By Ron Bernthal
Update: The post below was originally published in 2017. Fort Wayne’s huge Electric Works project is still an ongoing restoration development, although much progress has been made since my visit in 2017. Project financing was initially scheduled to end in November 2019, but after securing Do it Best ( a large hardware, lumber, and building materials cooperative based in Fort Wayne) as an anchor tenant, plans needed to be changed to accommodate more office space. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused additional delays to the project, and project financing is currently expected to close in late 2020. The additional construction is planned to take 18-24 months, with first occupancies in mid to late 2022. The city of Ft. Wayne has also continued to revitalize its downtown districts with several new commercial, residential and recreational projects. (Ron Bernthal)
Like many Midwestern cities Fort Wayne, Indiana, was close enough to the rust belt to lose much its industry, and many of the small agricultural communities surrounding Fort Wayne lost family farms, as has happened throughout the Midwest.
Over the past decade, however, Fort Wayne’s downtown is no longer eerily quiet after dark, and its economic and cultural resurgence is helping the rebirth of the entire Northeast Indiana region. Other Indiana towns, like Gary, Kokomo, and Evansville, are also reinventing themselves in similar ways, but Fort Wayne, with its intensive public/private fund raising efforts and cooperative spirit, seems to be running on double-speed.
More than $500 million has been invested to support downtown revitalization, and another $600 million is pledged for projects for the next ten years. In the pretty little towns spread out on flat farmland outside Fort Wayne, new warehouses, distribution centers and software firms are now sprouting on unplowed bean and corn fields, trendy cafes and boutiques are opening in formerly empty storefronts, and young people are staying put, finally seeing new career opportunities in their own backyard. More than 500 million dollars has been invested to support downtown revitalization, and another $600 million is pledged for projects for the next ten years.
Local city officials and redevelopment committees started with ideas from other cities that had successfully revitalized their downtown streets using baseball as a major ingredient. Case studies from around the country at different ballparks like Boston’s Fenway Park, Chicago’s Wrigley Field in Chicago and NewBridge Bank Park in Greensboro, North Carolina, were mentioned and discussed. The idea of using unique ballpark features to attract fans were eventually implemented at Fort Wayne’s new Parkview Field, home of the San Diego Padres minor league team, the Tincaps, in the form of the Home Run Porch in left field, the Treetops in right field, and similar high-top tables down the third-base line.
The public also had to be reassured with regard to safety, parking and the feasibility of a downtown ballpark. Would it be safe in downtown Fort Wayne at night? Would there be enough parking? Would anyone want to go downtown after 5 p.m.? As it turns out, the answers to all three of those questions was a resounding yes. Parkview Field was funded and constructed via a public-private partnership between the team and the City of Fort Wayne. The move downtown brought not only a new identity for the team, but also an entirely new experience that involved the entire community of Fort Wayne, Allen County, Northeast Indiana and beyond. The new ballpark didn’t just signal that there was a new sporting venue in Fort Wayne, but that a one-of-a-kind facility was becoming a staple of a revitalized downtown.
Over the past few years, the ballpark neighborhood was joined at Harrison Square by “The Harrison,” a mixed residential/commercial building, a 250-room Courtyard by Marriott hotel opened in 2010, as well as a much needed indoor parking garage, and professional baseball’s only “center field” (that is also an official city park) opened as part of Parkview Field. In addition, Cityscape Flats, a $27 million housing complex with 163 units, now sits across from the stadium. All these new development projects, in turn, attracted added business to the neighboring Grand Wayne Convention Center, resulting in over $50 million in additional development to Fort Wayne’s downtown in less than five years. Hampton Inn & Suites has announced it plans to build a 125-room hotel along West Jefferson Boulevard, across from the Grand Wayne Convention Center between the Courtyard by Marriott and Parkview Field, opening in summer 2019. The new development, a $20 million project, will allow for expanded opportunities in downtown.
These days Parkview Field itself brings in more than 400,000 fans for TinCaps games and plays host to more than 400 non-baseball events each year, drawing another 100,000 people to the area. The ballpark is open 365 days a year as a public facility with runners and walkers enter the stadium each day for laps around the field.
In recent years, in a role reversal that is quite dramatic, officials and business leaders from more than 30 other cities have visited Fort Wayne to study the Parkview Field neighborhood as a model and catalyst for their own city’s downtown revitalization.
Work on the long-awaited Riverfront Fort Wayne has already begun. During the summer of 2017 Fort Wayne’s Mayor Tom Henry broke ground on Promenade Park, which is the first phase of the a project that is expected to not only change the face of this historic, Northeast Indiana city, but attract many thousands of visitors to an old manufacturing town that that is finally beginning to reinvent itself.
