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Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
A construction worker nails down roof shingles on a house Thursday in the Tuscany subdivision on Carroll Road. City Utilities’ Development Services has seen increased traffic and demands for infrastructure for new subdivisions and single-family homes.

Sewer, water lines make economy flow

Surge in local permits is pipeline to housing growth

Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Multiple houses are under construction in Oakmont Development’s Tuscany subdivision on Carroll Road. Construction is on the rise statewide.

– It can be mind-boggling trying to figure out whether the economy is coming back or not: There are unemployment figures, housing starts, consumer confidence numbers, manufacturing inventories and something called “leading economic indicators.”

Or you could just check out the sewer pipes.

For Fort Wayne officials, the easiest way to see what the economy is doing is to check in with City Utilities’ Development Services. Anyone or anything connecting to city water, sewer or stormwater systems is dealing with Development Services, so when it comes to the local economy, the department is like a canary in a coal mine.

When the economy dropped off a cliff, so did the number of people walking into Development Services.

“We would have weeks where we were getting no new routings,” said Nancy Townsend, manager of Development Services. “On subdivisions, we went two years with none.”

That’s weeks – in a city of more than 250,000 – where not one home or business needed a sewer or water connection, and two years without a new or expanding subdivision.

Not anymore.

“Now we have a couple of new subdivisions a month coming in,” Townsend said. “At one point we had 15 different active subdivisions. … Developers are telling us they’re out of lots.”

It may not be the statistics economists prefer, but the traffic in Development Services is hard to deny. And developers don’t build houses unless people are buying them, and people don’t buy houses when they don’t have jobs.

“Most people’s biggest investment is their house,” said Jeff Thomas, owner of Oakmont Development. “If they have the ability (to buy a new house), obviously their consumer confidence is a lot better.”

Thomas cites statistics from the Home Builders Association of Fort Wayne showing just how bad things were. From 1999 to 2006, he said, the state averaged only about 31,000 single-family home permits. But for 2007 to 2012, the state averaged about 9,500 permits a year. In 2013, as things began to turn around, there were about 12,000 permits statewide.

Those numbers bore out locally, too: From 1985 to 2006, Thomas said, Allen County never issued fewer than 1,000 permits to build single-family homes. From 2007 to 2012, however, only about 600 a year were issued. In 2013, there were 839.

“Even though we’re still not at the previous levels, as long as we’re on the uptick, that’s a good thing for everybody,” he said. “It keeps people working, keeps jobs active.”

Thomas said there were six new subdivisions in Allen County in 2012, and 11 in 2013.

“It comes down to the fact that we have a real need for the housing,” he said. “We need new housing; we need it in a bad way.”

And the market is responding to that demand, Townsend said.

“We can see it – the phone calls, the walk-ins, the submittals – it’s coming back to where it used to be,” she said. “It’s nice to not have enough time in the day now.”

‘A lot of listening’

It used to be that those who needed a water or sewer connection had to go to three or four different places. But about 15 years ago, the city created the Development Services area to make a one-stop shop.

“We work with developers, contractors, engineers and homeowners to facilitate their projects,” Townsend said. “We work with them from beginning to end.”

But the department has another role, as well, and it’s not just to monitor the economy.

“We do a lot of listening,” the city’s Ted Nitza said. “This helps us figure out the next area where we need to build capacity.”

By seeing where developers are seeking to build new homes and businesses, city officials know where to install bigger pipes and more infrastructure. Without it, Nitza said, growth and development can’t take place.

“It’s not just that someone can’t build their house,” he said. “Developers, contractors, engineers – they’re all out of work. It becomes vital to the community that we’re planning and building infrastructure to support these projects.”

The installation of the new lines is paid for by the developer, but when Development Services determines the lines should be larger than what would be required for that development, the city pays for the upgrade. That small investment has paid off time and time again, officials said.

A good example is Parkview Regional Medical Center on Dupont Road, Nitza said. When the hospital was built, the city increased the water and sewer lines in the area to accommodate the growth expected to follow. Similar results followed expansions of the infrastructure near the General Motors assembly plant and Fort Wayne International Airport.

“What we do matters,” Townsend said. “It’s jobs. It’s getting business owners into their businesses.”