In spring 2015, City Councilman Geoff Paddock convened a series of informal discussions about what could be done with the huge but empty General Electric campus just southwest of downtown. The first two times they met, there wasn't even an agenda.
“I thought at least we'd get together and talk about some ideas,” Paddock said then. “If nothing comes of it, at least we tried.”
Those meetings spawned a citizens group called the General Electric Campus Coalition. By the following January, Greater Fort Wayne and IPFW had gotten involved, hosting brainstorming sessions and sharing the results with GE, which had been characteristically silent about its plans for the site.
In February 2017, GE announced plans to sell the campus to a consortium of developers that became RTM Ventures. Greater Fort Wayne CEO Eric Doden who, with Mayor Tom Henry's office, had worked steadily behind the scenes, said he and the developers envisioned something along the lines of the hugely successful American Tobacco Campus in Durham, North Carolina.
Then came a long gestation period in which the developers blazed an endless trail of PowerPoint presentations around the region, sharing their vision for a center that would encompass residences, offices, health and educational facilities, and space for entrepreneurs to share and grow their own ideas. They showed how the proposed center now known as Electric Works could fit squarely into Fort Wayne's efforts to improve quality of life and compete for new businesses and new workers.
From the beginning, it had been clear that Electric Works would never become a reality without a substantial investment of public funds. The funding plan passed a crucial test Tuesday night, when the City Council preliminarily voted to commit $10 million in Legacy funds and $3.5 million in local income tax money.
There are other tests ahead. But the odds that Electric Works will become a reality are improving rapidly, and not just because six members of the City Council had the courage to put public funds behind it. Other entities and individuals already have stepped up. Indiana Tech, Fort Wayne Community Schools and, just before Tuesday's vote, Parkview Health have declared their interest in the project. Property values are said to be on the upswing as residents of nearby neighborhoods have begun to spruce up their homes. Even in this election season, yard signs supporting the idea seem to have kept pace with political signs.
If Electric Works succeeds, the best part of all will be how it began, in a meeting room where residents who cared about Fort Wayne's history and future thought about GE and dared to ask: Could something be done with that place?