(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part joint project between Fort Wayne Ink Spot and Input Fort Wayne (inputfortwayne.com) looking at the catalytic potential of Northeast Indiana’s largest project—and how it will affect various neighborhoods near and around the development. Issues such as inclusivity, gentrification and community development.)
In recent years, Fort Wayne has seen considerable growth and development in the form of private and public projects—from the Parkview Regional Medical Center‘s sprawling Dupont campus to the City of Fort Wayne’s decade-long transformation of downtown, starting with Parkview Field in 2009.
But while many projects have enhanced Fort Wayne’s quality of life in specific ways, for specific people, their effects haven’t been all positive or inclusive—particularly for the city’s most underprivileged residents and neighborhoods.
Fort Wayne’s largest project to date is Electric Works, a 39-acre, 18-building adaptive reuse project that seeks to transform the city’s vacant General Electric (GE) campus into a thriving, mixed-use innovation district. After a long and tumultuous road to securing financing and support, the public-private partnership secured $286 million to close on phase one of its development in 2020, including $215 million of private capital, federal, and state tax credits.
Kevan Biggs, President of Biggs Property Management, is a partner with RTM Ventures LLC, the master redevelopment group behind Electric Works, who will be collaborating with the Cincinnati-based Model Group and other Fort Wayne area investors and partners to revive the campus. Biggs says the 12-acre, 2,000 construction-job first phase of the project on the West Campus is expected to generate nearly $300 million in economic impact during construction and almost $400 million in annual economic impact once it opens in 2022. But more than merely another cool project or economic driver in Northeast Indiana, the project is intended to change the way development is done here, starting with its role as an “innovation district.”
‘Leading the project with this inclusive mindset sets us apart from anything else I’ve seen in Fort Wayne.’
Across the U.S., innovation districts are emerging in cities as physically compact, transit-accessible, and technologically wired hubs within communities. They offer a variety of housing, office, and retail options, and perhaps most importantly, they allow leading-edge anchor institutions in cities to connect with startups, business incubators, and accelerators.
The Brookings Institution reports that these hubs of innovation have the “unique potential” to spur inclusive and sustainable economic growth in cities.
From early on in the project’s inception, Biggs says RTM Ventures has implemented diversity and inclusion measures as key parts of Electric Works’s success, too. He cites listening sessions with neighborhood leaders and seeking out diverse investors from many segments of society as two concrete steps toward these goals.
“We have a number of African American investors who came in early with us, and we were thrilled to have not only their investment but also their voices heard on this project, as to how we’re shaping it moving forward,” Biggs says. “Leading the project with this inclusive mindset sets us apart from anything else I’ve seen in Fort Wayne.”
Now that construction has commenced, Biggs anticipates more opportunities for the public to weigh in on decision-making at Electric Works, as the shell of the campus is built out and businesses start leasing spaces.
In the meantime, he says another way his team is being inclusive with Electric Works is by hiring “a diverse set of hands” to build it. While a once-planned partnership to hire minority contractors through the nonprofit Joshua’s Hand has fallen through, Electric Works’s development team is making other efforts to hire diverse builders, spearheaded by Larry Weigand of Weigand Construction.
“We’ve made it a goal of giving 15 percent of our construction contracts to what are defined as ‘underutilized business entities,’” Biggs says. “That includes minority-, women-, and veteran-owned businesses.”
Biggs points out that this commitment to inclusivity is not mandated by Electric Works’ funding sources, which is typically what inspires “inclusive” hiring practices on projects.
But while the Electric Works team’s focus on inclusivity is, in some ways, values-driven, it’s not entirely motivated by philanthropy, Biggs points out.
“It really comes down to the fact that making a development inclusive is a sound business decision,” he says.
But influencing this scale of change—even positive, more inclusive change—in a community that’s experienced neglect and has been burned by “investment” in the past comes with challenges of its own.
‘What happens to those folks who can’t afford to live in this community?’
While homeowners and landowners in the vicinity of Electric Works may benefit from the project, the story looks different for renters in the same depressed neighborhoods, struggling to make ends meet.
That is a story Melissa Rinehart knows well, as the Executive Director of Wellspring Interfaith Social Services near the Electric Works campus.
Founded in 1968, Wellspring is intended to serve youth and adults in downtown’s immediate neighborhoods with a variety of needs from food and clothing, to opportunities for educational advancement and socialization.
“Electric Works is right in our backyard,” Rinehart says. “We’re right on Broadway. We’ve been in the West Central neighborhood for the last 50 or so years.”
As someone who works daily with low-income residents, Rinehart’s major concerns about Electric Works pertain mostly to the residents who may be displaced by the project.
“I’d love to see a project that’s incredibly diverse and progressive come to this community, but the realities in making that happen take a lot of groundwork,” Rinehart says. “To make that happen, people in the surrounding neighborhoods, including us, get displaced. That’s what happens when these large projects take place.”
As an example, Rinehart points to the demolition of homes that happened as part of the construction of Parkview Field in the mid-2000s.
