Let your voice be heard on GE site’s future

February 8th, 2016

News Coverage:

February 7, 2016

Let your voice be heard on GE site's future

Geoff Paddock

Beginning last spring, I convened a task force of local citizens to discuss the possible reuse and repurposing of many of the buildings that comprise the General Electric campus. This large, now-unused factory sits on about 30 acres of prime land just blocks from downtown Fort Wayne. For nearly 100 years, it was a vibrant factory that employed thousands of people and produced refrigeration units, washing machines, motors and fans. After decades of vibrant manufacturing, General Electric made a business decision to slowly close the plant and move operations elsewhere. Like many other Midwestern cities, Fort Wayne now has a large campus of vacant factory buildings that are sitting idle.

The General Electric Campus Coalition was formed to discuss ideas about what might happen next at the complex. Many of the century-old buildings have a rich history and boast iconic architecture. While they are most noticed as one drives along Broadway, many of the buildings can be seen from vantage points across the city. 

I convened six informal meetings between May and November 2015 to ask the public about their thoughts on the future of the buildings. More than 100 people attended one or more meetings to offer their ideas. Many participants were former employees of the factory, others just interested citizens. Surprisingly, no one suggested demolition of the factory buildings should take place.

Without exception, opinion was voiced to work with the City of Fort Wayne, General Electric and others in the private sector to preserve and repurpose as much of the remaining buildings as possible.

Former Councilman Tom Smith came up with the most intriguing idea – to repurpose Building 19 as a movie production studio. Task force member Rebecca Gregory suggested one or more of the larger buildings could be converted into an aquarium, a museum and other indoor entertainment. Member Charlotte Weybright, who did an extensive study of the environmental challenges of repurposing the buildings, suggested we follow the example of the old Studebaker plant in South Bend and convert the buildings to lofts, apartments and retail outlets. There were many other ideas suggested as well.

Now, we want to hear more formally from the general public. Thanks to support from Greater Fort Wayne Inc., the coalition will be able to take the next step to gauge opinion. We will more formally engage the general public and take more specific ideas for further discussion.

A spokesman for GE has stated the company wants to work with the city to redevelop the area. Greater Fort Wayne sees the advantage of redeveloping the campus. As the councilman for the area, I see the possibility of this being a catalyst for the redevelopment of the Broadway, Taylor, and Fairfield corridors and to adding property values to the neighborhoods that surround the campus. It could be an economic development driver.

There is strong precedent for this work. The Studebaker plant in South Bend, the old International Harvester plant, Science Central, and the Superior and Randall Lofts in our city are examples where the local and state governments worked with the private sector to leverage investment and rehabilitate old structures.

With the right amount of private-sector support and cooperation from GE, this could happen again to this old factory campus.

Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, will conduct three public facilitating discussions in February. The meetings will be in a centrally located and easily accessible locations with free parking. If you cannot attend the first one, please try for the second or third. 

I want to thank the coalition and Greater Fort Wayne Inc. for helping us get to this most important public discussion. I also want to thank General Electric for being good corporate citizens for nearly a century and for securing and maintaining the remaining buildings. Their efforts are appreciated, and we look forward to working with them to forge a new future for the Broadway campus.