Fort Wayne development offers vision for Project Jackson

October 31st, 2016

By James Folker | The Augusta Chronicle

Fort Wayne, Ind., has a message for North Augusta, S.C.

If Project Jackson works out like Fort Wayne's Harrison Square, it's going to be better than you've been promised. The two projects – Project Jackson and Harrison Square – are very similar and folks in Fort Wayne are very happy.

Both are multi-use "live, work, play" developments of housing, offices, retail and hotel, surrounding a minor league ballpark. Both have had to overcome opposition and both involved Chris Schoen, now a principal in Greenstone Properties, the master developer of Project Jackson.

The biggest difference is that Fort Wayne's Harrison Square is finished, while North Augusta's Project Jackson – also known as Ballpark Village — appears at last to be about to begin.

After eight years, Fort Wayne's leaders and residents, its business community and team – the TinCaps, named in tribute to Johnny Appleseed, who wore a tin pot or cap on his head – all say Harrison Square, which includes Parkview Field, is an unqualified success.

"It's a grand slam," said Mike Nutter, TinCaps president, about the development and its impact on downtown Fort Wayne. "We've got our swagger back."

Like the GreenJackets, the TinCaps already had a stadium when Parkview Field was proposed in 2006. It was a typical minor league field, and the team drew about 165,000 fans a year.

The first year in Parkview, they drew 378,000, Nutter said, and have not drawn below 400,000 in any year since. The recently completed season was the best ever, Nutter said, with attendance of 413,000.

But before it was built, many people in Fort Wayne were unsure how a ballpark could help their decimated downtown.

"They thought all you could do there was play baseball," Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry said. "We needed to convince them that we were not only building a stadium, it was going to be multi-use facility. Once people realized the potential, they became more excited."

Today, Henry said, the concourse is a walking/jogging track, there's a jumbo screen to show movies on the grass, soccer leagues play games there, the city orchestra puts on a patriotic concert every summer and the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs meet in the stadium suites.

Indiana University played Notre Dame in an exhibition soccer game.

"It's so much more than just a baseball field," Henry said.

But it nearly didn't happen.

When first proposed, the city took a poll that showed 65 percent of its residents were against the development. But business leaders liked it, judged the underlying financials to be sound and saw the potential to use it to bring Fort Wayne's downtown back.

In 2000, downtown Fort Wayne was a ghost town after dark. The city had lost 10,000 General Electric and International Harvester jobs, said Graham Richard, who was mayor then.

"For over a decade we were dormant downtown, with closed up stores, very little housing; not much to bring people downtown," Richard said.

He saw the proposed Harrison Square as a way to lure a new hotel and bring some retail back downtown.

"We're safe, our schools are good, but there's no sizzle ... the ballpark was downtown and regional development approach," he said.

Richard and others began mobilizing support, and business leaders helped.

"We sent teams to 50 different cities and looked at every ballpark of every type," Richard said. "We went out and spoke to civic clubs, churches, anywhere anybody would listen, and talked and talked and talked."

They focused on the potential to attract investment, keep young people in the community and revitalize downtown. By the time it came to a city council vote, the backers needed five votes out of nine. After a three-hour-plus meeting where over 120 people spoke — 100 favorably — they got six.

But of course, not everyone was happy. Mark Becker, who was deputy mayor at the time, remembers a meeting where a man walked up to him, leaned in face-to-face and said:

"I'm going to do everything I can to make sure this doesn't happen."

By the time the stadium opened, however, that man and many other opponents had come 180 degrees, he said.

"Opening night, he was there, dressed as Johnny Appleseed," Becker said.

Current city polls show about 80 percent of residents say they're glad it was built.

The ballpark includes a building in left field with 42 apartments and there's a waiting list, said John Urbahns, executive vice president of economic development for Greater Fort Wayne Inc., their version of a chamber of commerce. The ballpark cost $54 million, but has drawn $250 million of private investment, above and beyond that included in the original Harrison Square plan.

Richard got his hotel – a Courtyard by Marriott – and even more development is coming, say officials.

"We're breaking ground tomorrow on a 12-story, 124-unit apartment building right across from Harrison Square, with a floor of retail, a floor of offices and a Ruth's Chris steakhouse," Urbahns said Tuesday.

In his estimation, nearly 100 percent of opponents now would say: "I didn't believe it was possible but I see it now and I'm glad you did it."

Enjoying success in the summer with baseball, the city is exploring building a new midsize arena adjacent to Harrison Square to lure an NBA D-League basketball team to take up the slack in the cold months.

"Doing this has given us a lot of momentum," Urbahns said. "We're looking at ways to invest in ourselves and push our community forward."

And Fort Wayne officials aren't the only ones who praise the development.

"It's been a success on every level," said Kevin Reichard, who publishes Ballpark Digest. He travels around the country, visiting, evaluating and writing about stadiums.

"People like living near ballparks, and it's true across the country," he said, adding that downtown Fort Wayne is now "a boom town."

He talks about the Lansing (Michigan) Lug Nuts, who put in apartments overlooking their ball park and won his magazine's Best Ball Park Renovation over $10 million for 2016, or the Rough Riders of Frisco, Texas, who put in a "lazy river" waterpark-style attraction and sold out the last 46 of 48 games thereafter.

South Carolina, he notes, has a great example of ballpark-driven growth in Greenville, and he gave Columbia's Spirit Communications Park his top honor this year. It is being enhanced by re-purposing the old Bull Street mental hospital.

"They're literally in the middle of development and announcing new deals all the time," he said. The latest involves housing for University of South Carolina medical students.

Schoen thinks North Augusta has a better chance of succeeding than Fort Wayne, for several reasons.

"North Augusta has a river, the residential base and a larger restaurant and fast-casual base than Fort Wayne had at the time," he said.

Fort Wayne's Metropolitan Statistical Area has a population of 450,000, while the Augusta area has 580,000, he said.

"(Fort Wayne's) downtown has become a destination now. And that's what we believe Ballpark Village will become," Schoen said.

It just takes time and patience to get to the finished product, Reichard said.

"Development always takes longer than people assume it will, raising money is hard and people get impatient," he said.

Asked whether he had any advice for North Augusta, Henry said: "If you're going build a complex like that, make sure it serves as many constituencies as possible. Try to make it a family experience. ... It takes real courage to say yes and exercise a vision. But you owe it to the community to try."