In a 7-2 vote, the Fort Wayne City Council on Tuesday approved a $10 million appropriation from the city’s Legacy Fund to pay for Phase 1A of the city’s downtown riverfront development project.
With an overall price tag of about $20 million, project plans include a riverfront promenade, green space and pavilion on the south bank, as well as a tree canopy trail, children’s play area and river access point on the north bank.
In addition to Legacy Fund money, $5 million is expected to come from private donors such as the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne and the Park Foundation. Additionally, officials plan to make a request to northeast Indiana’s Regional Development Authority for $5 million in Regional Cities Initiative funds.
Late Tuesday, Mayor Tom Henry released a statement applauding the council for its decision.
"I’m encouraged by this evening’s vote as we came together united to approve Legacy funding for riverfront development," Henry said. "Investing in our riverfront will assist us in the continued efforts to make Fort Wayne a point of destination. The positive momentum and excitement we’re experiencing in our community and region will be enhanced by our collective commitment to developing the riverfront."
The Legacy Fund consists of money from the lease and sale of Fort Wayne’s old power utility. Northeast Indiana was one of three regions that won $42 million this year through the state’s Regional Cities Initiative to put toward funding transformational projects that will make the regions more attractive to a young, talented workforce.
The request generated controversy among some council members in the months leading up to Tuesday’s vote. Some have expressed concerns about the health of the Legacy Fund moving forward, should the request be granted.
"Even our best cash-flow projections puts us dangerously close to the $30 million corpus," said Councilman Paul Ensley, R-1st.
Citing conceptual designs unveiled in February 2015 that portrayed investment from private entities such as restaurants and hotels, Ensley also questioned whether a public park was the best use of the funds requested, especially since the new park will connect to Headwaters Park.
Because the current owners of the property refused to sell, the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department, which is heading the construction of the riverfront park, decided to use eminent domain proceedings to acquire the land, said Mark Becker, parks department deputy director, who is leading the riverfront project. Properties acquired under eminent domain are restricted to public use.
"So I would argue though that this will be, as it’s designed, a major catalyst for private investment in that area, just as we’ve seen from Harrison Square on the south edge of downtown a few years ago," Becker said. "We’ve already got property owners approaching the city for information on available property, we’ve got individuals looking to acquire property. Nobody wants to sell, candidly."
Parks Director Al Moll added that the focus from the outset has been on something that’s been supported by the community.
"I would say from any type of temperature reading we’ve done on the project, we’ve vetted this with the community for two years, we’ve got private funding," Moll said. "Very rarely do you get a $5 million component to go out to put to a public, free-use project."
Councilman Geoff Paddock, D-6th, said he believes the new riverfront park will complement Headwaters rather than usurp its business.
Other concerns included the amount of parking available for patrons of the proposed park. Design Collaborative’s Ron Dick said there is street parking along Harrison and Superior streets, as well as along Wells Street near Fort Wayne Outfitters. Dick also said there have been discussions about the potential for creating additional parking near the north bank. However, there have been no discussions about what that would cost or whether an additional Legacy Fund request would be required, Dick said. Currently, the park’s design is intended to promote street parking and the use of other downtown parking structures.
Design Collaborative is part of the Riverworks Design Group, which also includes Forum Studio, Hoch Associates, Engineering Resources and American Structurepoint.
"My concern is especially with this being accessible for the elderly and the handicapped, it has to be truly accessible, and if you’re to bring hundreds of thousands of people to this park, you can’t do it with on-street parking," said Council President Russ Jehl, R-2nd.
Ensley and Councilman Jason Arp, R-4th, cast the only votes in opposition to the request.