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Location contributed to Aunt Millie’s demise but now may also spur the downtown property’s rebirth

June 18th, 2018

By Kevin Leininger | News-Sentinel

Aunt Millie’s closed its Fort Wayne bakery in April, but the location could still mean plenty of dough for the company founded in 1901 as the Wayne Biscuit Co.

“(The) site has potential due to the proximity to all the development along Harrison Street, no question . . . (it) will be an opportunity for the potential buyer to locate near the epicenter of all this activity,” said Kirk Moriarty, who as director of business development for Greater Fort Wayne Inc. spends a lot of time promoting downtown redevelopment.

And there has been a lot of development over the past few years near Aunt Millie’s sprawling campus at 350 Pearl St., with more on the way: riverfront development and the city’s vacant 29-acre “North River” site to the north; a $27 million, 125-room “boutique hotel” and the $35 million redevelopment of The Landing to the east; Parkview Field, Ash Brokerage and numerous other projects — including, perhaps, Electric Works — to the south. Nestled between the elevated railroad tracks, Main Street, Maiden Lane and Fairfield Avenue, the seven-acre campus is in the center of it all, which makes it prime real estate despite the recent inactivity at the 120,000-square-foot former bread plant.

No wonder Aunt Millie’s President John Popp is open to the possibility of a sale even though part of him might regret.

“A lot of people have been interested, including some from out of town. We are interested (in listening to offers) but I’m not actively pursuing a sale. I used to come here as a child, and there are lot of things I’d have to move out of my office,” Popp said. Despite the loss of about 90 bakery jobs, the company’s 120-employee office remains in the mostly vacant building. Popp acknowledges the arrangement isn’t ideal: “We’re only using 20 percent of the space,” he said.

Steve Zacher, president of the local real estate firm Zacher Co., recently authored a report predicting continued downtown development of and noting a decrease in vacant retail space. As more people move downtown, he said, there will be added demand for commercial activity, making Aunt Millie’s property a possible site for a “mixed use” project featuring residential and commercial space.

“Like any owner needing or wanting assistance, GFW will work with them to achieve a satisfactory result, which may include bringing together our partners with the units of government and working in concert with the brokerage and development community if necessary,” Moriarty said.

City officials have also expressed interest in seeing the site redeveloped, and spokeswoman Mary Tyndall said the administration of Mayor Tom Henry is “pleased that (Aunt Millie’s) is interested in redeveloping this property. We’ve had no communication about this to date but we look forward to discussions about how to encourage private investment in the site.”

Part of the main plant dates back to 1913 and includes wooden beams and pillars. The property also contains four smaller buildings, including a garage, and Popp said he isn’t sure what the campus is worth. Some environmental cleanup may be necessary despite the previous removal of underground fuel tanks.

Wayne Biscuit was founded by John B. Franke, and when he died in a car crash in 1927 control passed to his son-in-law, H. Leslie Popp Sr., who introduced sliced bread to Fort Wayne. H. Leslie Popp Jr. took over in 1978, and John Popp was named president in 1980. Closing the Fort Wayne plant was one of the most difficult and emotional things he’s had to do, but Popp has no doubt it was necessary and, in the long run, in the company’s best interest.

“We were growing and we needed (additional) capacity,” he said of the decision to build a $25 million bakery in the Chicago suburb of Lowell, Ind., in 2015. But then the bottom fell out: Two major customers, Marsh supermarkets and Central Grocers of Chicago, filed for bankruptcy. A deal to make buns for the Wendy’s chain ended, and fierce competition and new home delivery services exerted downward pressure on prices. All of a sudden Aunt Millie’s had excess capacity, and its seven bakeries were one too many.

Fort Wayne was chosen for closure because, unlike the other six, it is far from major highways, cramped and, as a result, more costly and difficult to operate.

But now the very downtown location that sealed the bakery’s fate may promote its rebirth in a form not even Popp can yet imagine.

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