Likewise, the city’s three rivers have also played a role in Fort Wayne’s reinvention. In 1697 the French build a fort along the area’s St. Mary’s River, and along with the Maumee and the St. Joseph Rivers, they were once the center of local life, commerce and transportation as Fort Wayne grew into a busy hub of trade and commerce. Its strategic location was often referred to as the “crossroads” by early settlers and Native Americans because it provided access to travel in three directions.
In the late 1700’s President George Washington appointed Revolutionary War General “Mad” Anthony Wayne to lead an expedition in the Northwest Indian War. On August 20, 1794, Wayne mounted an assault on the Indian confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, in modern Maumee, Ohio (just south of present-day Toledo), which was a decisive victory for the U.S. forces, ending the war.
Once the city of Fort Wayne was established in 1829, named after General Wayne, who had established an American fort at the confluence of the city’s three rivers in 1794 at the end of the Northwest Indian Wars. These three rivers became part of a larger network of transportation in the entire region, and by the mid-1800s, the city became known as the “Altoona of the West” for its busy railroad route, and its location on the Wabash and Erie Canal earned it the nickname “Summit City” because it was the highest point above sea level on the canal route.
The three rivers brought prosperity and commerce to Fort Wayne throughout the early- to mid-1900s, with the noted landscape architect George Kessler organizing and expanding the city’s urban landscape to incorporate all three rivers, creating a plan for present-day Lakeside Park and Headwaters Park. But as the 20th century moved forward, and other transportation modes developed, the rivers largely fell to disuse, with floodwater levees eventually hiding them behind concrete walls and natural brush.
In 2011, however, as part of the city’s downtown revitalization projects, Mayor Henry established Legacy Fort Wayne to guide the spending of approximately $75 million to restore the river banks and prepare for extensive downtown riverfront development. With more riverfront funds approved by city officials in 2015, and other downtown hotel, restaurant and mixed-use development projects happening throughout the city, Riverfront Fort Wayne was organized, and residents began moving back into Fort Wayne, not only from the rural suburbs nearby, but from bigger cities in the state, like Indianapolis, and around the country.
Today, construction on the $20 million first phase of the scenic riverfront project is underway, and visitors are already boating, kayaking and biking, with commerce and community events taking place along the three rivers. The city now gets drinking water from the St. Joseph River for some 250,000 people, and when finished the new Promenade Park will include, among other amenities, the Compass Pavilion, which will serve as the park’s anchor venue for events, an amphitheater and a kid’s canal.
Other current and on-going public and private projects in the city, some of them part of the Fort Wayne’s Vision 2020 strategic plan, include:
The Landing, which is revitalizing the city’s historic, downtown area, is part of an ongoing effort from many private developers. A total of 100,000 square-feet is available for development into an art district with a mix of housing, businesses, and entertainment, all along the St. Mary’s River. The result is an ongoing project that is restoring the city’s most historic buildings into trendy mixed-use facilities, often with cafes, restaurants, art galleries and high-tech businesses on lower floors, and new residential apartments on the upper floors of the five and six-story brick buildings.
Insurance agency Ash Brokerage’s new $98 million, nine story downtown headquarters is known as Ash Skyline Plaza and has brought more than 435 jobs to downtown Fort Wayne, including 260 Ash Brokerage employees. Skyline Tower opened in 2018, a modern 124-unit residential building with a Ruth’s Chris Steak House and upscale retail shops on the lower level.
A former manufacturing warehouse built in 1905 is set for a $9.8 million transformation into Superior Lofts, a revitalized space with 72 apartments and retail space opened in 2018, which followed the 2014 restoration and opening of Randall Lofts, a similar historic warehouse conversion by the same developer.
New business and residential development means new restaurants as well, including Tolon Farm to Fork, where the menu includes the names of a dozen local farms that supply the eatery with everything from smoked goose and whitetail deer to organic vegetables and Utopian Coffee’s best blends. The Golden is another new downtown restaurant, created by local chefs Aaron Butts and Sean Richardson, they offer a constantly changing menu that may include a charcuterie platter, veal sweetbreads, corn ash pasta, chicken breast and an extensive cocktail service. Also recently opened downtown is the spacious and modern Hoppy Gnome with a diverse menu that includes not only a large selection of unique tacos, stuffed with everything from duck confit, to korean short rib, to a basic “taqueria” style taco. There is also a non-tacos menu offering items like pan seared salmon, wood-fired ribs, and Thai lamb chops.
