Makeover of Fort Wayne’s ‘enterprise zone’ aims to boost small business, entrepreneurs

December 4th, 2017

By Kevin Leininger | The News-Sentinel

Created in 1984 to boost the economy in the city’s aging industrial core, the Fort Wayne Urban Enterprise Association had been scheduled to close shop at the end of 2018. Instead, with the help of state lawmakers and City Council, it appears poised for a new lease on life, a larger footprint and a new mission tailored to 21st-Century needs.

Council is considering a bill introduced this week that would expand the 3.99-square-mile enterprise zone into the 6.0-square-mile “Summit City Entrepreneur and Enterprise District (SEED)”, which along with a similar district in Lafayette was authorized earlier this year by the Indiana General Assembly. Although the enterprise zone’s original mission and boundary is incorporated into the proposal, SEED would build on the accomplishments of the past 33 years by including some of the city’s traditional commercial corridors and by targeting the creation of small businesses and other entrepreneurial activity.

And it will do so with the help of five-year, $1 million annual state grant city officials hope will help attract jobs and additional investment to the area.

“The state came close to letting (the enterprise zone) sunset, but Fort Wayne and Lafayette said they shouldn’t look at all of them the same way. Two were doing good things,” said Greg Leatherman, the city’s Director of Community Development. “So they extended it in a five-year pilot program directing more attention to (business) start-ups. It will be up to us to put (the money) where it will do the most good.”

Businesses in the current enterprise zone qualify for a number of benefits, including tax deductions on real estate and building improvements and tax credits for improvement loans and for hiring zone residents. According to city spokeswoman Mary Tyndall, between 2012 and 2016 the average annual employment within the zone has been 2,974, with an average wage of $42,962 — slightly higher than the local average.

During that time, an average of $21.7 million in new capital was invested within the zone, aided by $1,416,763 in average annual local incentives the Enterprise Association provides through a 20 percent assessment on benefits provided to zone businesses. The association also operates an “incubator” for start-up businesses on Wayne Trace, helps with lighting, sidewalks and graffiti removal and offers business loans, neighborhood grants and a college scholarship program for zone residents.

None of that would change come 2019 should council plant the SEED. As for how best to use that $5 million from the state, however, that will be up to the 12-member enterprise zone board, which will work with the state to develop guidelines that could allow capital for start-up, loans, serve as matching funds for grants or in other ways still to be determined.

“We want to see an infill of new businesses along our corridors and where the gaps are. I’m excited,”said Gina Kostoff, Enterprise Association executive director. Many of the added corridors, such as Bluffton Road, Calhoun Street, Fairfield Avenue, Broadway, South Anthony Boulevard and parts of Coliseum Boulevard have already been designated “Economic Revitalization Areas” by the city. Coliseum, Leatherman noted, is struggling to fill vacant big-box stores, but the program could also help projects already on the table, such as the redevelopment of the old General Electric campus.

If SEED grows the economy here and in Lafayette as hoped, Leatherman said, other enterprise zones within the state could get a similar makeover.