Could Electric Works bring neighbors closer together?

August 22nd, 2018

By Lauren Caggiano | Input Fort Wayne

Electric Works is intended to be a project for and by the community. So it’s fitting that the interests behind it are engaging the surrounding neighborhoods, which have largely responded favorably to the project.

Just ask Jeff Kingsbury, and you’ll notice a gleam in his eye as he talks about the proposed development and what it might mean for the Fort Wayne community, at large.

Kingsbury is Managing Principal of Greenstreet Ltd., an Indianapolis-based real estate development, brokerage, and consulting firm. They are one of the developers tapped to potentially transform the former General Electric campus just south of downtown Fort Wayne.

But why now, and why this site? According to Kingsbury, the Summit City has been shifting the national narrative about itself by investing in downtown development the last several years. Now its efforts are getting noticed and drawing attention to the potential of neighborhoods around the city's urban core, where the vacant campus is located.

“The city has invested in downtown, first with the ballpark and then with a series of successive projects that are encouraging to us and our investors," he says. “It’s important for the city to believe in itself."

Supporting Electric Works is one way Fort Wayne residents are showing confidence about where they live, Kingsbury explains. That is critical because reinvigorating the area starts with a grassroots approach.

Once employing almost 40 percent of Fort Wayne's workforce, General Electric's local operations began declining in the late 1960s, turning its sprawling campus into a ghost town. The company eliminated its final jobs in the city in 2014, leaving the 18 buildings still standing today as physical reminders of what northeast Indiana lost in the manufacturing era.

"There was so much sentiment that GE would never be anything other than a fenced off part of our community," John Sampson, President and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, told Input Fort Wayne in January.

Now, Kingsbury says revitalizing the campus could help weave neighborhoods back together.

“The promise of Electric Works is not just the reuse and redevelopment that will happen on the campus, but what a project of this scope and scale can do to positively impact these urban neighborhoods,” Kingsbury says.

In his mind, the project effectively does three main things.

First, he posits that a physical investment in the south side of Fort Wayne represents a renewed commitment to the people of that area.

“Rather than creating walls, we (would) integrate the campus back into the fabric of the neighborhoods, so Electric Works is a community space to be used and enjoyed by the community,” he says. “We (would) reconnect the campus to downtown, parks, the surrounding neighborhoods, and the Broadway corridor through new infrastructure that’s safe and convenient for pedestrians and bicyclists.”

Second, programming at the campus would further cement Electric Works as a centerpiece of the neighborhoods. Kingsbury says plans call for working collaboratively with the City of Fort Wayne and the neighborhoods, “to activate and enhance McCulloch Park and create new recreation opportunities for neighbors and visitors.”

The last piece – what he refers to as “smart management” – is perhaps the most imperative to Electric Works’s long-term success.

That’s because the campus is “inextricably tied to its neighborhood,” he says. In other words, if the neighborhood around it is strong, Electric Works will be able to be successful for years to come.

“In our experience around the country, we have found that the creation of community enhancement funds is a strategy to help make that happen,” he says.

That’s exactly what the developers of Electric Works have in mind, Kingsbury says. They intend to create a separate community enhancement fund, overseen by a board of community leaders, to keep investing in the surrounding neighborhoods.

But what might that look like?

“As the developer, we contribute initial seed capital to launch the fund,” he says. “Tenants at Electric Works, as part of their lease payment, contribute to the fund which provides a sustainable source of funding. The funds are invested in community development projects around Electric Works.”

Community development is open to interpretation, but in this scenario, Kingsbury says some examples might include grants for homeowners to make repairs to their homes; grants for shops along Broadway to help improve their storefronts; a youth recreation program at McCulloch Park, and more.

He estimates that the West Campus alone could generate more than $100,000 annually in support for these projects, but the funding priorities and decisions will be determined by the community.

The latter part is perhaps the most critical, as each community has its own set of challenges and needs.

For example, in Portland, Ore., similar metro community enhancement grants have given a boost to neighborhoods affected by the now-closed St. Johns landfill.

According to a Feb. 2018 report from the agency, “the purpose of the program is to rehabilitate and enhance the area around eligible solid waste facilities in the Metro region. The program was established by Metro Council in 1986. Since then, Metro has collected and re-invested millions of dollars in communities across the Portland metropolitan area.”

Taking all of these points into account, Kingsbury says it all goes back to one overarching belief: “To put it simply, Electric Works is more than a real estate project; it’s a community development project.”