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Industrial evolution

A new life for the GE campus?

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2015-11-22


The days when the General Electric plant in downtown Fort Wayne employed thousands of workers and indirectly supported dozens of small businesses up and down Broadway and Taylor were long gone by the time the company auctioned off its contents last year. But even though the grounds are now empty and the iconic sign no longer glows as part of the night time skyline of Fort Wayne, the General Electric campus might yet have an essential role to play in the development of downtown.

That’s what Geoff Paddock and a handful of other interested parties would like to see happen with the property. For the past six months or so, Paddock — the 5th district representative for Fort Wayne City Council — has been part of an informal committee formed to examine possible uses for the GE campus.

The group didn’t come together as a response to an official request from local government or anything of that nature. “I heard a lot of talk in the community about the GE property,” Paddock explains. “People seemed to feel that there was an opportunity to do something here. And frankly, I also got some calls from my constituents: ‘Geoff, this (the GE campus) is in your district; why don’t you do something?’ So we wanted to take a look and see if we could start to work on a plan to re-purpose and re-habilitating the buildings.”

Mike Galbraith, Executive Director of ARCH, was part of the committee. Other members of city council have been involved, as well as a group of GE retirees. “The idea is that we should pay attention to this, because it’s a gigantic opportunity,” says Galbraith. “It’s an opportunity that other places, other cities around the country, have taken advantage of, and we wanted to make sure people talk about this.”

The committee’s meetings have received some coverage and have been open to the public, but as we said above, everyone involved stresses the informality of the project (for lack of a better term) so far.

In other words, until now, it’s safe to say the meetings have been talking about talking. But Paddock says they’re ready to take the next step in the form of a series of public forums that he hopes will begin sometime in January. “Greater Fort Wayne, Inc. has agreed to work with us, and that’s a good sign,” says Paddock. “The folks at Greater Fort Wayne have been in touch with General Electric, and have kind of opened the door to communication with GE. Under GFW’s direction, we’re going to put together some public meetings — focus groups, for lack of a better term — where individuals will be encouraged to more formally put some ideas together to present to General Electric, Greater Fort Wayne, Inc, and the business community for one, many, or perhaps all buildings remaining on the GE campus.”

In very general terms, the object would be to re-purpose the property — perhaps into housing, offices, retail, or some combination of those. Perhaps light industrial, perhaps some other purpose (city council member Tom Smith has floated the idea of a movie studio, for example).

Many other communities have been able to re-purpose older industrial and manufacturing buildings while still preserving some of their distinctive character. Downtown Raleigh, North Carolina has turned its former tobacco warehouses into housing and retail. In Indianapolis, the former Stutz car factory now houses offices and artist studios. The group looking at the GE property points to the Studebaker plant in South Bend as an example a successful re-purposing project. “It’s very similar, in that it’s a gigantic former industrial plant,” says Galbraith. “What they’ve done there is essentially made it into a gigantic server farm, used the fact that it was built for heavy machinery, stuff it full of servers and turn it into sort of a tech hub. They’re hoping that by having that increased bandwidth and speed they’ll attract computer demand industries.”

But the GE campus is, of course, much, much larger than any of those examples, and represents a much bigger challenge to any interested developers. “The question is, how would you pay for something like this?” says Paddock. “We’re looking at examples that bring with them a substantial amount of private sector investment. That has to be key here.” He adds that there is the possibility of federal, state, or local funds, or some combination to be part of the formula, but… “for any plan to be successful, it’s going to take a substantial amount of private investment.”

Yet even before going through what promises to be a lengthy process of forming an official committee, generating a list of realistic options, attracting developers who might want to tackle the project, there are some big issues looming over the GE campus that need to be considered. You can boil them down to three, and they’re all doozies…

The first is that the campus is huge — around 3 million square feet, according to Paddock, with about a dozen buildings. Locally, nothing this size has ever been tackled before. “It would certainly be the biggest ‘re-purposing’ project around here,” says Galbraith. “Maybe the closest is International Harvester, which was re-purposed for warehousing, light industrial and other uses, but that’s not in such a prominent location.”

Galbraith continues: “When we look at it, I don’t think there’s going to be any one thing that goes in there. I think it’s too big, so I think you need to ‘chew the elephant’ one bite at a time.”

The second big issue is what’s called environmental remediation. As Galbraith explains, many of the buildings came from an era of heavy industrial manufacturing that obviously didn’t follow today’s standards of health and environmental practices. While no one is suggesting that the property is, say, full of health hazards, it’s also true that some degree of clean up will need to be undertaken. “That’s a big unknown,” says Galbraith. “Could this be a problem? Yes. But until you start doing tests you just don’t know.”

Paddock agrees. “That is obviously something that we need to determine,” he says. “Some of the buildings are former offices or recreation centers or other areas where there was not manufacturing, so the challenge would not be as great. In fact, the general opinion from individuals who worked in those buildings is that they feel it’s not an overwhelming challenge. But some of the older, bigger structures — the one that contains the large, iconic sign, for instance — had a lot of manufacturing, so there will be an expense.”

Finally, General Electric still owns and maintains the property. Though those involved say GE has been nothing but helpful and cooperative, it is still theirs to do with what they wish. Ultimately, they may have their own ideas of what to do with that property. “There does seem to be interest that GE wants to work with us in finding new ownership and new use for the property, so that’s encouraging,” Paddock says.

There might be another, less pressing issue, too vague right now to be considered a real hurdle to moving forward with the GE campus project, but one which members of the informal group recognize — general public fatigue with redevelopment projects. It’s almost ironic, considering that just a few years ago, it seemed nearly impossible to get one project off the ground. Now, there are several ambitious projects going on at once, and you’ll hear grumblings that it’s “too much” — though what “too much” means in this context is anyone’s guess. Yet Paddock says that judging from the reaction he’s received at the meetings, there’s enough public enthusiasm to move on to the next stage.

And of course, no one likes the alternative — a big, unused space in the middle (or close to it) of downtown Fort Wayne. Putting something there could go a long way to reestablishing one of those corridors that downtown development is always so keen on, a vital bridge between downtown and the southwest neighborhood surrounding the campus. Also, during the recent election cycle, one of the issues that was able to generate a little heat during an otherwise tepid race was the perception that too much attention was being focused on downtown and not enough on neighborhoods. Paddock believes re-purposing the GE campus addresses that issue. “I think it’s in an area of the community where neighborhoods now are getting stronger and the business community has really developed over the last few years,” he says, emphasizing once again that re-purposing the campus will take an enormous amount of private investment. “But finding a way to do that will be a boost to the emerging neighborhoods around that and the Broadway corridor.”

Whatever happens, Galbraith would like to see that something of the campus’ distinctive character remain. “As it moves forward, I think it’s one of those generational stories,” he says. “When you talk about things like saving the Embassy Theatre, or saving the Landing, all these things that were big preservation wins, this could be as big as any of those.”

It’s probably important to stress once more that the project is in its very, very early stages. There won’t be lofts or anything else springing up there next year.
“We have no plan right now, no roadmap,” Paddock says. “The next step is to hold a series of public discussions to engage interest and try to put something together so we can accomplish something. But we thought it was important to get that conversation started.”

Contact Geoff Paddock at geoffpaddock@aol.com

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