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Strange Bedfellows

By Jim Sack

Fort Wayne Reader

2018-05-31


The tussle over the future of the old GE campus, redubbed Electric Works, has produced some interesting political relationships that have crossed party lines and intra-party differences, with old party stereotypes being tested.

First, the proponents of Electric Works are two city councilmen, Geoff Paddock and Dr. John Crawford, the former a moderate Democrat, the latter a self-styled Libertarian-Republican.

Paddock, along with former councilman Tom Smith, deserves much credit for coalescing the various elements interested in saving the collection of early 20th Century buildings on the sprawling campus. Along the way they teamed with Eric Doden at Greater Fort Wayne who was also working to repurpose the campus. Doden, you may remember, ran for mayor in the Republican primary a decade ago. He lost.

Meanwhile, a fading GE, in need of raising cash, sold the campus to a group of investors with Baltimore-based Cross Street Partners at the heart of the group. Doden even managed to talk his multi-millionaire right-wing father into providing an initial loan to the group so they could buy the campus and start the process of rounding up money from
Indianapolis, Washington, and local sources to transform the campus of toxic waste and peeling paint, broken glass and pigeon rookeries into a leafy community of trendy restaurants, innovation labs, artisanal workspaces, yoga studios and dining al fresco.

Meanwhile, Paddock and Crawford were rounding up support on city council and among the community economic elite. Glynn Hines, the other Democrat on council and stalwart of the Black community, signed on, as did Republicans Tom Freistroffer and Tom Didier. The project has won bi-partisan support.

Meanwhile, developers were running a slick political marketing campaign long on uplifting promises and lovely renderings. When a demand of the city for a $65 million grant/loan package stalled their PR message migrated toward pressuring Mayor Henry. His announced 2019 opponent, Councilman Crawford, used the PR campaign to blame all of the back and forth of deal making on the mayor, calling it another of Mr. Henry’s failed policies, dragging the bi-partisan effort into a campaign issue.

Locally, developers initiated an investor recruitment campaign that won over among others, Tim Smith, another candidate for the Republican mayoral nomination for mayor. Please note that Eric Doden’s father is a major financial supporter of Mr. Smith. Additionally, Mr. Smith’s campaign treasurer was, until recently, the appointed chair of the Legacy committee from which the developers were hoping to extract between $10 and $20 million in loans and or grants. Turpin was dismissed abruptly after having refused to go months earlier on his own.

Opposing this bevvy of supportive fellow Republicans are two first-time Republican councilmen, Paul Ensley and Jason Arp, who vote consistently against supporting private projects with public money. Ironically, the longtime Democrat policy position of denying taxpayer money to corporations is now championed by two Republicans. Remember, the Republican governor and Republican-led federal government have promised tens of millions in taxpayer support.

Additionally, and equally importantly, the mayor and deputy mayor, two longtime Democrats, are yet to be convinced the project financing, as presented is good for Fort Wayne taxpayers and for the arc of downtown development. Aren’t Democrats supposed to be tax and spenders?

As Republican Russ Jehl, a yet undecided councilman who is still scrutinizing the details pointed out, there is humorous irony in a collection of Republicans from the governor on down pushing expenditure of public money while the Democratic mayor is tightening the purse strings.

Oh, and add to that strange array of ungainly political alliances the team effort of Republican County Chairman Steve Shine and erstwhile friend-of-the-mayor, progressive Democrat Tim Pape, who are trying to muster neighborhood support for the project.

What started as a community-based effort to save an important part of our rich manufacturing heritage has become a tangle of political alliances.

Push is coming to shove on the matter. The mayor expects a full written-and-signed proposal from the developers within days. The Legacy committee has approve the concept of granting or lending money from the Legacy fund, and five of nine councilmen are all but ready to approve any final dollar-specific recommendation the Legacy committee will hand up.

Meanwhile, Mr. Doden, who put the weight of Greater Fort Wayne behind the project, is moving on to devote more time to his own development business.

Strange bedfellows, indeed.

Meanwhile, as all of this dust is rising in the center of town, Chuck Surack is transforming Fort Wayne one employee, one project at a time. More than the creation of Sweetwater Sound, a world-class music equipment business in Fort Wayne, he has brought to the city from all corners of the country hundreds of young eager-beaver musicians and technicians who are making their own impact on Fort Wayne by reinvigorating the arts community, buying homes and joining the organizational fabric. Additionally, Surack’s lifeline to the Clyde Theater project has added a remarkable new music venue to the city. Beyond that he and his wife are major donors to dozens of organizations, including the Philharmonic, and direct a foundation that supports local projects. This is the untold story of economic development when done right…

When done wrong you have killings in alleys and shootings in church parking lots. The city’s southeast side, once a cradle of young, industrious families, flourished when Magnavox, Harvester and Zollner were cranking out products for the world. When Harvester closed in the early 1980s the area suffered a transformation from tidy family homes to chopped up rentals. The area was all but abandoned by city fathers, so for decades folkS had little opportunity or expectations of a magna cum laude future. Sing it Janis: “If you have nothing you have nothing to lose.” The violence, again on the rise, is spontaneous, random, and comes from frustration. While it is wonderful that the old Coke plant on Pontiac is being redeveloped as quality housing, but it would be even better if a new bottling plant were to open in the area offering jobs, benefits, and a way to build that share of the American dream. If you got nothing, you got nothing to lose; if you have hope you have a stake in economic development.

The tide of hope is ebbing for Red River. The garbage collection company has not been up to the task of municipal refuse collection and recycling in this the first year of their contract. Every day their system leaves scores of missed bins. 311 gets a daily earful. Residents have torched the ears of their councilmen to the point where fines and a loss of the contract are approaching the table. Sometimes, it seems, the lowest bid is not the best bid.

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