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The Skyline Challenge

A bold new idea aims to jump-start the exploration of Fort Wayne’s final frontier: downtown development

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2005-08-22


What does commercial space flight have in common with the revitalization of downtown Fort Wayne?

The smart alecks among us might answer that both seek to establish humans in a desolate environment seemingly hostile to life.

Yet a recent $10 million dollar prize for the first non-government-sponsored trip into space has become the inspiration for an exciting idea that could help realize Fort Wayne’s dream of a vibrant, bustling downtown, a downtown that doesn’t close up at 5 p.m. every weekday when the offices shut down, a downtown that’s as busy at 10 o’clock on a Saturday morning as it is at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday.

And unlike the latest 10, 15, 20-year reconstruction plan, this idea has the potential to do it fast.

John McGauley, public information officer for the Allen County Commissioner’s Office, was one of the many millions who avidly followed the X Prize competition for commercial space flight. Established in 1996, the X Prize offered $10 million to the first team that launched a piloted, privately-funded spaceship, able to carry three people, to 100 kilometers (62.5 miles), and return safely to Earth. McGauley found himself watching closely as the competition came to its conclusion last year, with two of the 27 teams — Scaled Composites from the U.S. and the Da Vinci Project from Canada — neck-and-neck for the prize.

McGauley’s interest in the X Prize went beyond the obvious fascination with the idea of commercial space travel. He was impressed by the fact that rules of the competition itself were only a few pages long. He was impressed that over two dozen teams from all over the world spent $50 million to make $10 million. He was impressed that the flight of SpaceShip One brought tens of thousands of people out into the desert in the middle of summer to watch one man in a one-man space ship go up and come down again in 20 minutes…

But perhaps most of all, McGauley was impressed that the X Prize proved that there’s no better way to break the government “monopoly” on space flight than to throw a big prize out there. He saw a parallel. “I thought ‘what would keep us from trying something like this in Fort Wayne to kick start downtown development?’”

The result is the Skyline Challenge, a $100,000 prize to the first new business in downtown Fort Wayne that remains open for two years.

A few of the basic rules: the business must be retail and/or entertainment-oriented (the whole object of the competition is to stimulate development in the area and bring people downtown), and must create and retain at least 20 jobs, a minimum of 70% full-time and a maximum of 30% part-time. The Skyline Challenge also stipulates store hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday. “We need to try to break out of the mode of ‘roll up the sidewalks at 5 o’clock and go home’” explains McGauley.

There are other stipulations in the Skyline Challenge rules — it can’t be an adult-oriented business, for example — but sticking to the X Prize model, McGauley says he’s trying to make it as unrestrictive as possible. “The framework of this is very loose. It really is something designed to spark a competition of ideas,” he says. “Most new start-ups downtown don’t last that long. What I’m dreaming of here is a day six months, a year down the road for now when there are three, four, or five business that have decided that this is the impetus they need to come down and give it a shot.”

Counting the number of long-term downtown development plans that have popped up over the years could make anyone a little despondent. People tend to roll their eyes when they hear about the next 10, 15, or 20-year revitalization project. But the Skyline Challenge is different. The prize money would come from the private sector, eliminating the kind of bureaucracy that can slow down a government-sponsored project. In fact, McGauley believes that the Skyline Challenge has the potential to cut through the noise and produce results quickly, possibly turning downtown Fort Wayne around in a year or two. “My intention here, and my absolute hope, is that this doesn’t involve one red cent of government money,” he says. “I have nothing against the government. Hey, I work for the government! But government money comes with a lot of strings attached. This is a no-strings-attached proposition.”

“The only way that you’re going to convince people that a 15 or 20-year-plan will work is to spark a catalyst project that brings people and dollars and something unique back to downtown right now, and on a scale that will make a difference,” McGauley adds. “It can’t be something small that easily falls back into that 8 – 5 hole that we seem to be in. It’s got to be of a scale and of a uniqueness that makes people pay attention to the 15, 20 year possibilities of the future.”

1st District City Councilman Tom Smith echoes McGauley’s belief. Smith also serves as city council’s representative on the City Plan Commission. He says that over the years, he and McGauley often talked about downtown development, and Smith served as McGauley’s sounding board to hash out initial ideas about the Skyline Challenge. Smith says that McGauley’s idea is so exciting because it taps directly into the key missing element downtown — a wide choice of entertainment, dining, and retail that will keep people there, or draw people in, after 5 p.m.. “I keep looking at the Grand Wayne Center and the library,” Smith says. “These are talked about as catalyst projects, but you don’t see shops and stores popping up yet. They say ‘build it and they will come.’ Well, they’re not coming just yet, but I think what John’s doing, it could be more of a catalyst than we would ever imagine.”

If Smith has any misgivings about the Skyline Challenge, it’s that the competition’s loose structure doesn’t expressly prohibit a franchise or a chain store from swooping in and nabbing the prize. “They come in pre-packaged,” Smith says. “They could hire 20 people in a day, and they could last easily for two years. I don’t know how that mixes into it. At the same time, I have to say that probably half the local business owners in Fort Wayne are running franchise stores. They’re not Mom-and-Pop stores in the traditional sense. They’re mom and pop saying ‘okay, Mr. National Chain, I want to have your place here in Fort Wayne.’ But nevertheless, they probably come in with a huge advantage.”

McGauley recognizes those concerns; several people have suggested that he change the rules to exclude national chains. In general, though, he’s not too worried about it. $100,000 is a significant amount of money, but it’s chump change to some of the national operations. “I am not convinced at all that a Chili’s or a TGI Friday gives a whit about $100,000,” he says. “These national chains have marketing plans. They know where they’re going to go years in advance. I don’t think that this prize is enough to move a national franchise off its marketing plan.”

But it is enough of an incentive to change the direction of a local business person who thinks that downtown has life left in it, but they need something to make the difference between locating there or somewhere else.

McGauley says that he still has to get his business structure in place; once that’s done, he’ll begin fund-raising, he hopes as early as this fall. Smith, for his part, doesn’t yet know what role he’ll play in the Skyline Challenge. He says he might be just an advisor, though raising the prize money seems like something he’s interested in. “It would be great to sit down with some of the heavy hitters if Fort Wayne and say ‘Hey, put your money where your mouth is,’” he laughs. “It’s pride in our city, that’s what it comes down to. Here’s a chance to put your money where your mouth is when it comes to revitalizing downtown.”

“I really hope that people pick up on this and reach out to John and talk to him,” Smith adds. “God knows what could happen here. We’re thinking about one business, because there can only be one winner in the end, but this could be one of those things where there’s a bunch of young entrepreneurs sitting out there, thinking ‘this is just the encouragement I need.’”

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