of the project hasn't changed.

“The public-private partnership interests, public infrastructure and place-making opportunities that exist within Fort Wayne, let alone our growing region far exceed the $50 million maximum awards the State is offering,” her statement read, in part.

“The goal of this application is for the northeast Region to win a $50 million grant from the state,” Townsend continued. “Then it will be up to the (Regional Development Authority) to determine how those funds will be awarded.” 

There's an expectation that successful READI projects would receive some local government funding, Galbraith said. But if other funds came forward to support Doden's vision and city officials said they support the project, that might be good enough, he added.

Could a project progress without approval from local government? “It could,” Galbraith said.

But if a mayor says “no way will this project move forward over my dead body,” he added, “that's going to be very hard (for the Regional Development Authority) to approve.”

Eric Shields, a principal in Indianapolis-based firm Cardinal Strategies, has been hired as a consultant by Doden's firm, Domo Development. Shields responded to a request for comment.

Shields emphasized that Doden's proposal aligns with the city's vision for future riverfront development. It does, however, ask city officials to fast-track infrastructure investments in roads and a park.

“At the end of the day, it won't move forward if the city doesn't live up to its commitment to do Phase 3 riverfront development,” he said. “As things stand, there's no evidence to suggest that they won't.”

Based on Townsend's response, there's no evidence the city will make that investment on Doden's timeline.

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