To earn some of the city’s legacy millions, prospective grantees will have to prove they are serious about their projects.
In a preliminary list of recommendations to share in Fort Wayne’s $75 million from the lease and sale of its electric utility, most of the potential projects will be required to provide matching money to receive financing.
In fact, many projects would be required to provide $2 for every $1 given by the city, according to a recommendation summary obtained by The Journal Gazette.
City Councilman Tom Smith, R-1st, said he was pleased with the overall recommendations for the money. Smith served on one of three “champion teams” created by Mayor Tom Henry to investigate ideas for the money. The teams were created after a separate task force spent a year gathering input on potential uses, and generated three target areas: economic development, youth and prep sports, and downtown and river development.
Smith, who served on the downtown/riverfront team, said it was no coincidence that many of the projects require private-sector participants to provide matching money, sometimes at a 2-1 ratio.
“We’re not trying to make outright gifts to people,” Smith said. “They’ve got to have some skin in the game.”
For example, one recommendation by the economic development team is to provide a $4 million grant to the University of Saint Francis to create a $12 million downtown campus.
Trois Hart, associate vice president of marketing, said the university sought a cash infusion from the city to help the project progress faster. She said the university is committed to finance two-thirds of the campus with existing cash or future fundraising efforts.
The University of Saint Francis bought the Scottish Rite building downtown in January for $1.3 million, renaming it the USF Performing Arts Center. The 82,672-square-foot Performing Arts Center, which was built in 1925, will house the school’s Media Entrepreneurship Training in the Arts – or META – program and also will be available for public bookings.
According to the legacy recommendations, the school could also purchase the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce Building, 826 Ewing St., to create a campus that would include its business school.
Hart confirmed Saint Francis has been in conversations about buying the building.
The plans for the new campus are in place, Hart said, and a city grant would allow the school to begin construction almost immediately. She said the school has space limitations on its Spring Street campus, but rather than build new there, school officials are interested in using existing downtown buildings.
“The business community and our business school is a natural connection,” she said.
If successful in receiving the legacy grant, Hart said the new campus could be operational in 12 to 18 months and be home for 400 to 500 students in its first year.
In total there are 12 recommendations seeking nearly $49 million in financing. Smith said the teams didn’t know what the others were doing and there was no conscious effort to split all the money between the groups. The primary focus was to give worthy ideas the appropriate amount of money, Smith said, adding he was pleased that a third of the total pot wasn’t needed from these ideas.
“It just goes to show we weren’t on some spending spree,” he said.
The money for the grants comes from the lease and sale of Fort Wayne’s former electric utility to Indiana Michigan Power. The city reached a $39.2 million settlement in October 2010 to sell its former electric utility and the rights to all its former customers to the private utility.
The state approved the deal last August, providing an initial $5 million down payment. In addition, the city has about $36 million in a trust account from leasing the utility to I&M for three decades.
Baseball and parks
The recommendations for the money – which Henry has consistently encouraged the teams to be bold – range widely. One asks to set aside $11 million for downtown to help with property acquisition and economic development. Another asks to spend $2 million to improve downtown railroad overpasses.
Councilman Tom Didier, R-3rd, said he was most excited with two projects dealing with youth sports. Didier served on the youth/prep sports champion team. In particular, he was excited about a project to provide a $2 million grant to the World Baseball Academy to complete a $6 million project.
Caleb Kimmel, executive director of the academy, said he was encouraged his group’s proposal has made it this far in the process. He said the economic benefit from hosting baseball tournaments has already been proven and upgrading his facility on Freeman Street would only add to that.
Kimmel said his facility has five baseball diamonds, although only three are currently usable. Under the proposal to the city, three of those diamonds would be “significantly” upgraded and the other two would be converted into a collegiate field. The facility could become home field for area schools as well as a draw for regional and even national tournaments. He said it would use artificial surfaces to allow for maximum use.
“Fort Wayne really lacks a centralized hub for amateur baseball,” he said, while acknowledging his group might not be well known by much of the community.
Kimmel said his group plans to move ahead with its plans for expansion, regardless of what happens with the city grant, but he agreed such a grant would allow the project to be completed much faster.
Didier said such a project could even draw Little League World Series games to Fort Wayne.
He also said he supports using about $4 million to upgrade and operate the McMillen Park Ice Arena into a community center. The project is one of the few recommendations not requiring a separate grant. Didier said that was appropriate because it is a city park. He said when the ice rink’s main business moved north to the private ice sheets at Wells and Fernhill, it was important to ensure McMillen was not forgotten.
“I think it’s important that facility get rejuvenated,” he said.
Finalizing a plan
Didier said the recommendations were made to the mayor about a month ago, but he has not yet heard when the mayor’s final plan will be completed.
Henry previously said he hoped to make a presentation to the council in July or August with his recommendations, but spokesman Frank Suarez said the mayor is trying to get some additional information on a few of the proposals.
“I think he’s taking his time,” Suarez said.
While Suarez said the mayor was pleased with the group’s efforts in creating recommendations, he did not know which, if any, the mayor, would recommend for financing.
Didier said he does not believe the mayor will select every recommendation for a grant.
Henry has previously said he plans to bring all the recommendations to the council to be voted on as a package. Smith said he was initially wary of such a plan, but said after working on the plans for so long it now makes sense.
He was particularly supportive of the plan to spend $500,000 for a comprehensive study of the area’s riverfront to see what development is possible. The recommendation also called for setting aside $10 million to help implement such a plan.
The mayor has said such study is necessary because so much of the riverbank is federally mandated levees that can’t be developed.
Smith said once the recommendations are made to the City Council, he would expect a lengthy discussion and possibly a public hearing to debate the size of the proposals. He doubted the council would try to add anything new.
“I think the direction is now set,” he said.