Restored 1928 Embassy movie palace in Fort Wayne, now home of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestra, is one of many downtown projects that has revitalized the city’s downtown district. (Photo: Steve Linsenmayer)
Two General Motors suppliers are expanding their Fort Wayne operations with plans to create more than 300 jobs by the end of 2018. Michigan-based Android Industries and sister company Avancez say they will invest a total of nearly $15 million in the project. Fort Wayne’s Arts United Center, created by noted architect Louis Kahn, his only completed work in the Midwest, is planning to expand its beautiful downtown campus, and city’s iconic company. Vera Bradley, the popular American luggage and handbag design company, was founded by Barbara Bradley Baekgaard and Patricia Miller in Fort Wayne in 1982, has been a generous supporter of Fort Wayne’s revitalization efforts, as have many other private firms in the city.
The biggest individual project in Fort Wayne, however, is just getting started with the redevelopment of the historic General Electric’s Broadway campus. Rebranded as “Electric Works,” and playing up the fact that the late 1800’s/early 1900’s red-brick buildings have been a Fort Wayne landmark for over 100 years, developers plan a multi-year project to transform the urban neighborhood into a district with commercial, retail, residential, hotel and community spaces, along with an area for a university.
The Electric Works campus, which encompasses 31 acres and approximately 1.2 million square-feet across 8 remaining vacant buildings, will be redeveloped into the $300 million, mixed-use Innovation District. “This will bring all our resources to bear,” said Kevan Biggs, of Biggs Property Management, one of the major Fort Wayne developers involved in the project. “We expect construction to begin in 2018.” (Major developers for the project include RTM Ventures, a joint venture created by Cross Street Partners, of Baltimore; Greenstreet Ltd., of Indianapolis; and Biggs Development, of Decatur, a Fort Wayne suburb).
Architect Kevin Scully of Design Collaborative said there’s going to be a lot more than housing planned for the 300,000+ square feet of space in the first two buildings of Phase 1. “Plans call for a hotel, apartments, both market-rate and subsidized by tax credits, commercial space, artist studios or other work facilities,” Scully said.
“We want techies. We want foodies. We want artists. We want makers,” said Bill Struever, principal of Cross Street Partners. “Attracting a mix of creative people to live and work in the former GE campus is fundamental to the development’s strategy.”
Dan Swartz is the founder of Wunderkammer, a 7,000 square-foot contemporary art center in the heart of Fort Wayne. Wunderkammer is an eclectic organization that curates exhibitions, educational programs, performances and special events that push boundaries and spur conversations, much like the GE plant transformation. “Any time you could add tourism to the arts, it makes it a million times better,” Swartz said, referring to the prospect of a deluxe hotel as part of the new Electric Works complex.
Architects working on the Electric Works redevelopment have described the rough plans for every floor. The plans for Building 4 and Building 6 of the old General Electric campus would use about a fourth of the square footage of all the buildings south of downtown that once were part of GE’s operations there. Developers hope to begin work at the site in 2018, with the first tenants in late 2019 or early 2020.
The history of GE and its predecessor companies in Fort Wayne dates back to the late 19th century. At its peak in the 1940s, the company employed more than 10,000 people in the city, mainly producing electric motors. Employment declined through the following decades, and the company eliminated its last few dozen jobs in Fort Wayne in 2014.
In the coming months the Fort Wayne community will be asked to participate in the master planning process for Electric Works. This project will help reinvigorate the city’s residential core, will instill a new level of community commitment by the local universities, and will help transform Fort Wayne into a true national destination.
Electric Works’ Phase I is expected to include:
• 224,000 square feet of office space
• 113,000 square feet of educational/institutional space
• 83,000 square feet of retail space, including restaurants and a food hall
• 83,000 square feet of dedicated innovation space
• 82,000 square feet of residential space
• 31,000 square feet of recreational and amenity space
All the current and expected projects in the city are surely having an effect on Fort Wayne’s employment numbers. Between the first quarters of 2014 and 2015, the region added 4,491 jobs, bringing the metro job base to just below 200,000. Health care led in job creation, accounting for one-in-four new jobs, and with the strongest wage gains seen in lower-wage sectors like retail, agriculture, accommodation and food services, and manufacturing, this will mean higher tax revenue for the city, with more people eating out and enjoying Fort Wayne’s attractions and recreational facilities. These days, Fort Wayne is home to one of the hottest housing markets in the country, has one of the lowest costs of living in the nation, and was recently ranked the #1 best city to raise a family.
Part of the allure regarding Fort Wayne’s real estate is the feeling that since so many big urban projects are taking place at the same time, the city is going to attract a slew of start-up firms, tech-savvy millennials looking for the new “it” city, and retirees who can purchase a Victorian-era home or a spacious loft apartment within walking distance of downtown restaurants, museums and a minor league baseball stadium. In addition the city has an incredibly low tax rate, always a plus for future economic development.