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The Downtown Development Trust
Revitalization of The Landing is the first “test” for a new economic development tool
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
When the announcement came last January that West Columbia Street — usually known as The Landing — would be the next area to benefit from current downtown development efforts, astute readers and followers of the news might have noticed something called the Downtown Development Trust mentioned amidst the usual flurry of government and other civic organizations often involved in these efforts.
And maybe — maybe — those astute readers and followers of the news were a little puzzled. The Downtown Development Trust has been around for about four years, and though its existence is hardly a secret, what it is and what it does seems to be unknown to many people not directly involved in downtown development.
Or, as an acquaintance of ours put it, “Good God! Is this another one of those organizations?”
Maybe it’s an ungenerous response (and definitely not accurate, as it turns out), but keeping track of who does what in downtown development seems to tax even the most enthusiastic civic cheerleaders.
To address the point, the Downtown Development Trust isn’t “another one of those organizations.” In fact, though the Downtown Development Trust has a nine-member board, labeling it an “organization” at all is not quite accurate. According to John Urbahns, Executive VP of Economic Development at Greater Fort Wayne, Inc. and the former Director of Community Development for the city, the Downtown Development Trust is more accurately an economic development tool. “The Trust wasn’t meant to be viewed or seen as an entity,” Urbahns explains. “It’s not the planning center. We have the Downtown Improvement Disttict, we have Greater Fort Wayne, Inc. we have the city for that. (The Trust) can take on a project (like The Landing); that’s what the board members focus on.”
The role of the Downtown Development Trust is to advance the downtown plans of the community — the Blueprint and Blueprint Plus plans of several years ago, and now the new riverfront development plans. “These are the plans that have been vetted and adopted by council,” Urbahns says. “(The trust) isn’t sitting out there coming up with something new.”
“Probably the biggest misconception about the trust is that it’s the city,” Urbahns continues. “I hear that a lot: ‘The city bought these buildings.’ But it’s not the city. Yes, the city has put some funding into the trust as a loan, and one person from the city is on the board, but the Downtown Development Trust is a separate, non-profit entity.”
As we said above, the Downtown Development Trust has been around for about four years. It was created in 2011 by the Downtown Improvement District and the Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance, and its mission or purpose is to buy “vacant or underused property” in downtown, with the idea of selling that property to developers. It is run under the umbrella of the Downtown Improvement District and Greater Fort Wayne, Inc, the new(ish) organization formed by merging The Alliance and the Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce. “The way we characterize it is that GFW, Inc. is ‘staff’ to the trust,” Urbahns clarifies. “The trust doesn’t have paid staff; GFW provides staff and administration to the trust.”
The idea of the trust sprang from an inter-community visit several years ago to Chattanooga, Tennessee, sponsored by Leadership Fort Wayne (now a part of GFW, Inc.) Chattanooga was in the process of revitalizing its riverfronts; Urbahns explains that a couple foundations had put money up to establish the River City Company in order to basically hold land bank property, receive property through donations, and further development along the rivers downtown. The City of Fort Wayne had recently gone through acquiring property and finding developers for Harrison Square, and was seeking ways to make that process run more smoothly in the future. “The Downtown Development Trust gave us an entity that could acquire and hold property outside of traditional government,” says Urbahns.
The trust consists of a nine member board, with three members appointed by the Downtown Improvement District, three by the Alliance, and the remaining three elected. The trust itself doesn’t have much cash “on hand”; money for acquisitions usually comes from donations, loans, or grants. The properties on The Landing, for example, were acquired through a $1.2 million loan through the Fort Wayne Community Foundation, a $1 million loan from the Legacy funds, and about $800,000 in federal money.
Though the promise of revitalization on The Landing has met with a lot of recent public interest, the trust was also involved in the current Ash Brokerage project going on downtown. Early on, Urbahns says the trust acquired the Instant Copy property and sold it to Scott Glaze, the president of Fort Wayne Metals and the co-owner and founder of JK O’Donnell’s. Before Glaze had finalized any plans for the property, the Ash Brokerage project came along. “We had to go back to him and say ‘We know you have plans for that building, but here’s a bigger picture of what’s happening on that block’,” says Urbahns. “He said ‘that makes sense’ and sold it back for what he had in it. But the trust required options on those nine properties, and turned them over to the Redevelopment Commission to close it.”
So The Landing project is the first substantial project where the trust has fully taken title of the properties and will be working to put out a Request For Proposal to find a developer to take on the task of revitalizing the area. One of the challenges that The Landing has had over the years, Urbahns says, is the lack of compatibility among businesses. “If we’re developers, for example, it’s hard for me to do one building in that area, and you to do another,” he says. “That’s why we felt that if we acquired a kind of critical mass of buildings, and worked with a single developer, that they would then have the ability to control what happens. If somebody is programming the whole space, it becomes much more apt to be successful.”
Preserving The Landing’s historic aspects is also a priority. Urbahns says he had a few calls from people worried about The Landing being “torn down.” It’s an historic site, so it has some protection anyway, but beyond that, Urbahns assures anyone concerned that altering The Landing’s historic qualities is definitely not part of the discussion. “This is about utilizing the existing character and charm of The Landing,” he says.
The Landing project is in its early stages, of course, but what those involved would like to see on The Landing — and any future project the Downtown Development Trust is involved in — is a developer with a “true passion” for downtown development, and a proven track record. “We want to see active use of those first floors,” Urbahns explains. “If someone says ‘I want to put an office on the first floor, and not do anything upstairs…’ that’s not what we’re looking for. It all goes back to the Blueprint and Blueprint Plus — and now the Riverfront Study. We want (a developer) that’s going to utilize all the floors, utilize the first floor for active space. We want something that’s going to create some energy and vibrancy in the area.”