“A lot of houses were leveled, and a lot of those people were using our services, so that displaced them,” Rinehart says.
She’s already seeing a similar impact from Electric Works, too. When discussions about the project surfaced a few years ago, property values in the neighborhoods surrounding the campus shot up, and some of Wellspring’s beneficiaries could no longer afford to live in the area.
“Our foodbank numbers for those we serve in the immediate neighborhood went down by half two years ago, and it keeps declining because they can’t afford the rent,” Rinehart says. “What happens to those folks who can’t afford to live in this community? They go to other parts of the city, or they become homeless.”
While Rinehart says she isn’t against the existence of Electric Works, she also isn’t sure it’s going to benefit the entire community.
“I think people get excited about a really great idea, but is it going to give the return on the investment that everyone thinks it will?” she says. “West Central keeps booming, but are we pushing problems out to other neighborhoods?”
‘A lot of the poverty and other problems are going to come Southeast. Where else is it going to go?’
Southeast Fort Wayne is a formerly redlined part of the city, which continues to be dominated by diverse populations of residents, from Black to Hispanic, Latino, and Burmese. The area has also suffered from historic disinvestment and neglect, lacking access to fresh food and locally owned businesses.
Many residents in Southeast echo similar concerns as Rinehart, fearing that if troublesome renters and landlords are displaced from the Electric Works area, they may move to Southeast and worsen conditions there.
Diane Rogers, a Black woman and current President of the Oxford Community Association, has lived on the Southeast side of town the majority of her life. She remembers this part of town as having thriving Black neighborhoods when she was growing up.
“We had so many things right there in our backdoor,” Rogers says. “Politics and economics have really rerouted the wealth out of our community. I just find it really sad to see. Black people used to own businesses up and down streets like Hanna, Lewis, and Pontiac. Now, people who look like me don’t have those storefront businesses anymore.”
Rogers points to an inequitable distribution of wealth in the city, making it difficult to maintain infrastructure or support development in the Southeast quadrant.
“There’s nothing wrong with having a nice downtown,” she says. “But older communities are forgotten, maybe because it doesn’t have the historical designation.”
As construction on Electric Works begins and revitalization efforts move forward, Rogers worries that poverty will be driven out of the surrounding downtown neighborhoods into Southeast neighborhoods, which are already dealing with their own challenges.
“When they force those people out of that community over there, a lot of the poverty and other problems are going to come Southeast,” Rogers says. “Where else is it going to go?”
While the project has been lauded as an inclusive venture that will draw in people from all across the city, a disconnect is still felt on the Southeast side. In a world not built on fairness, Rogers understands the reality but still wishes for better.
“My life is not determined by other people thinking I’m successful,” she says. “My life is determined by what I have been able to inspire and encourage people to do to make their lives better and to be grateful for what it is that we have. But still, if the wealth and opportunities aren’t distributed fairly, how are people supposed to feel like they’re included?”
‘Hopefully, folks from over here will end up with jobs long after the construction is over.’
Donita Mudd is a lifelong Fort Wayne resident and former GE employee who views Electric Works through the lens of her career as a window treatment contractor. For Mudd, one of the biggest benefits of Electric Works could be job creation and introducing people to new careers.
“I think, initially, Electric Works could impact the Southeast side of Fort Wayne if they follow through and give contracts to small businesses and minority contractors, like myself, so that we actually have work on that site,” she says. “It could go a long way in showing larger businesses and contractors the possibility of business from the Southeast side of Fort Wayne, the money we can make, and the experience we can bring to their businesses. The labor piece is important if we’re concerned about seeing our city grow and inspiring others who might be interested in this type of work.”
Mudd is a proponent of seeing economic development being put back into the community surrounding Electric Works and preserving the historic GE buildings. The lack of similar opportunities to preserve history on the Southeast side, however, hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“I think it’s great for developers to take that property and repurpose it,” Mudd says. “Fort Wayne is not known as a community for appreciating our historic buildings.”
Mudd gives the example of Ward Elementary School, later renamed the L.C. Ward Educational Center, located near the intersection of Oxford and Warsaw Streets. For years, the building constructed in 1931 had been scheduled for demolition while local residents rallied to save it. Finally, in January 2021, the decision to repurpose the building into a neighborhood health facility was made.
“It would have taken a small fraction of the budget for Electric Works to be used on the L.C. Ward property,” Mudd says. “The world doesn’t work by doing what’s right or what’s considerate for an area, but if it was possible to take a small percentage of the budget for Electric Works and put it in an adaptive, nonresidential, reuse project in a property that’s in Southeast Fort Wayne, even 2-5 percent of that budget would do a world of good.”
When it comes to the direct impact of Electric Works on the Southeast side, Mudd is optimistic about the long-term job potential it could create. But once the construction is complete, Mudd is more conflicted.
“Once it’s all said and done and people start going to Electric Works and working there, they won’t even have to come through this part of town,” she says. “I doubt we would have hardly any residual effect in this neighborhood.”
