Area sees gains from General Assembly

May 15th, 2019

By Niki Kelly | The Journal Gazette

It was a quiet session for northeast Indiana. But that doesn't mean the region was left out.

The delegation of senators and representatives worked to get economic development tools, funding for area schools and new tourism dollars.

“Obviously, you miss the influence of the pro tem,” said Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington, referring to David Long, who left his post of Senate president pro tem.

“I do think we could have done better, but I don't think we did badly,” Leonard said.

One major area of focus was the Electric Works project at the old General Electric site. The complex along Broadway south of downtown contains more than 1.2 million square feet in 18 historic buildings on 39 acres.

Developers envision office, educational, innovation-related, retail, residential, hotel and entertainment uses for the space.

And three significant provisions will help.

The first authorizes the extension of the tax increment financing district to 35 years instead of 25 years so that tax collections in the district can be captured longer.

A special food hall permit meant to help an Indianapolis project also will aid Electric Works, said Jeff Kingsbury, a partner in Electric Works' developer RTM Ventures.

He said the food hall and public market will be the heart of Electric Works and is a great way for the community to connect. But the alcohol quota system would have made it hard for individual vendors to have permits.

Electric Works can now buy one main alcohol license for the food hall and give lower-price subpermits to vendors in the hall, where patrons will share common dining space.

And third, a redevelopment tax credit was expanded and made more flexible. Kingsbury said this will make it easier for Electric Works as well as smaller Indiana communities to try similar projects.

“The state and certainly the northeast delegation gets this project and are helping to expand what we need to make these types of public private partnerships happen,” he said.

Indiana higher education also saw a boost, though not as significant as K-12 schools. The legislature focused intently on K-12 teacher pay and funneled significant tax dollars there. That meant less was less available for higher education.

Purdue Fort Wayne saw funding rise about 2% over the two-year budget with IU Fort Wayne going up about 2.5%. Neither received capital or special line items they requested.

“Purdue University did very well in this legislative session, and Purdue Fort Wayne was very pleased with the recognition and support received from President Mitch Daniels and our Northeast Indiana delegation,” PFW Chancellor Ronald Elsenbaumer said.

Purdue Fort Wayne had requested initial funding for 15 new faculty positions tied directly to the northeast Indiana business sector.

“But with the updated revenue forecast projecting a decrease of $100 million, the legislature made the decision to fund no new line items. This initiative remains a high priority for Purdue Fort Wayne, and we will be looking for other strategies to address this critical need in the Northeast Indiana region,” Elsenbaumer said.

IU Fort Wayne also requested a $3 million health sciences planning study at the local campus but did not receive it.

But the campus did receive base funding outside the performance funding formula that other campuses use, which resulted in a higher increase than expected.

“We're thankful to the General Assembly for recognizing the importance of IU's health science programs in Fort Wayne, and has provided funding that will allow us to continue to expand those efforts,” said Ann Obergfell, associate vice chancellor for Academic Affairs and Operations at IU Fort Wayne.

A final win for the area is, interestingly, a tax increase.

Visit Fort Wayne pushed for an increase in the county innkeeper's tax for three years, with the new money – about $750,000 annually – going to local tourism efforts. The rate would rise from 7% to 8%.

The Allen County Council still has to authorize the increase, which can't happen until July with an expected Sept. 1 enactment. During that time, Dan O'Connell, president and CEO of Visit Fort Wayne, said the organization will work to educate the public and local officials.

A study of the hotel tax showed 95% was paid by out-of-county residents or businesses. And 74% of that was from out-of-state.

“It's not a local tax,” he said. “It's earmarked for growing tourism – not current obligations.”

The group will focus on promoting the riverfront, adaptive sports, genealogy and going after national conventions and tournaments.