The vacant General Electric campus offers a world of possibilities for its new owners, not the least of which is a large education component attracting interest from some local schools.
Developers envision an innovation district, with education essential to its development. That could include K-12 schools through post-college, said Jeff Kingsbury, managing principal with the Indianapolis firm Greenstreet Ltd., one of the partners developing the property.
"We can envision the whole spectrum of education offerings that could happen in and around the campus," said Kingsbury, a Fort Wayne native. "We see education as being a critical foundation to the development of a district because of the talent driver."
IPFW, Ivy Tech Community College Northeast and the University of Saint Francis have solicited information about the project, officials at those schools say. Wendy Robinson, superintendent of Fort Wayne Community Schools, expressed her interest when the sale was announced last month.
An arts and special interest center similar to New York’s Chautauqua Institution for continuing education has potential, said Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, who led roundtable discussions last year regarding future use of the GE campus.
"It would have to be an educational use that is probably a destination location kind of thing," he said.
In announcing the purchase of the GE property last month, Cross Street Partners of Baltimore, another development partner, said it envisions creating places where people can work, play, learn and live. Space for education is tentatively set at 277,000 square feet. That’s more than allotted for retail and office space combined and the largest except housing, which is 342,000 square feet.
Cross Street developed part of the American Tobacco Campus in Durham, North Carolina. That campus has a mix of more than 100 business, restaurant, entertainment, entrepreneur and education tenants.
According to its website, education tenants include The Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham and Duke Corporate Education, a "global provider of customized leadership solutions." It also provides space for American Underground, "featuring premier accelerator and incubator programs, a tech training academy, and 10-15 person startups."
Durham is in the Research Triangle, which refers to universities, businesses and labs in that city, Raleigh and Chapel Hill.
Wabash County’s Manchester University, which has a pharmacy school in Fort Wayne, and Indiana Tech, with a Fort Wayne campus just east of downtown, have no plans to pursue a piece of the GE site, school representatives said.
Trine University in Angola has a presence in Fort Wayne, but President Earl Brooks said he is open to discussions about the campus.
"I really haven’t heard enough about the educational components to know what exactly that means," Brooks said last month. "Is it higher ed? Is it a higher-ed consortium? We’re open to any dialogue or discussion along those lines but haven’t been involved at this point. But I wouldn’t rule it out if there’s opportunity."
Rumored interest by the University of Notre Dame is apparently just that. School spokesman Dennis K. Brown said the school has "nothing planned along these lines."
Area schools that acknowledge an interest in the GE campus say it’s too early to discuss specifics.
Robinson showed up at last month’s announcement with children from Fairfield Elementary School, several blocks southeast of the campus.
"I know that part of the reason Dr. Robinson was at the kick-off press conference was because of the education possibilities, but I don’t think there have been any formal conversations at this point," district spokeswoman Krista Stockman said in an email response.
Ivy Tech has had "exploratory conversations, along with other partners" about opportunities available by locating programs at the GE site, spokesman Andrew Welch said.
IPFW has not had contact with the GE developer but informally solicited information "from a variety of sources" for reference, spokeswoman Kimberly Wagner said.
"As you are well aware, there are many changes ahead for the university, and with the changes, there is plenty of opportunity," Wagner said in an email. "We are just gathering information to keep in mind as we look towards the future of this great institution."
IPFW is navigating a split between partners Indiana and Purdue universities to take effect July 1, 2018.
Anchor institutions for the campus’s educational component would be colleges, universities, academic medical centers and cultural institutions that would "cluster and connect" with startups and new ventures, Kingsbury said.
While Fort Wayne has the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, Kingsbury sees the planned district as supporting the region’s efforts to foster innovation. He said he also believes an urban destination, with a mix of uses, represents the future of such centers.
Preservation of the GE campus was the No. 1 concern that surfaced in the three community discussions Downs moderated that were convened by City Councilman Geoff Paddock, D-5th. Using the site as a destination to attract visitors was No. 2.
Downs raised the possibility of tying educational experiences to the businesses that locate there. "Then you start to get a very interesting synergy," he said. Companies send employees for educational training; educational enterprises have companies teach courses.
The campus also could attract retirees and others for short-term, learning vacations, similar to those offered by the Chautauqua Institution in southwestern New York state, Downs said.
The institution enrolls more than 8,000 students annually in the Chautauqua Summer Schools, which offer courses in art, music, dance, theater, writing skills and a variety of special interests, according to its website.
Some retired people hang out on college campuses during summer when students are gone, and maybe take a class, Downs said.
"They’re retired. They want to keep their mind active. Being on a college campus is a nice thing to do, a nice place to be," he said. "Theoretically, someone could decide to maybe try and start a business of that, if they wanted to. With good enough reputation, it would draw."
The notion of bringing people into the community to have a immersive experience is possible, Kingsbury said.
"Yeah, I can see something like that," he said. "You’ve got those kinds of uses in the plan that would allow for that."