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Sold Down the River?

A proposed incentive program for riverfront development offers new liquor licenses at a fraction of the market value. Is it a valuable tool for economic growth? Or a $100,000 kick in the shins to already established downtown businesses?

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


If you’re looking for scenic landscapes and natural attractions, our little chunk of the United States isn’t the first that comes to mind.

For starters, Indian, especially Northern Indiana, is flat; maybe not as flat as Kansas, but since when has that been anything to brag about? And where once the countryside was covered with forest and field, these days the average resident of Allen County can barely see the trees for the strip mall. For a small city/big town looking for natural attractions to boost its image and desirability as a destination, the pickings are pretty slim.

But in the last half-decade or so, communities across the state have been waking up to previously overlooked natural attractions practically right under their collective noses — the rivers. Richmond, Lafayette, and about a dozen other Indiana communities have concentrated their downtown redevelopment efforts on their riverbanks, turning them into pedestrian friendly destination spots with restaurants, bars, retail, and other entertainment attractions.

It would seem like a natural for a city founded on three rivers — a city eager to transform its sleepy downtown into a bustling social center, slow the brain drain, attract and retain the technology savvy creative class we’re supposed to be so concerned with, and (insert your own contemporary city planning theory here) — to want to explore riverfront development. After all, the St. Mary’s, St. Joe’s, and the Maumee are even represented on our city flag. Yet it wasn’t until last month that Fort Wayne seemed ready to begin serious discussion on the issue, when city council was urged to start action on establishing a municipal riverfront development district.

And it’s about time, too… at least according to city councilman Tom Smith (R-1st). Smith says the general public has been clamoring for riverfront development for years. “Time and time again, in all kinds of public meetings and surveys, that’s been the #1 request from citizens, at least for the balance of this decade,” he says. “You hear this particularly from people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s; I think in part because they’re well-traveled, they’ve been to other cities with riverfronts, and they ask ‘well, why not here?’”

Smith has been floating a specific vision of downtown riverfront development for about three years. The subject of newspaper editorials and not a few angry letters, Smith’s plan — several detailed drawings created at Smith’s request by architect Ron Dick at Design Collaborative — show a bird’s eye view of the confluence of the three rivers, curving around a sort of promontory where the Lafayette Street Bridge crosses the St. Mary’s and the remains of the old fort lie. It’s a striking perspective; a lifelong resident of Fort Wayne could look at the drawings and it would probably take him or her a few moments to recognize their own city.

It’s not just the proposed changes along the riverfront shown in Smith’s drawings (more on that in a moment) that would throw them off, it’s the fact that there’s an impressive natural resource snaking its way through downtown that many people seem not to think about much. The St. Mary’s may not be the Thames or the Siene or the Hudson, but still, there’s more potentially scenic riverfront there than you probably imagine. “Until you see the drawings, you probably have no idea what that riverfront even looks like,” Smith says. “You can be over there and not even see the river. It might as well not even be there, especially when you’re looking at it from the North.”

In Smith’s drawings, the North bank of the river, opposite Headwaters Park, has been transformed into a major retail/dining attraction, with scenic plazas and pedestrian walkways. “You’re looking across the river, across the park, and on to our skyline,” Smith explains. The strip of 4th street that currently links Clinton and Lafayette has become an important access point, not only for the new complexes and their grounds, but for other possible attractions on Clinton (like a water park, for example). It also boosts the profile of Science Central by making it easier to get to.

“It can be this great regional destination,” Smith says. “A destination always has to have an attraction, and if it’s a natural attraction like the river, so much the better.” Rivers have historically proven an attraction in other cities; why not Fort Wayne? “If we can put the right things around that river, the right shops and stores, people would flock to it.”

Of course, a quick glance at the drawings and it’s easy to see what’s being lost — a bit of Lawton Park and the Old Fort, something Smith knows people aren’t going to be happy with. “If you think getting a smoking ban ordinance passed is tough, just wait until you try to use public land for commercial development,” he says.

Smith stresses that he’s not necessarily committed to his specific plan; he commissioned the drawings simply as a way to get people to think about the project differently. And he’s also well aware that there are many, many issues that have to be talked about.

Smith’s point, and the point of many people taking a fresh look at riverfront development, is that we should get started soon; we’re way behind the curve on this, it’s going to take a long time, and it’s going to be expensive. Smith envisions a “community riverfront building board” made up of the Mayor’s Office, the Parks Department, and 10 or 12 of what he calls “the movers and shakers and rainmakers” in this community. “Set them down and say ‘okay, people are saying they want this built in our city. It’s important to our future. How are we going to do it? Let’s start talking.’ The key is to begin the process.”

“To do that riverfront, it’s going to take leadership from the very top, much like when Graham Richard said ‘let’s resurrect Southtown Mall,’” Smith adds. “That was one of those decisions that came from the top. This is a decision on that level. But the mayor is the leader, whether it’s this mayor or the next mayor or the mayor after that, because this is probably going to take some years to do.”

