Glimpsing an Electric future

July 7th, 2017

By Cheri Becker, John Sampson, and Crystal Van Wallstrom for The Journal Gazette

Recently, we were part of a group that traveled to Durham, North Carolina, to visit the American Tobacco Campus. Admittedly, the rejuvenation of the 1.1-million-square-foot ATC was impressive.

The historic factory had stood dormant for more than 20 years. Its decline affected all of Durham. Today, it is fully occupied with a mix of residential, office and retail use, and also serves as a hub for Durham's ever-growing creative class. The business incubator space, occupying the entire lower level of the ATC, was teeming with budding entrepreneurs.

We walked away seeing up close what the future of our General Electric, or Electric Works, campus will look like. More so, we walked away better understanding why Durham, North Carolina, is unwilling to be second best, even in a state populated with the likes of Raleigh, Asheville, Greensboro, Charlotte and Winston-Salem.

Durham is making its mark by being a leader in the state for young entrepreneurs, new business creation and ongoing population growth.

And why not Fort Wayne? We found our population size, average salary, average age and overall demographics to be almost identical to those in Durham. The one distinguishing demographic was that Durham's minority population comprised 34 percent of its total, compared to Fort Wayne's 17 percent, a fact that served as a reminder of Fort Wayne's perceived, if not real, overall lack of diversity in community and political leadership.

Durham's redevelopment started with a downtown baseball stadium for the Durham Bulls. The ATC came next, and today, downtown Durham is sold out of office and retail space, new building construction is going up, residential neighborhoods surrounding the ATC are being revitalized and an unprecedented infusion of youth is moving to Durham for their careers.

The message, and one we have heard in Fort Wayne, is that there is no silver bullet, no secret sauce or recipe for Durham's success. We were told that success relies solely on commitment. A sustained political and community commitment to public-private partnerships, a commitment to sometimes taking the less-popular position, a commitment to putting Durham first, and a commitment to developing – and then sticking with – a community-led master plan that raises all boats.

Durham's community and political leaders look at Fort Wayne with some envy. We were reminded, time and again, of how many great things are already going for Fort Wayne, its downtown, its rivers and its neighborhoods.

We have an incredibly low tax rate, a healthy capacity for public-private partnerships, a pro-jobs environment within Indiana and signs of private investment within our neighborhoods and downtown core already taking place.

The potential return for redevelopment of the Electric Works campus holds so much more promise for our community, given where we are, than the ATC redevelopment did for Durham. We sometimes need to step outside of Fort Wayne and into a thriving community such as Durham to appreciate not only how good life is here, but how much better it can be, given our potential.

That potential only requires an increased level of community and political resolve for it to be realized.

In the coming weeks and months, the community will be asked to participate in the master planning process for Electric Works. We encourage everyone to participate. More importantly, we ask everyone to think of Electric Works as more than just a redevelopment effort that will transform the former General Electric campus.

This project will help reinvigorate our residential core stretching all the way south to Foster Park; will instill a new level of community commitment by our local universities in the same manner Duke University has shown for Durham; will foster the type of creative thinking, diversity and entrepreneurship that has always been a hallmark of Fort Wayne's history; and will help transform Fort Wayne into a community that never, ever settles for second-best in anything it does.

That is the promise of Electric Works. We, as a community, simply need to commit to making it so.

Cheri Becker is executive director of Leadership Fort Wayne; John Sampson is president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership; and Crystal Vann Wallstrom is director of the Center for Creative Collaboration at Indiana Tech.