Economic development doesn’t have to mean attracting some company from across the country or nurturing some fledgling enterprise no one’s yet heard of.
To be successful, any city must place great emphasis on retaining those companies and jobs it already has.
To that end, Fort Wayne’s efforts to help British defense contractor BAE relocate its facilities here has to earn an A in forward-looking development policy.
Though BAE wanted to stay in Fort Wayne, the company needed new facilities, and there was no guarantee that the facilities it needed could best be built here.
They feel the workforce is an exceptional workforce, said Greg Leatherman, executive director of the Redevelopment Commission. They didn’t want to leave. But once they load up the trucks, the trucks can go anywhere – except for the fact that the workforce may not be able to follow.
Fortunately, the city was ready with a plan to help them relocate, and with a funding plan that would make the move viable.
Monday, Greater Fort Wayne Inc., got approval for a $4.5 million incentive package that will lead to a beautiful new facility for BAE near Fort Wayne International Airport.
The Allen County-Fort Wayne Capital Improvement Board is kicking in $2.5 million, and $2 million will come through the Redevelopment Commission’s airport tax increment financing district.
And so, instead of heading down the highway to another community, BAE and its 1,100 well-paying jobs will remain in the city.
TIF districts, which funnel off increases in property tax revenue from new development to promote more development, come in for criticism when they stockpile too much money. But in this case, having unencumbered funds on hand helped officials respond nimbly to BAE’s needs.
You could put this at or near the top of how TIF has been intended to be used, Leatherman said.
Many people think of TIF district money as mainly a lure for outside companies. In fact, Leatherman isn’t aware of a previous instance where it’s been successfully used to keep an existing business here.
It may not be the last time, though. Officials hope the architecturally attractive facility planned for BAE will make other companies consider moving and expanding nearby.
There’s a lot of land out there that’s industrially zoned, Leatherman noted.
Interestingly, with about $4 million on hand, the commission had decided to stop setting aside money for the airport TIF next year, though collection could be restarted in the future. This is a wise strategy; a self-perpetuating, bloated TIF system may become a drag on a healthy community.
Now, though, there is another development challenge: What to do with the old GE campus that once was home base for 12,000 employees?
After BAE leaves, the complex, with some buildings that are more than 100 years old, will be home to just 30 GE workers.
Leatherman says the development agencies have reached out to GE, which has always been respectful of the community’s needs. But if there is to be a plan to revitalize the old campus, they’re going to have to dictate the when, the where.
Today, though, the city has some things to be proud of: having its priorities right, being prepared to act and keeping a good employer in Fort Wayne.