Does history equal money? It could for downtown GE campus project

April 11th, 2017

By Justin Kenny | News-Sentinel

While the projected $300 million price tag to convert Fort Wayne's vacant General Electric campus into a mixed-use residential, commercial and educational complex has raised some skeptical eyebrows, one crucial step will likely be taken to help offset some of the cost.

While GE has never attempted to add the massive property to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, it is expected that Cross Street Partners, who have agreed in principle to buy the 31-acre campus, will pursue placement on the exclusive list.

In the announcement of the project in February, Cross Street partner Josh Parker mentioned how the preservation of structures on the property would be crucial to qualify for historic tax credits.

The Federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit covers 20 percent of "qualified expenses" in the preservation and restoration of historic buildings and properties on the national register. These expenses include "hard costs" such as walls, floors, ceilings, windows, plumbing, electrical and clean-up work.

Also eligible are "soft costs" that include construction period interest and taxes, architect fees, engineering fees, management construction costs and "other fees paid that would normally be charged to a capital account."

Key expenses not included in the Federal tax credit involve acquisition costs of the property, demolition or enlargement of property or structures and feasibility studies.

In terms of both financial incentive and historic preservation, gaining admission to the registry makes sense.

"The GE complex was a huge part of the development of downtown," said Jill McDevitt, executive director of Architecture & Community Heritage (ARCH) in Fort Wayne. "You cannot underestimate the impact of that industry on the development of Fort Wayne and even when it disappeared the impact it had on the city.

"Architecturally, it's a lot of building and a lot of land."

Comparisons have been made with the GE complex to the 14-acre American Tobacco campus in Durham, N.C. That redevelopment project turned a blighted old factory complex into a multi-use campus that helped revitalize downtown Durham.

American Tobacco was put on the national register in 2000, with work beginning on the two-phase project a year later.

The final price tag of the American Tobacco complex was about $170 million before tax credits. North Carolina is a more fruitful location than Indiana when it comes to historic preservation and tax credits. On top of the 20 percent tax incentive from the government, the Tar Heel State offers an additional 30 percent credit that can be piggybacked on.

Indiana offers no similar state incentive for such projects.

"American Tobacco truly transformed a good part of Durham," said Mitch Wilds of the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office. "If folks are making a comparison with the potential in the GE plant in Fort Wayne, people will have something to look forward to."

Admission to the national registry is a long, drawn-out process. The first step is to make sure through the state that a property is eligible for the list. Once that is done, significant documentation must be done on the building or buildings, including a complete narrative of the site, its prominence in history, current condition and future plans.

GE began operations on the site in 1911, with many of the buildings dating back to that time.

"If we were writing nominees 15 years ago, we would write a couple paragraphs and be done," McDevitt said. "But it's become a lot more involved in recent years."

The review process — first by the state and then by the National Parks Service — can last over two years at the current time. Good news is, projects do not have to be completed to pursue the tax credit, but rather are granted the incentive following the project's completion.

While the details of the GE complex project remain scarce, an effort to gain recognition on the National Register of Historic Places would be of immense benefit to the plan's bottom line. 

Categories Quality of Life