While local officials are still debating how – and whether – they should raise money toward an $85 million downtown arena, Greater Fort Wayne Inc. officials have chalked the project up as a done deal and moved on to bigger fish.
The nonprofit organization’s 10-year vision for the community includes transforming the so-called north river property into a high-tech learning lab featuring saltwater and fresh water aquariums and an IMAX theater, a project estimated at $180 million in public money. Officials forecast the project would prompt an additional $900 million in private investment.
The proposal, referred to as Steam Park, was unveiled Thursday to Greater Fort Wayne members at Grand Wayne Center for the organization’s annual meeting. About 450 business leaders were expected to attend.
The vision, which includes five key projects, relies on a total of $400 million of public money being spent in hopes of spurring $3.5 billion to $4 billion in private investment. Steam Park construction is forecast for years 2021 to 2025.
A Greater Fort Wayne paper titled "Opportunity on the Edge of Greatness" states: "We will complete these key projects in 10 years."
Four of the five revitalization projects and their price tags are well-known. The list includes: The Landing, $30 million; Fort Wayne riverfront, $100 million; downtown arena, $85 million; and General Electric’s campus, $250 million.
The fifth, which would be on about 30 acres near the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge, previously hasn’t been discussed publicly. Even so, the former OmniSource site has been the subject of speculation for years.
Ron Turpin, chairman of Greater Fort Wayne, described the 10-year vision as a tool for Greater Fort Wayne staff, which has to give business executives a reason to choose Fort Wayne when they’re deciding where to open a new operation.
The organization’s 60-plus member board distilled 20 years of ideas about the city’s and county’s goals into a vision that Eric Doden, Greater Fort Wayne’s CEO, and staff are expected to promote, he said.
"This is not Eric Doden’s vision" or ideas dreamed up by staff, Turpin said. "We pay (staff), basically, to go out and sell a product, and the product is Allen County."
Prospective investors want to know that a community has a long-term vision, Doden said. His organization’s nine key principles "encourage bold vision, tenacious leadership and broad civic infrastructure."
"My job, from my perspective, is to inform the public of the things we need to do to move the needle," Doden said.
That includes his early commitment to a downtown arena months before Mayor Tom Henry’s task force, led by Sweetwater Sound founder Chuck Surack, studied potential demand and recommended the project.
After Doden lays out the type of bold project needed, he thinks it’s up to others to determine whether the ideas are viable. Asked what he would have done if the committee had recommended against an arena, Doden said he would have challenged members to name what they would support in its place to draw thousands downtown even in the winter months.
Greater Fort Wayne was created in 2013 by the merger of the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce and the Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance. The organization bills itself as the "single point of contact for economic growth in Allen County."
A portion of Greater Fort Wayne’s annual revenue comes from city and county tax coffers.
In January, the Fort Wayne City Council withheld half of the city’s annual $250,000 contribution, expressing concern that Greater Fort Wayne officials were lobbying the General Assembly on partisan issues and being too aggressive in dealing with city officials.
Turpin met with the council Tuesday evening to secure the rest of the money and to smooth over what he considers a misunderstanding in how the two entities are related.
"We are a fee-for-service organization," he said Thursday.
That service is doing economic development for the city and county, Turpin added. Any lobbying is done on behalf of Greater Fort Wayne’s members, according to an agenda determined by its board, and not on behalf of Fort Wayne or Allen County, Turpin said.