Trust spurs latest growth downtown

February 15th, 2016

News Coverage:

February 14, 2016

Trust spurs latest growth downtown

2011 leap of faith led to Ash project

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

Twenty years ago, about the only people working in downtown Fort Wayne were lawyers, librarians and civil servants. Since then, the area has been reborn. 

Ask a dozen people what the tipping point was in downtown’s evolution, and you might get a dozen different answers.

Building another downtown hotel was pivotal, as was construction of Parkview Field. Expansions of Grand Wayne Center and the Allen County Public Library’s main location have helped draw thousands of visitors and convention-goers from multiple states.

Someone else might argue that the gourmet tacos at the Hoppy Gnome or the small plates at Wine Down Tastings & Tapas make downtown an authentic dining destination.

But folks behind the scenes point to a 2011 leap of faith as the real hero in this civic comeback story. That’s when officials with the Downtown Improvement District and the Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance legally created the Downtown Development Trust. 

The nonprofit, private organization secures options to buy property considered pivotal to downtown’s development. The Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne agreed to offer the trust a $1 million line of credit to make those purchases.

“That collaboration set the stage,” said Bill Brown, the Downtown Improvement District’s president since 2013. Without it, the Ash Skyline Plaza and The Landing projects might never have gotten off the ground, he said.

“I have to say leadership matters,” he added.

Tom Niezer, a local attorney, said it’s important to remember that the national and local economies were struggling in 2011 after the recession, when the trust was created. 

It would have been easy to dismiss the land-banking plan, even though the strategy was working in other cities, including Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, Michigan, he said. 

“I don’t think a lot of (local) people at the time realized how important it was to do site acquisition,” he said.

Five years later, the trust’s board can celebrate the imminent opening of Ash Skyline Plaza, the first project it facilitated. 

Lake City Bank will open its first-floor retail location Tuesday. DeBrand Fine Chocolates is building out the space that will become its first downtown store. This month, local law firm Barnes & Thornburg became the most recent employer to sign a lease in the building, committing itself for 15 years. 

Dawn Rosemond, an attorney with Barnes & Thornburg, has served on the trust’s board since the organization was created.

The board wanted to capitalize on momentum created by Parkview Field’s successful opening, she said. The trust tried to spark urban renewal of vacant and dilapidated downtown buildings. 

“We were all of the same mindset that we wanted Fort Wayne to be as great as we knew it can be,” Rosemond said. “I’ve seen Fort Wayne – for various reasons – go through a lot of fits and starts. There are a lot of plans on a shelf somewhere gathering dust.”

Trust board members are now actively involved in revitalizing The Landing into an entertainment destination that includes residential and retail spaces. They will work directly with the developer to create a final vision for the one-block area of Columbia Street.

Brown, who is also an Allen County councilman, has noticed a significant shift in attitudes in the Summit City. Local residents used to suffer, he said, from what he described as “Indy envy.” 

Now, Brown said, downtown’s development momentum has people believing that great things can happen. For that, he credits the trust.

Rosemond agrees. The Fort Wayne native said she wouldn’t be surprised if some of those ambitious plans now gathering dust end up being resurrected and becoming reality.