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City Council OKs Saint Francis project

The University of Saint Francis will get its $3 million.

Mayor Tom Henry’s administration and Saint Francis officials had asked for $3 million from the city’s Legacy Fund to create a downtown campus, but City Council members were initially hesitant to approve the issue.

Spending money from the Legacy Fund – created by the lease and sale of the city’s old electric utility – requires a supermajority of six of nine members for approval. Two weeks ago, there were five members in favor, two opposed, one abstaining because of a conflict of interest, and one – John Shoaff, D-at large – undecided.

This week, Shoaff had made up his mind.

Council members voted 6-1 to approve the measure, with John Crawford, R-at large, voting no. Mitch Harper, R-4th, abstained because he sometimes teaches at Saint Francis and his wife currently teaches there; Russ Jehl, R-2nd, was absent.

Crawford said he supports the project but doesn’t think it’s the best use of Legacy money.

After meeting with Saint Francis officials, Shoaff said he was convinced by the fact that the project could not go forward without the Legacy money and that the agreement between the city has safeguards built into it: The money will only be given to the university $1 million at a time and only to reimburse expenses for the project, and only at a four-to-one match. So when Saint Francis spends the first $4 million on the project, it can be reimbursed $1 million by the city.

Shoaff said the project is exactly what Fort Wayne is trying to do downtown.

The university’s $12.3 million project includes renovating two historic buildings – the former Chamber of Commerce, 826 Ewing St., and the USF Performing Arts Center, formerly the Scottish Rite Center, at 431 W. Berry St.

The former chamber building will become the new home for the Keith Busse School of Business and Entrepreneurial Leadership, which is expanding to include a risk management and insurance program. The new Media Entrepreneurship Technology in the Arts program and the school’s music technology program will be housed in the USF Performing Arts Center, which will also be used by students in the new bachelor of fine arts in dance.

The Catholic university has already spent $2.3 million buying the two buildings and needs about $5 million each for upgrades and renovations, Saint Francis President Sister M. Elise Kriss said. Both were built in the 1920s.

Two weeks ago, Council Attorney Joe Bonahoom said the measure would not violate the separation of church and state because the project met the rules previously created for projects, but the idea remained controversial because residents were with citizens uncomfortable with giving so much money to a private, religious institution.

Kriss said Saint Francis officials are anxious to begin the project, which will move up to 300 students and faculty and staff members downtown.

“I think it’s going to end up growing the economy downtown,” said Tom Didier, R-3rd. “I think it’s going to be a good thing for Fort Wayne.”