In terms of challenges, how to spend millions of dollars is the best sort of problem to have. The city of Fort Wayne’s $75 million Legacy Fund should be the envy of communities across the state, perhaps even across the nation.
When city leaders leased City Light and Power to Indiana Michigan Power in 1974, they wisely set aside $270,000 each year from lease revenue to be deposited into a trust. It matured in the fall of 2009 with a balance of nearly $36 million. When a settlement with I&M was approved by the state, $39.2 million more was added to create the Legacy Fund.
What to do with the money has fueled debate in political campaigns, City Council meetings and community forums ever since. A 15-member task force created by Mayor Tom Henry spent months collecting, reviewing, scoring and debating ideas before offering recommendations. City Council members had their own ideas, and the city administration has weighed in with others.
Henry can barely contain his enthusiasm when he talks about the Legacy Fund’s effect on Fort Wayne.
He ticks off a list of projects either funded or leveraged by Legacy dollars so far: Emerald Skyline, the 16-story mixed-used development anchored by Ash Brokerage; a riverfront development study; a roundabout at Fairfield and Ewing; improvements to downtown gateways; education investments; and more.
Only about $20 million has been allocated so far. There’s a lot of money left, Henry said in a recent interview. And the great thing is that interest is accruing on the balance. The Legacy money isn’t like other revenues that are restricted on investments.
Consider this a status report on the Legacy Fund – where the money has gone so far and what’s left to spend.
Not without controversy
Legacy priorities and practicalities haven’t been settled without some controversy. The latest was the proposal to spend $600,000 to help lure daily service from an East Coast hub to Fort Wayne International Airport. The city’s contribution is part of a minimum revenue guarantee. If seats are filled, the money won’t be needed. City Council members initially resisted but approved it after county economic development income tax dollars were tapped to provide half the guarantee.
I think the direct flight to the East Coast will be an event-changer, the mayor said. We’ve heard so much about the need for this.
A $3 million grant to the University of Saint Francis also stirred debate.
Because Legacy spending requires approval by a super- majority of six of the nine city council members, it took intense lobbying to pass the measure. At-large Councilman John Crawford, who voted no, said he supported Saint Francis’ plan to create a downtown campus but didn’t think it was the best use of Legacy funds. The councilman is pleased, overall, with how the money has been allocated so far, particularly with the decision to use a portion for neighborhood infrastructure.
It’s just a case-by-case basis, Crawford said. I’ve voted against several. I just try to look at the best case for the city. I don’t worry about it being transformational’ as long as it’s a good project and moves the city ahead.
The fruits of the Legacy Fund spending will take some time to be fully realized, but Fort Wayne residents have to appreciate the transparent process that guides it. Beginning with the Legacy Task Force’s work, the debate over guidelines and spending all has occurred in plain sight.
At a notable city budget session in 2012, nearly a dozen speakers objected to a council proposal to plug a hole in the city’s 2013 budget with Legacy Fund money. They unanimously urged officials to stick with transformational projects.
Projects like Parkview Field make a world of difference, said Ray Kusisto, chief executive officer at Ortho Northeast. We have something most other communities don’t – capital. To use that capital for filling budget holes, I think, would squander that money.
While some council members disagreed with the idea that the Legacy Fund should be handled differently from other revenue, they ultimately compromised. Interest from the fund was used to balance the 2013 budget.
A website, legacyfortwayne.org, provides ready oversight of the process, with regular updates and status reports. City officials also are going to great lengths to encourage public suggestions on the projects themselves. Envision Fort Wayne, a storefront office at 916 S. Calhoun St., opened last month to serve as a place for residents to learn about the riverfront development and downtown revitalization.
Much to come
The Legacy Fund started the year with a balance of nearly $52 million. With interest and continuing payments from I&M, it’s on track to exceed $111 million by 2025. The legacy – established by Mayor Ivan Lebamoff through the electric utility lease agreement 40 years ago, nurtured by the current administration and council and carefully watched by residents – is set to pay off for years.
The wise mix of education, economic development, infrastructure and quality-of-life projects seeded by the Legacy Fund should make Fort Wayne proud.