The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, July 15, 2020 1:00 am

North River plan for Junction over

New site sought after city moves to assume purchase of acreage


The prospect of the Headwaters Junction railroad attraction being stationed at Fort Wayne's North River property has vanished like steam from a locomotive.

Kelly Lynch, executive director of Headwaters Junction, said Tuesday the project has reached “a pivot” with the city's redevelopment commission's vote Monday to assume a 2019 Headwaters purchase agreement for 7.5 acres of Norfolk Southern railroad right-of-way.

Headwaters Junction officials supported the commission's action, but they will now have to find an alternative location, Lynch said. Details of that plan have yet to be worked out, he said.

City support for the Headwaters Junction North River plan had been lacking, Lynch said.

“I think the city envisions something different” than the project proposed, he said, adding the commission's action also means proposed steam train rides and other excursions linked to Headwaters Junction are on hold.

While acknowledging Monday's redevelopment commission action is a setback, Lynch said the agreement represents progress.

“I think for the first time we have a very clear commitment from the city to develop a regional attraction” linked to the city's railroad history, he said. “We're no longer out there alone.”

City officials signaled a willingness to continue to work with the proposed railroad attraction's leaders in a statement issued Monday.

“I want to thank the Headwaters Junction board of directors for transferring the purchase agreement to the Redevelopment Commission, and I look forward to working with them as they bring their vision of creating a vibrant regional destination to life,” Nancy Townsend, director of redevelopment, said in the statement.

After the meeting, Townsend said the property along the north side of the St. Marys River was needed for “public access” to the riverfront but also might be used for large-scale development in combination with other land. Money to support the Redevelopment Commission's action – $468,000 from local income tax revenues – still must be approved by City Council.

The fate of Headwaters' North River and railroad right-of-way plan dimmed in December when it was not included in Phase 2 of the riverfront development plan advanced by Philadelphia-based consultant David Rubin Land Collective.

“The prospect of using the abandoned rail line on the north side of the St. Marys River would compromise the top priorities for the next phases of riverfront development,” wrote Paul Spoelhof, director of planning for the city's community development department in an opinion piece published by The Journal Gazette in late December. 

“There is not enough physical space for both an active rail line and moving the levee in Bloomingdale Park to increase floodwater storage and allow for future private development along Superior Street,” he continued. “Additionally, reinstalling a railroad adjacent to the levees ensures that those flood walls and berms will continue to prevent access to the rivers.”

“Finally, using land that is adjacent to the rivers for a railroad will reduce prime development opportunities for the shopping, housing and restaurants that will deliver year-round activity and energy in the Riverfront District” and generate tax revenue, Spoelhof wrote.

The piece also suggested other rail lines could be used to run the historic 765 steam locomotive. The piece promised city leaders would work to find a location that will make the project work.

After the Redevelopment Commission's vote, Don Steininger, president and chairman of Headwaters Junction, compared the action to giving the city something it needed and asked in exchange for city “cooperation” down the road.

Lynch compared the group's securing the purchase agreement in the first place to “advance work” that helps the city hasten its riverfront plans, although that wasn't the original intention.

“We saved the city a lot of time and money from making this (purchase agreement) deal,” he said, adding the next steps are developing funding and programming along with finding a new location.

“It's kind of ground zero again,” Lynch said, “but with the city with us; ... with city buy-in.”

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