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On the Waterfront

The City's recent agreement with OmniSource might mean that riverfront development is the next step in creating a new downtown

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2007-05-08


The cheers in favor of Harrison Square have barely died down (or the blood hasn’t stopped boiling, for those of you on the other side of the issue), yet the city is already in the preliminary stages of another possible area for downtown development.

This prime piece of real estate is just north of the city center and the Saint Mary’s River, encompassing the OmniSource property between Harrison and Clinton streets. Mayor Richard and Allen County Commissioner Bill Brown recently announced the formation of the North River Downtown Task Force, charged with coming up with possible uses for the district and analyzing any other issues to do with the area. The Task Force held its first meeting on April 26,

The city and various developers have long had their eye on the OmniSource property on the banks of the St. Mary’s, and this isn’t the first time redevelopment of the area has come before the public. In 2004 local entrepreneur Don Willis proposed a Salvation Army facility funded by a grant from the Kroc Foundation; the city pledged to help with public infrastructure. Before that, two plans involved OmniSource itself in the development of the area, first as a site for the scrap metal company’s corporate headquarters (they eventually acquired the Waterfield Mortgage building on Jefferson), then for a mixed-use retail area, with OmniSource as co-developers. “The OmniSource people basically said ‘we’re a scrap iron people, we’re not real estate developers, and we really don’t feel comfortable partnering with that,’” explains Greg Leatherman, the City of Fort Wayne’s Deputy director of Community Redevelopment.

Though these plans fell through, the city had already taken steps aimed at possible development in the area. “Several years ago, the redevelopment commission acted to create the North River Tiff area,” Leatherman says. “We placed a boundary around there, very similar to what was done with Harrison Square, that enables us to collect increased tax revenue to help install infrastructure to the area as incentive for private investment.”

Finally, this year, the City of Fort Wayne secured an option agreement with OmniSource for the property, meaning they have an agreement to buy the property at a fixed price within a certain amount of time — 12 months, in this case. The city paid $25,000 for the option agreement; if they decide to purchase the land, that money would be applied to the overall price. “While I don’t think the city would ever risk giving up control of this massively important piece of real estate, the acquisition would probably be tied to the uses that were proposed by the North River Downtown Task Force,” says Leatherman.

Comprised of about 30 members, the North River Downtown Task Force has a relatively short time frame — three to four months — to look at the land and entertain ideas, get public input and come up with some recommendations for the city. Task force co-chair Wendy Stein of Stein Advertising and the president of Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana, says they hope to consider anything that’s been previously proposed, such as the ideas for the area outlined in the Blueprint Plus plan, and cast the net for new ideas. “We need to get input from the surrounding neighborhoods and the community at large so that we can find out what the community would support having here, what they can get behind,” Stein says. “We also need to consider what’s realistic, financially and from a land use perspective. For example, since it’s by the river, there could be flood concerns. What can we actually do there?”

Another concern: the land is zoned for industrial use, and for years OmniSource has used it as a junk and salvage operation. Prior to that it was a railroad yard. “Both are heavily intensive industrial uses that generally have associated with them at least some releases of liquids and so forth in to the ground,” Greg Leatherman says. He adds that there will be a thorough review of the existing information and documentation concerning environmental status of the property, but that he doesn’t expect any significant problems to surface. “(OmniSource) have done a lot. They’ve engaged with environmental companies for the last several years to assist them with the removal of tanks and other things.”

City councilman Tom Smith (R-1st) is one person who will be watching the progress on the OmniSource property with great interest. Though he’s not involved with the task force, Smith has been floating an elaborate and ambitious plan for riverfront development for several years, complete with blueprints and drawings (featured in FWR #64). “I’m very happy that the city has taken a purchase option on OmniSource and I hope they do buy it,” Smith says. “I have one really important reason why I think the city should own that land: that land is zoned industrial, and anything can go there. You could have a Wal-Mart there, and those are the kinds of things we don’t want.”

The task force may look at elements of Smith’s plan, but Smith doesn’t mind if they don’t follow it. “What I had out there was just conceptual, based on what people said they would like to have,” he says. “Whether it ends up looking like what I theoretically imagined or not is neither here nor there.”

“Surely there should be shops and stores around there, whether they’re right on the riverfront or a block or two away, places for people to go and spend their money,” Smith adds.

The big question, of course, is whether the prospect of riverfront development coming so soon after Harrison Square will be too much change for Fort Wayne residents. On the other hand, perhaps Harrison Square has built up a certain momentum for downtown development, making the idea of changes on the north side of the St. Mary’s easier to consider. “One doesn’t preclude the other,” Smith says. “To be as plainspoken as I can, whatever is going to happen to the riverfront is going to happen under the next administration. That administration, whoever it is, is going to have to get their feet on the ground, so it’s probably going to be a year or two before we see anything definitive about the riverfront.”

Smith himself was one of the three council members who voted against Harrison Square, though he says that if it’s going to go, we have to do everything we can to make it happen. Harrison Square has a lot of work ahead of it, including votes on issuing bonds and a definitive agreement with the hotel developer, just to name a couple issues. What passed at the city council meeting in late April was only the very first steps in the initial phase of the whole project. If for whatever reason development stops after the first phase, it’ll be deemed a failure. “I think people are going to take a wait-and-see attitude about Harrison Square,” Smith says. “If for some reason it’s not a success, then I think it’s going to be very, very difficult to initiate anything else downtown.”

According to Greg Leatherman, major development projects like Harrison Square can historically lead to more development as businesses, developers, and construction companies see the “flow of activity in Fort Wayne.” “It has a very catalytic effect. I believe it creates momentum that will spill over in to this area,” Leatherman says.

Of course, like Smith says, real work on riverfront development is a long way off. Many people looking at the project thinks issues such as public/private investment should wait until the North River Downtown Task Force collects its data and presents its findings. Wendy Stein acknowledges that even though the project is in its very early stages, there might be a little resistance to the idea, but thinks we should capitalize on some of Harrison Square’s momentum. “People are already thinking about what they’d like to see downtown, so it seems like a good time to continue the dialogue,” she says.

“People have been saying they want downtown development, they just didn’t want the current version as it appears downtown with the baseball stadium,” Tom Smith says. “We’ve gotta keep that drive alive. Let’s focus that attention and energy on the riverfront, or the riverfront area, no matter how we do that.”

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