Of all the daring and visionary projects to appear on Fort Wayne's horizon, surely the most unexpected and ambitious has been the plan to transform the aging, shuttered General Electric Co. campus into a dynamic retail, residential, commercial and educational center.
Last week, the project took a big step toward becoming a reality. RTM Ventures, the consortium formed to develop what will be called the Electric Works, purchased the 39-acre campus from GE for $5.5 million.
That's a small fraction of the projected $284 million that needs to be invested before the project's developers can do for Fort Wayne what the visionaries who created the American Tobacco Campus did for Durham, North Carolina.
Community leaders who have toured that campus believe a combination of historic charm and cutting-edge hip could work here. There is a full-color rendering of young people wandering walkways with pools, fountains and shops in vintage buildings with fresh-cleaned walls and gleaming windows.
But tour groups and pretty sketches only mean something if you close the deals. Now RTM Ventures – the letters stand for Ranald T. McDonald, the first president of GE-Fort Wayne's predecessor – is moving to the second stage.
That means working with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management on a plan to remove contaminants from the campus. Developer Kevan Biggs told The Journal Gazette's Sherry Slater last week RTM has budgeted $3.5 million to $9 million for the cleanup. The cost will depend on how much lead is found in paint in the buildings.
All along, the cost of decontamination has been considered the wild card in determining the viability of the century-old campus. John Urbahns, Greater Fort Wayne's executive vice president of economic development, said he's confident RTM has a good handle on the situation. “If they didn't think it was doable, they wouldn't have closed” on the real estate, he said in an interview Tuesday.
In addition to the remediation requirements, RTM needs to nail down its options for federal and state historic-area tax credits. Monday, the Fort Wayne Historic Preservation Commission voted to send a draft of a nomination to place the campus on the National Register of Historic Places to the state historical association. The nomination was prepared by an Oregon consultant on behalf of RTM – the latest sign that the developers plan to preserve most or all of the old GE structures.
Though no tax increases are currently planned, City Council may decide to create another tax increment finance district for the project, and there could be requests for Legacy Fund support.
Until the developers have worked through some of those questions, it will be difficult to set timetables and get commitments from prospective tenants. “'Til they have a good, clear date, it would be hard to get people to sign up,” Urbahns said.
“I'm very optimistic,” he said. “It's a good sign that they've closed on the property.”
Lots of hard work is ahead, and lots of potential investors have to be convinced the project is viable. But there were those who believed GE would never relinquish its old campus. Even if it did, some believed, no one would be interested in the site. We've already come a long way.