Even so, she recognizes the project is ultimately good for the city and its urban neighborhoods.
“I hope it becomes one of those go-to spots for the state where people would come to Fort Wayne, possibly bring their businesses to locate there, and possibly live there,” she says. “It would be an area where people in other parts of Fort Wayne could come into the city instead of heading out to more suburban areas. That would be great for the city.”
‘I think these four quadrants also serve as a barrier at times, not physically, but in people’s minds.’
Cherise Dixie has lived on the Southeast side of Fort Wayne her entire life and is currently the Southeast Area Partnership Chair.
“There’s been a large disinvestment Southeast for many, many years,” Dixie says. “Those of us living Southeast see the attention given to other quadrants of the city. We had these four quadrants developed, in part, for community policing eons ago. But I think these four quadrants also serve as a barrier at times, not physically, but in people’s minds. We see it when it comes to how the money is doled out and who gets the attention.”
Such barriers, real or imagined, make it difficult for a development, like Electric Works, to make good on the inclusivity it’s promising.
“Personally, I’m finding it difficult to see a direct relationship or correlation between the development of Electric Works and how it may positively impact the Southeast,” Dixie says. “I think that a lot of people who live Southeast don’t feel included, even though they may have had public meetings. It still doesn’t give the feel that that’s meant for us. It’s something else that’s over there.”
Many point to the proposed jobs that Electric Works will create and attract, but Dixie isn’t so sure the Southeast will ever reap any of the financial benefits.
“They keep talking about job creation, and that’s great, but are those jobs going to have a living wage? Or are those jobs going to be, quite frankly, the jobs we already have here Southeast–where you’re making minimum wage and can’t afford to live anywhere, let alone take care of your family?” she asks. “So, I’m not so sure. It remains to be seen.”
On the plus side, Electric Works will play a major role in preserving the historic GE buildings, something Dixie wishes could happen in her part of town, as well.
“I’m all for saving old buildings,” Dixie says. “I’m really pleased that the GE buildings will be used for something good. But why is it that we can look at an old GE building, and say, ‘Wow, we can do this, and let’s put millions of dollars of city money to support that establishment,’ but when it comes to a building like an L.C. Ward in the Oxford area, they can’t think of anything to do with it? There’s not the same excitement or dollars being thrown behind it to leverage development in that area. Why can’t you visualize a coffee shop or a mixed-use development or an apartment building? Why can’t you see that, but you can see so much elsewhere? So that’s a little disheartening because we see that often.”
‘A lot of people have promised Southeast a lot of things, but there have not been promises delivered.’
Biggs says he sees Southeast as a part of Fort Wayne that’s full of potential, home to a large population base that doesn’t currently have access to services, like grocery stores, within close proximity.
(Editor’s Note: Biggs’ Decatur, Ind., based company was the developer behind Renaissance Pointe, an affordable housing community in Southeast.)
“Why should they have to drive 25 minutes across town to buy fresh produce or purchase clothes?” Biggs asks.
From a community development standpoint, he believes it will take a large project, or a handful of large projects, to act as a “center of gravity” in Southeast and really move the needle on attracting investment there. He also believes projects with this catalytic potential are already in the works behind-the-scenes.
“It’s fairly confidential, but several projects are bubbling up right now, and I’m pretty confident one will emerge to be that anchor project,” he says.
Even so, Biggs says he understands a healthy skepticism around projects like Electric Works and other developments intended to help Southeast.
“I would be skeptical myself because of how the broader community has acted and reacted over the past 10-15 years, and probably even longer,” he says. “A lot of people have promised Southeast a lot of things, but there have not been promises delivered. That’s one thing Councilman Glynn Hines has shared with me many, many times since we did our project at Renaissance Pointe.”
Despite these concerns, Biggs says he’s humbled by how Southeast leaders have worked with him on Electric Works and other developments in the Southeast area, and he hopes that these collaborations continue to grow stronger in the future.
“We’re going to need everyone towing on the same side of the rope,” he says. “I want to continue to be open and transparent and work with the Southeast community, in particular, because I think there’s been a lack of transparency and frankly, goodwill, in the past.”
In imagining what the future of Electric Works might be like as a Southeast resident, Dixie says she hopes it will be able to capture some of the nostalgic feelings of the GE campus as a means of fostering goodwill in the broader Fort Wayne community and helping people across the city thrive.
“My biggest hope for Electric Works is that it becomes a very inclusive space that continues the legacy that GE had,” Dixie says. “GE touched a lot of lives throughout Fort Wayne—Black, white, and others. It would be nice if, years from now, people could look at Electric Works and still have that same sentiment or feeling that they were impacted by them in some way positively by them being there.”
Input Fort Wayne editor Kara Hackett contributed to this article. For more information visit https://www.inputfortwayne.com/
This article is distributed in partnership with the Fort Wayne Media Collaborative, a group of media outlets and educational institutions in Fort Wayne committed to solutions-oriented reporting. More information is available at fwmediacollaborative.com.