A retired business owner inspired by downtown Fort Wayne's renaissance is hoping to spark a similar comeback for the city's southeast side.
Jim Vann, majority shareholder of Rea Magnet Wire Co. Inc., has donated the manufacturer's former headquarters and surrounding 141/2 acres at 3600 E. Pontiac St. to the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department.
The parks department is eyeing the property near International Harvester's iconic brick tower as a future maintenance facility.
But before that can happen, Steve McDaniel, the parks department's director, needs an undetermined amount of money to evaluate and renovate the 75,000-square-foot building. Just as important – or maybe more so – is his plan to ask families living near the site what they want to see at the property.
Vann believes the project could inspire others to help revitalize the neighborhood where generations of Rea workers have lived.
“My hope is to use this donation as a catalyst for attracting other interest from local foundations,” Vann said. “Fort Wayne has proven in the past that when we combine our financial resources with our citizen's give-back spirit, we can do a lot of good.”
One possibility being considered for the property is a series of greenhouses that would grow plants to be placed in city parks and become a destination for school children to learn about gardening. But the only way that project could succeed, the men say, is if the surrounding community supports the still-evolving vision.
'Really big challenge'
Terri Theisen agrees. She's sensitive to the idea of outsiders coming in and telling a community what it needs.
The horticulture and urban agriculture educator with Purdue Extension-Allen County manages the Johnnie Mae Farm at 2518 Winter St.
“It's been a really big challenge because we don't have the community buy-in,” she said during a phone interview.
The urban farm in southeast Fort Wayne opened its produce stand in 2018, part of city officials' effort to revitalize the Renaissance Pointe neighborhood. Experts saw a food desert, where residents didn't have easy access to nutritious fresh food, so they created an urban farm without consulting residents, Theisen said.
Many of the neighborhood's residents are single mothers who are busy raising children and “working their butts off” at minimum-wage jobs, she said.
“A lot of these people just don't have time to grow their own food,” she said.
During discussions with neighbors, Theisen never heard anyone say their priority was access to fresh food. Instead, she said, residents talked about wanting a safe community with places their children could play and spend time with friends.
Johnnie Mae Farm has responded by offering various youth activities in a safe environment. The staff also teaches kids about honeybees, recycling, birding, plants, food, health, nutrition, and gardening.
Mike Connolly, Vann's son-in-law and point person for the Rea property donation, has been in conversation with McDaniel for about 15 months.
The Pontiac Street site had to undergo environmental testing and get a clean bill of health before parks officials and Fort Wayne City Council would officially accept the gift on April 12. Parks officials also reviewed priorities for their inventory of 87 parks on 2,800 acres.
McDaniel realized his department's two maintenance operations will need a new home within the next few years. The facility in Lawton Park near downtown will likely be displaced in favor of future riverfront development, he said. And the maintenance building in Franke Park stands in the way of creating a more attractive entrance to that park.
Preliminary studies show the former Rea building could hold the combined operation, which includes a fleet of trucks, trailers and mowers. McDaniel plans to bring in architects and engineers to evaluate what upgrades might be necessary to make the building fully functional for its proposed uses. That process could take anywhere from one to 10 years, he estimated.
The property's outdoor fenced area would be suitable for the piles of wood chips and stacks of logs the parks department generates when it removes trees, McDaniel said.
The remaining land could house greenhouses, replacing the ones now in Lawton Park, where staff gardeners germinate seeds and grow the 80,000 plants that are transferred to the city's parks each year, he said.
The greenhouses also grow plants given to students in kindergarten through fourth grade at the end of each school year. The children are asked to care for the plants over the summer and return them for a blue ribbon show when they return in the fall. McDaniel would like to continue educational programs in the new location.
All that, he said, depends on gaining community support.
“We don't want to just say, 'We're going to do this and hope it works for you,'” McDaniel said. “We want to be good neighbors.”
Connolly expressed deep respect for McDaniels and his staff.
“We have put the property in very capable hands,” he said, “and really look forward to growing our partnership.”
'The right thing'
Relocating the park's maintenance operation would bring about 80 workers to the Harvester neighborhood every workday, creating new customers for nearby restaurants and other businesses.
Vann, who now lives in Denver with his wife, Lee, hopes other land owners in the neighborhood will find more productive uses for their holdings, too.
“The southeast side was the cradle of manufacturing for Fort Wayne and was the economic engine for our city's growth and prosperity,” he said. “Repurposing some of those assets is timely and the right thing to do.”
The Pontiac Street facility sat empty for about six years.
After Rea Magnet Wire acquired the former Phelps Dodge magnet wire operation, the company consolidated production into the newer, larger facility at 4300 New Haven Ave. In 2015, the company moved its headquarters operation to 3200 Coliseum Blvd. E.
Vann said he hopes to eventually move the headquarters into the New Haven Avenue building, putting the entire local workforce under one roof. Rea employs more than 750 in North America, including about 250 in Fort Wayne.
The company operates production facilities in Fort Wayne, Lafayette, Connecticut, Virginia and Mexico. Rea also has significant joint venture operations in China.
Although the company received several inquiries from people interested in buying the Pontiac Street property, Vann preferred to donate it to the parks department.
Although Connolly has contacted three assessors, none has yet been able to fit the property into his busy schedule.
The Allen County assessor's office has valued 3600 E. Pontiac St. at $219,600.
The gift wasn't Vann's first to the parks department. In 2002, Vann donated a 5.5-acre parcel for what is now Rea Park on the north side of Pontiac.
Rea Magnet Wire's mission statement includes the following: “Rea will be socially responsible and will endeavor to improve quality of life in the communities in which we operate.”
In addition to the property, the Vann Family Foundation has committed $50,000 for Harvester Community outreach educational programs that will be developed by the parks department.
“The most important thing is to match our funding to the needs of the immediate community,” Vann said. “Building a strong community and improving the quality of life is front of mind for us.”