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The fighting south side
By Jim Sack
Fort Wayne Reader
The controversial and failed Brightpoint effort to force an apartment/retail complex on a collection of south side neighborhoods had winners and losers. First, the winners were John Shoaff, Dr. John Crawford, Geoff Paddock, Carolyn DeVoe, the Plan Commission, the neighborhood system and Mitch Harper. The losers were Brightpoint, Ambassador Enterprises, Mayor Tom Henry and his HANDS. Dr. Crawford hit it on the head when he called the project a square peg in a round hole. Most involved eventually came to see just that, some sooner, others much later.
The threat to the well-maintained collection of seven neighborhoods fostered a formidable uprising. Brightpoint’s was simply an unproven idea forced into the wrong place. With that in mind, Carolyn DeVoe, the grand dame of the local and formidable neighborhood system, took the lead in defending her quadrant’s neighborhoods.
Because Mayor Tom didn’t bother to check with the effected neighbors, the surrounding neighborhoods, or with the aforementioned quadrant leader his commitment to the neighborhoods has to be questioned. One phone call would have warned him to the pitfalls. He didn’t bother.
And, the head of Greater Fort Wayne is eating crow. He told his staff it was a done deal. His family also happens to own Ambassador, so his hubris can be understood. Ambassador was one of the groups that would have benefited most from the misshapen project. You may remember him — Eric Doden moved to Fort Wayne a few years back, rented an apartment just inside the city limits and ran for mayor. Hubris. After a short and troubled stint in state government Doden has returned “home” is the new head of GFW, Inc., and, cozily enough, is the big winner with another development west of the ballpark where his new friends in the Henry Administration, with the sweeping approval of council, have given (yes, given away free downtown acreage) to Doden and his partner. The generous donation of public’s land coupled with plenty of public-financed incentives will help GFW’s Doden build a housing complex from which he will profit handsomely, thanks to you…and Mayor Henry. Think 10 years of lucrative tax-free profits.
HANDS is Housing Neighborhood Development Services, a part of city government. They rubber-stamped the project with hardly a word to the neighborhoods. They forgot the neighborhood part of their moniker. but seems developers come first, neighborhoods seem an inconvenience. Had it not been for the compulsory notice that goes with rezoning through the Plan Commission the surrounding neighborhoods wouldn’t have had any notice of the imminent arrival of bulldozers.
The political amateurs at Brightpoint can be excused for their pushiness and comforted in the bad advice they received. They sincerely put forward an untested, but well-intended idea, got most of their political ducks in a row, but then held a meeting with the neighborhoods to announce the project. When questioned by the neighbors Brightpoint representatives turned condescending and impatient, and their attorney turned to threats. We are conservatives here in Fort Wayne, and when someone is so pushy, as was Brightpoint, we have a tendency to want to slow things down. It was in reading the fine print that the warts became much too apparent.
The winners: Mitch Harper won votes away from Mayor Henry in the critical and traditionally Democratic Fifth District because he voted with the home owners, and they will remember that; Geoff Paddock is another winner, if only barely. His belated and belabored “no” vote, was happily followed by constructive post-vote efforts to find common ground for this troubled ground, in an effort to bring new life to the site. That is his forte.
Another winner, more so that Messrs. Harper and Paddock, and Madame DeVoe, was John Crawford. He walked the affected neighborhoods from door to door to gauge sentiment. Those soundings gave his voice the deciding weight in the final vote.
The citizen-run Plan Commission also showed mettle. Member Don Schmidt, the venerable former city councilman, the voice of simple wisdoms, expressed his concern about the project from the beginning. Additionally, a PC subcommittee reviewed the project and forwarded a rare “no recommendation” based on the arguments of Council representative John Shoaff and neighborhood champion Judy Wire. That neutral recommendation, an eyebrow-raiser when so much money is involved, was taken by heart by council who voted the proposal down, 5 to 3. Note, Councilman Tom Smith, who promised neighborhood leaders that he would work to have the measure withdrawn, voted in favor of it. That sort of conduct gives politicians a bad name.
The laurel wreath goes to John Shoaff who defended the neighborhoods from the very first moment with his considerable political acumen. Most recently he had stood up to city hall on the State Street widening mess, and before that on a hundred other projects where the power of government would otherwise have overwhelmed naïve homeowners. The mantle of “the neighborhoods’ councilman” once honorably hung upon Jimmy Stier’s shoulders, now drapes appropriately and comfortably about Mr. Shoaff. We will be a poorer city come January 1st when he leaves council. It is hard to imaging any of the current members of council putting homeowners above fat cats as has Mr. Shoaff.
In the final analysis, a concerted effort by a harried collection of neighbors guided by Shoaff and DeVoe and abetted by Dr. Crawford showed logic can overcome money, cronies and the power of city hall. Take heart Fort Wayne and be wary, your neighborhood may be next.