Kelly Lynch's support for the proposed Headwaters Junction development has been unwavering for more than a decade.
He went into a meeting Tuesday evening with high hopes that residents living near the development's proposed site – the North River property – share his commitment.
Headwaters Junction Inc. has partnered with Continental Property Group and Design Collaborative to envision a mixed-use, downtown development that would house the No. 765 steam locomotive with a roundhouse, amid other attractions.
But it had been eight years since the Bloomingdale Neighborhood Association endorsed Headwaters Junction as the best proposal that members had seen at that point. So there were no guarantees.
Although there wasn't a formal vote of support at the end of the hourlong meeting at Hop River Brewing, the 100 or so people gathered asked only a few logistical questions about how often a train would run (not often) and which streets might be opened to accommodate the development (undecided).
Lynch, who spoke about the economic potential of the project, showed slides and short films about Fort Wayne's railroad history. Years ago, he'd made presentations to smaller groups assembled by neighborhood associations.
“Before, it was just hopes and dreams, and now it's this thing that's this close to happening,” he said, holding his thumb and forefinger only slightly separated.
A 2016 feasibility study found that the attraction would bring an additional 140,000 people to downtown Fort Wayne. The expected annual local economic impact is $60 million, Lynch said.
The meeting was scheduled to take place after the city's original due date for detailed project submissions. The plan was to let the train out of the station, so to speak, by revealing all project details to the public.
But because that due date got extended until Aug. 14, the project's leaders chose to keep their plans secret lest they be co-opted by another group at the eleventh hour.
The partnership is among four groups that submitted applications this year when city officials requested qualifications for developing the 29-acre site along Clinton Street just north of downtown.
Biggs Group, Great Lakes Capital and Indiana University Health also submitted paperwork outlining relevant past projects and their public-private partnership experience.
The city's goal, according to the 13-page request for qualification, is to find firms “interested in developing the North River property in a creative way that builds on the community's vision for Riverfront and is compatible with and further catalyzes the surrounding neighborhoods, corridors and the downtown.”
Greater Fort Wayne Inc. has advocated for a STEAM park on the site. STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and math. As envisioned by economic development officials, the park would provide education in all five disciplines and include an entertainment complex and a saltwater aquarium.
Asked Tuesday about what building Headwaters Junction would mean for a STEAM park, Ron Dick, an architect with Design Collaborative, said he believes Headwaters Junction would fulfill the hopes of building an economically viable tourist destination.
While responding to another audience question, Dick said he sees Headwaters Junction and Electric Works, the proposed redevelopment of the former General Electric campus, as complementary projects rather than competing ones.
IU Health has been vague about its vision for the property, saying in March that it would be “a way to explore the opportunity for potential growth” in the community.
Joe Dunaway, Continental Property Group's development director, said after the meeting that the former metals recycling site has some environmental issues that make it viable for a development such as Headwaters Junction.
A health care provider would have to spend significantly more to transform the land into a suitable site for a hospital, but it could be done, he said.
Concerns about contamination at the property prompted some City Council members to vote against the city's $4.63 million purchase of the land. The sales agreement absolves the Rifkin family, who owned the property for many years, from financial liability for future environmental cleanup.
Lynch doesn't harbor any doubts that anyone who experiences the steam locomotive No. 765 will fall in love with it. He hopes they get that chance at Headwaters Junction.
“When you see it, you get it,” he said after the public meeting. “The engine is its own superstar. I'm just its cheerleader.”