The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, December 02, 2015 1:01 pm

Future unsure for GE's crowded campus

Paul Wyche The Journal Gazette

Preservationist Michael Galbraith would love to say new designs for the GE campus are sitting on a prominent Fort Wayne developer’s desk.

He can’t.

But area business leaders have their eyes on the General Electric Co. grounds. It is a complex that spans more than 30 acres and has been in the city since the 19th century.

Galbraith knows that Fort Wayne’s skyline may lose the familiar GE logo that sits atop one of its Swinney Avenue buildings. The possibility of that loss has grown since demolition began on one of 13 structures in February.

Dealing with the company’s departure isn’t just a matter of saving a sign for its historical significance. Economic development officials, historians and neighbors want to know what’s going to happen to a one-time beacon of business prosperity.

Last January, the company said it would close its last two Fort Wayne operations, which eliminated 88 jobs and moved the work to Monterrey, Mexico, in a cost-saving move. GE employed 28 workers at a local motor-testing lab and 60 at its executive center on Coliseum Boulevard.

Mayor Tom Henry has said the city is working collaboratively with GE, but there is no timetable to repurpose the campus. City spokesman John Perlich said talks are in the early process and would not discuss possibilities for the property.

Galbraith is optimistic.

"We’re hopeful someone will step up to the plate," Galbraith said. "A community needs a sense of place, and reuse of cultural assets is important. You need to live in a place that has some character to it."

So what could be done? Some local developers say the GE campus is too crowded, the buildings will be expensive to renovate, and reuse of the property isn’t likely to include a company like General Electric.

Don Steininger, president of Steininger Development, has built several commercial projects in Fort Wayne, including the Chapel Ridge shopping center on Maysville Road. Steininger also is building a $7 million shopping plaza on the southeast corner of Diebold and East Dupont roads.

Steininger thinks the future of the GE campus is mixed-use.

"The campus has potential for lofts, residential in general. And if it’s residential, you have to open things up so you can breathe. There needs to be green space," Steininger said.

"I know it’s difficult to talk about, but we just have to swallow it and realize that some, if not most, of those buildings will have to go. We might be able to salvage some of them. But there’s no way we’re going to save the whole thing. Without question, you have to start with the residential portion because that’s going to drive everything. People need services; services don’t need people."

Developer Jerry Henry of Midwest Pipe & Steel envisions "some sort of residential, similar to Randall Lofts."

Randall Lofts is a mixed-use, $7.5 million, five-story complex, where renovations were completed last summer. It sprang from a historic building at South Harrison and Pearl streets and includes 44 one- and two-bedroom apartments.

"I could see something like that working," Henry said. "I see young families being able to walk to Parkview Field and the parks nearby. If that happens, you might just have something."

The developer added that maintaining old buildings is difficult, and utility costs can be sky-high in the winter.

He has some experience with GE, having bought its Winter Street plant in the 1980s. Among his other endeavors, Henry created Paragon Tube Corp. at 1605 Winter St. The company makes steel tubes for automotive, agricultural and other industries.

Bill Bean believes exercising patience is the best way to approach the GE campus. While nobody wants the space to become an eyesore, Bean said focusing on projects in Fort Wayne’s downtown area makes more sense.

"I think the jury is still out as to what to do with the (GE) site," Bean said. "I’ve been through several of the buildings at the GE campus over the years, and they can be adapted for commercial and light industrial use."

He doesn’t see the same residential potential that Steininger and Jerry Henry do.

"Residential just doesn’t jump out at me for that location, even though it is (near) many of downtown’s major venues. We started migrating away from the central core years ago, and that’s why we’re having to build downtown back up. To me, it’s better to fill the holes we have first."

Bean’s downtown loyalty is well-founded. His company, Hanning & Bean Enterprises Inc., in October agreed to pay more than $11 million to buy downtown’s tallest building, the former One Summit Square. The 27-story landmark is now called Indiana Michigan Power Center, after the utility agreed to a naming-rights deal that will keep the business downtown through 2031.

As for the GE campus, it will have to wait.

GE spokesman Matt Conkrite said conversations with the city are ongoing about the plant that in its heyday employed more than 10,000 workers. Today, GE has fewer than 10 salespeople working remotely in Fort Wayne.

"We’re continuing with our mothballing and cleanup at the campus," Conkrite said. "At this point, nothing definite has been presented. There are a lot of ideas about it being able to be this or that. Right now, though, there is nothing on the table."


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