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Headwaters Junction Revisited

Kelly Lynch’s ambitious revitalization project once again in the spotlight

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2011-02-06


As Kelly Lynch researched and developed his Headwaters Junction proposal over the years, he frequently used his cousin as a confidant and sounding board.

And recently, as the Headwaters Junction tale took another unexpected turn, his cousin once again offered up a little perspective: “He told me: ‘you built the rocketship, and now you’re sitting in mission control watching it, and there’s nothing you can do’,” laughs Lynch.

Actually, knowing Kelly Lynch, the more appropriate metaphor might be that of a runaway train…

Just to recap, Kelly Lynch is a film-maker, designer, and — at 25-years-old — one of the most knowledgeable people you’ll ever meet about old railroads and steam locomotives. He’s the Director of Public Relations for the Fort Wayne Historical Society, and works with other railroad preservation groups and operators around the country.

Last summer, as the old New York Central freight depot on the corner of Clinton and 4th Street was slated for demolition, Lynch’s Headwaters Junction idea garnered a lot of attention (we covered it in FWR #152). As conceived by Lynch, Headwaters Junction would sit on the North River Property, and basically re-create a turn-of-the-century rail yard with a working train that would not only offer everyday transportation, but would be available for special excursions. The whole area would have a turn-of-the-century feel, and offer space for special events, restaurants, and other attractions.

Lynch came up with the idea while following the North River Project Task Force, a body charged with exploring possible uses for the Omnisource property north of the St Mary’s and bordered by Clinton on the east, 4th Street to the south, Harrison to the west, and 6th Street on the north.

The depot was eventually torn down last summer, and though obviously Lynch was very disappointed, it wasn’t a “deal breaker” in terms of the Headwaters Junction idea. Lynch, who had been meticulously researching the idea for a couple of years, continued to work on the idea, talking to civic leaders and city officials and honing his proposal.

“I walked into the 8th floor of the City County building about a year ago this month and said ‘I have this idea. Where does someone go with an idea like this?’” Lynch says. “It’s no closer, of course, to becoming a reality, but it’s also 100% more prepared. Until the City determines its own development plans, it really remains a concept.”

True enough, but a confluence of events in the last month has brought Headwaters Junction into the spotlight once again.

The first: Lynch finally “went public” with the Headwaters Junction Conceptual Development Plan at headwatersjunction.com.

The second: The City asked citizens to offer ideas on what should be done with the funds from the Fort Wayne Community Trust established 35 years ago and the City Light Lease Settlement —nearly $75 million. A web site was set up — feedbackfortwayne.org — and The Legacy Fort Wayne Task Force established to take suggestions and “guide the process.”

The third: the actual North River property, which seemed to have been forgotten about after the City let its option to buy expire, was back in play, with Mayor Henry revealing that the City was once again in negotiations to buy the land.

The Headwaters Junction idea quickly became one of the top vote earners on “Feedback Fort Wayne,” something which surprised Lynch. “I was listed on there by someone who had heard about it,” he says. “I hadn’t intended (Headwaters Junction) to really become a part of that conversation, at least not yet, because I knew there were going to be so many ideas, and a lot of them would be good causes.”

On the site, Headwaters Junction is described as a “museum” project, which Lynch is at pains to point out is far from the truth. In the conceptual plan, the word “museum” is used only once. “It’s an interesting public perception challenge,” he says. “When you say ‘gateway project that can help with urban revitalization,’ it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like ‘museum project.’ But this is not at all a museum. What I’ve told other people in the railroad industry and the preservation industry, is that you have to engage and entertain people before you try to educate them about this. I can tell you ‘this engine weights 400 tons,’ but who cares? Give me something I can feel.”

And Lynch puts a lot of faith in the visceral power of the old locomotives — he’s seen them work their magic. One of the centerpieces of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society is the 765 locomotive, which occasionally tours the country. On a trip last September, the 765 pulled into Payne, Ohio to “top off the tender.” “We use water and coal to make steam, and we got approval from the town of Payne to use one of their fire hydrants,” Lynch says. “Word spread that a steam locomotive was going to stop in town. These people didn’t know where it was coming from, the history, even its number. All they knew was this Tyrannosaurs Rex was going to roll into town. We pulled into town with the crew, and started rolling out the fire hoses. They were marching kids out of school, all lined up on the street, and when they heard the locomotive, the reaction was… it was like listening to kids on a roller coaster. It didn’t matter it was 66 years old, the theatrical machine was there.”

Yet however enthusiastic and positive Lynch gets about his subject, there’s a part of him that seems a little ambivalent about Headwaters Junction becoming involved in the Community Trust/Light Lease Settlement discussion. He’s grateful for the support, grateful that so many people seem so interested, but as we said above, Lynch has been researching and developing Headwaters Junction for years. As anyone who has seen his proposal can attest, it’s not some “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…” idea thrown out on a whim.

And perhaps more importantly, he worries about it being politicized. It’s a valid concern — discussion on what to do with the Community Trust/Light Lease Settlement funds has already generated some controversy. Critics argue that if the money needs to be spent — and they’re not at all sure it does — it should be put towards something like the ongoing combined sewer overflow project; not glamorous, perhaps, but something that needs to be done.

Plus, it’s doubtful anyone has the stomach, politically or economically, for another big revitalization project after the delays with Harrison Square.

“This is a grassroots effort, locally born, not brought in from the outside,” Lynch says. “It also offers a range of funding opportunities due to the many components of the project, so the nature of funding is very different from a project like Harrison Square. The city can lead projects like this, but it shouldn't have to bear the burden.”

So Lynch hopes people won’t dismiss Headwaters Junction out of hand, and says that some of the negative comments he’s heard have been a little confusing. “Part of what I’ve discovered in the past year is that we are a city and a region of self-fulfilling prophecies,” he says. “That can be good or bad. I hear, ‘oh, Fort Wayne will never be this or that…’ Well, yes, with that attitude, it never is going to change. But why settle for that? Why can’t we do better?”

Learn more about Headwaters Junction at headwatersjunction.com.

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