But judging from some of the response that simply talking about riverfront development has garnered, anyone “at the top” making those leadership decisions will need a will of iron, or at least an ambivalent attitude towards a long-term future in city politics. In some ways, the current debate over a possible municipal riverfront development district reflects some of the same “chicken-and-egg” questions that plague downtown redevelopment in any city — establish a destination and people will come, vs. create a demand and businesses will grow to fulfill it. “There are a number of good restaurants in the historic core of greater downtown, but there is no pedestrian relationship between the current inventory of fine dining,” says Dan Carmody of the Downtown Improvement District. “The question is, if you had a more concentrated collection of food and beverage establishments, could you create more of an icon that would grow the market for everybody and get more people downtown?”

But what is making the debate more contentious this time around is the idea of offering new 210 liquor licenses at a fraction of their market value as an incentive to establishing a new restaurant in the district.

A 210 liquor license — a “three-way” liquor license allows restaurants to serve beer, wine, and liquor — isn’t cheap. The Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission issues 210s based on a quota system, one for every 1,500 people (thanks to annexation, Fort Wayne is over our quota based on the last census, with nearly 200 three-way licenses in the area).

A new 210 can cost around $1500 (not more than $5,000), but because new issues come around rarely, a 210 is a very hot property. Club Soda famously paid over $250,000 several years ago for their 210, and though that figure might be one of the more high end examples for this area, 210 licenses costing around half that aren’t uncommon (current market value puts a 210 at $80,000 - $100,000). For most restaurant owners, however, a 210 is simply a part of doing business — an expensive part, maybe, but an expense they put up with. Alcohol sales can be a real goldmine, and if a restaurant/bar has to close, selling the 210 can bring in a sizeable chunk of change.

The 210s issued as a part of the riverfront development incentive program would be property specific, meaning unlike “regular” 210s, they can’t be transferred to another location. Still, some see it as an unfair advantage, a $100,000 kick in the shins to downtown restaurants that have been there for years, building a client base and weathering the exodus of the business community from downtown.

Also, they claim the notion of restaurants and bars clustered along the banks of the rivers is misleading: the actual riverfront redevelopment district would encompass an area bordered by Putnam on the North, Douglas on the South, and Broadway on the East. In the words of one restaurant owner who didn’t want to give their name, “Don’t talk to me about a ‘pedestrian relationship’ when you’re talking about an area that covers 20 square blocks.” (it’s not literally 20 square blocks, but you get his point).

Steve Gard, for one, is a little perturbed — and that’s the polite version. In the 20 years that he’s been the owner of the Oyster Bar on South Calhoun, one of Fort Wayne’s oldest restaurants, Gard claims he has seen his downtown business clientele shrink by 50%. “It seems like every time somebody says something about downtown redevelopment, restaurants are at the head of the list,” Gard says. “But you have quite a few awfully nice restaurants in the area, and yet we’re not getting the people downtown. So it’s very difficult to convince me that if you add 12 more restaurants, that my business is going to improve.”

As Gard sees it, the situation is pretty simple: they’re trying to create demand where there isn’t any. “What are they thinking that is going to be so much different, and add such a huge attraction in the restaurants, that we don’t already have down here?” he says. “We’re not getting the support now.”

I point out that those in favor of the municipal riverfront development district would say they’re adding retail, pedestrian-friendly areas, and other entertainment attractions. Fine, says Gard; retail, unlike dining, is something that downtown Fort Wayne doesn’t have, but he doesn’t see the city giving retail a $100,000 check as “an incentive.” He adds that he’s seen probably 10 – 12 smaller downtown restaurants open and close in the last two years because there weren’t enough people downtown for these places to build up a client base, yet he doesn’t see the rents in empty downtown office buildings dropping as an incentive.

Gard also wonders what kind of restaurants are going to take advantage of this incentive if the municipal riverfront development district becomes a reality. With or without a liquor license, establishing a restaurant is an expensive operation. “There aren’t many independents in this city right now that can afford to build on the riverfront,” he says. “So what are you going to get? Are you going to get Applebee’s by the river?”

“I guarantee that the restaurants didn’t come to Indianapolis first and then the mall was built,” Gard says, referring to the transformation of downtown Indianapolis in the last ten years. “That Circle Center mall was years in the planning, and once it got up and running and you had your Indy Colts and Convention Center and everything else, hell the restaurants flourished. But they had people down there already. They came down there because of all the other things to do.”

Either way, it seems riverfront redevelopment in Fort Wayne will have to wait a little while longer: a public hearing was held at the Fort Wayne city council meeting on October 17. After debate, the council decided to delay voting on the issue until they could determine the city’s policy on distributing new liquor licenses. No date for further action was given.

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