Some of the city’s most successful business leaders have a message for elected officials: Make Electric Works work.
The $280 million mixed-use development of the former General Electric campus is in jeopardy after city officials this month canceled their economic development agreement with developer RTM Ventures. They cited doubts about the reliability of funding sources and concerns the project wasn’t coming together fast enough.
Tom Kelley, president of Kelley Automotive Group, has been busy rallying his peers to review and support the deal that calls for $62 million in local taxpayer money. Kelley, who signed a nondisclosure agreement that allowed him access to the deal’s details, considers the revenue sources to be rock solid.
“This is a once-in-50-years opportunity for a city like Fort Wayne,” he said during a phone interview. “We need to look past politics now. We need to make this work.”
The informal coalition of leaders is a who’s who of local businessmen that includes Chuck Surack, Sweetwater Sound’s CEO; Mark Millett, Steel Dynamic Inc.’s CEO; Mark Music, Ruoff Mortgage’s president and CEO; Tim Ash, Ash Brokerage’s CEO; Brian Bauer, Indiana University Health Fort Wayne’s president; and Bill Bean, a local developer and restaurateur.
They are optimistic an agreement can be reached that all parties can live with. The Fort Wayne Redevelopment Commission said it would be willing to work with another developer – or with RTM – on a newly negotiated agreement. Partners in RTM – Josh Parker, Jeff Kingsbury and Kevan Biggs – continue to pursue the project.
Kelley stressed the effort is meant as a mediation of sorts and not a rebuke of the mayor or his staff.
“I love Tom Henry. I support Tom Henry,” he said.
The ad hoc advisers believe their independence is a significant asset. They are neither on the city’s payroll nor investors in Electric Works.
“I’m excited that a group of us are engaged because I think both sides are listening to us,” Bauer said during a phone interview. “I have no skin in the game other than I’m absolutely committed to Fort Wayne.”
Follow the leader
Ash was on the leading edge of reviving downtown Fort Wayne. His headquarters move closely followed game-changing investments in Parkview Field, the Courtyard by Marriott hotel, Grand Wayne Center expansion and JK O’Donnell’s Irish pub.
“I definitely believe it’s a project the city really needs to do,” Ash said of Electric Works. “It’s a great opportunity to continue the momentum we’ve started in downtown.”
Shep Moyle, CEO and chairman of Shindigz, followed Ash Brokerage into the neighborhood. He moved the online party supply retailer’s headquarters last year from South Whitley to a historic, five-story building.
The location wasn’t a gimme. Shindigz officials also considered Durham, North Carolina, and Austin, Texas, during their selection process.
“Companies want to be in a community of other businesses to help grow, share and empower the community,” Moyle said in an email.
He described choosing Fort Wayne as “a leap of faith” in the community’s ability to nurture a talent pool like those already found in Durham and Austin.
“We committed to downtown Fort Wayne because of the transformation, imagination and risk taking we saw with the riverfront, The Landing and Electric Works. We believed in the bold and imaginative vision to look over the horizon,” Moyle said.
“It is critical for Fort Wayne to retain the astonishing companies we have that have helped fuel the growth and success of the community,” he said. “Companies like Do It Best, Ruoff, Sweetwater, Ash and Vera Bradley are extraordinary magnets to keep other companies here and attract new ones to the community. We all want to be a part of something larger than ourselves.”
If Electric Works falls through, it looks likely that anchor tenant Do it Best will leave northeast Indiana.
Dan Starr, Do it Best’s CEO, told The Journal Gazette last month that the mixed-use development is a critical element in attracting the best talent to his company. Starr also said he’s not aware of any other site in Fort Wayne that would meet the headquarters operation’s needs.
Do it Best employs more than 400 employees and expects to add 100 jobs in the next few years.
Kelley knew losing the company would be a big economic blow to Allen County – but he didn’t know exactly how big. He wanted to quantify the effects when talking to city officials and other business leaders.
So he commissioned an analysis by the Community Research Institute at Purdue University Fort Wayne. The report, issued last week, puts the potential annual loss in the neighborhood of $100 million.
The 2,000 estimated construction-related jobs linked to the Electric Works project would be in addition to these economic impact numbers.
Moyle said the city shouldn’t take Do it Best’s presence for granted.
“They have many, many options across the state and the country,” he said. “Even a smaller organization like us had incentives, buildings and opportunities dangled in front of us.”
The competition for highly skilled workers is fierce, said John Sampson, the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership’s president and CEO. Attracting them is among his priorities.
“We are in a global war for talent and good jobs,” he said during a phone interview.
There’s more demand for office space in locations like the proposed Electric Works than there is supply, site selection professionals have told Sampson.
That bodes well for the developers’ ability to find tenants for spaces not already committed to organizations including Parkview Health, Fort Wayne Community Schools, Fort Wayne Metals, Indiana University Research and Technology Corp., Indiana Tech, Joseph Decuis and Medical Informatics Engineering.
John Urbahns, president and CEO of Greater Fort Wayne Inc., also woos employers to the community.
“The biggest thing that companies are looking for is: Do you have the types of talent they need?” he said during a phone interview. “They want to make sure it’s a community they can draw people to.”
When Amazon requested proposals for a second headquarters location, the online retail giant expressed a preference for “urban or suburban locations with the potential to attract and retain strong technical talent” and “communities that think big and creatively when considering locations and real estate options.”
Urbahns’ career in economic development, which includes a stint on the city’s payroll, means he’s well-acquainted with the challenges.
“As hard as it is to attract a company headquarters,” he said, “losing an existing corporate headquarters would be a tough pill to swallow.”
Sampson worries that the city’s reputation will suffer if officials allow the Electric Works project to slip through their fingers.
“Large projects like these are never simple, and they are never easy,” he said. “But they define who we are.”
Millett, the Steel Dynamics co-founder who typically steers clear of controversy, is also urging officials to tackle the project’s complex financing.
“Over the last 10 years, the city has made remarkable progress in resurrecting downtown. Everyone should be very proud of the new quality of life it provides all our citizens,” he said in an email.
“There are still many projects in the pipeline, Electric Works being the largest and most complicated. This is a bold initiative but one not to be feared,” he said. “It comes at a time when societal issues are driving people away from large cities searching for better places to raise their family. Fort Wayne is such a place, and we should be creative to bring Electric Works across the finish line to punctuate the progressiveness of our city.”
Kelley wants to ensure the city’s progress includes educational and career opportunities for southeast Fort Wayne’s residents. He believes Electric Works would do just that – in addition to increasing their access to medical care and fresh fruits and vegetables.
“It took me over,” Kelley said, describing his enthusiasm for Electric Works. “I’m either all in or all out – and I’m all in. I’m going to exhaust every ounce of energy I have to get this over the goal line.”
Kelley doesn’t have a seat at the bargaining table, however. It will be up to city officials, county officials and RTM Ventures to negotiate a deal.
“I’ve just got to believe,” Kelley said, “there are enough smart people in this process that we can find a way forward.”