The Journal Gazette
Sunday, September 03, 2017 1:00 am

Locals see downtown improving

See Parkview Field as spark to revitalizing the area

JAMIE DUFFY | The Journal Gazette

Monte Browning stands on Barthold Street and gestures toward a clump of trees at the end of the block.

“I don't know why they don't make that nicer down there,” Browning says, referring to the River Greenway and St. Marys River that lie at the end of the partially paved road.

The home he owns at the corner of Barthold and High streets has been in his family for three generations. Browning hopes downtown riverfront development plans and the proposed renovation of the former General Electric campus southwest of downtown bring prosperity to his neighborhood that is still strong, but has seen some negative changes.

A couple years ago, a SWAT team waved to him from the backyard next door, shutting down a “spice” house. But he believes Parkview Field, home of the TinCaps, an affiliate of the San Diego Padres, has generated excitement since it opened in 2009 and has spurred downtown investment.

Browning and hundreds of others live within walking distance or a short drive from the core of the city, where developers and government officials are collaborating on some of the biggest investments the city has seen in years. They include the proposed $300 million renovation of the former GE campus, and $26 million for Phase I of the riverfront development.

Those interviewed like the downtown ballpark, but have reservations on other proposals. Others hope the architectural and historical components will be kept.

“I love living close to downtown and watching the fireworks from my porch and the scenery,” Browning said. 

If it weren't for medical bills incurred a few years ago when he was injured in a truck accident, he'd buy more homes in his neighborhood, Browning said. He believes riverfront development could eventually creep north to High Street and the sale of his property could be lucrative. 

Initially, Browning opposed moving the ballpark from its location next to the Memorial Coliseum out north but now believes that Parkview Field was the spark for downtown revitalization.

Cautiously supportive

Julianne “Julie” Scheele and her husband, Scott, both 60, also had a change of heart about moving the ballpark.

Now they are cautiously supportive of the rest of the development boom.

“We like Fort Wayne, because it's not that big,” said Scott Scheele, a retired construction worker. “It seems like they just keep tearing down historical things.”

When they married seven years ago, the Scheeles were thrilled to find the house they rent on Wilt Street, a stone's throw from the red-brick old General Electric campus, which started operations in 1911 and closed three years ago after dramatically reducing its workforce over the years.

The Scheeles' rent is reasonable at $475 a month and Wilt Street is one of the few streets in town paved with red brick.

A large canopy of trees line the sidewalks, even though a lot of trees were lost in a 2012 storm, Julianne Scheele said.

“All the fancy apartments downtown and everything hasn't interfered with our rent,” said Julianne Scheele, a former seamstress for Vera Bradley, who is now disabled and breathes with the help of an oxygen tank.

Her main worry is that her monthly medical bill could increase from $111 to $137 if she is moved to Medicare from the state-offered insurance. She would hate to leave the area.

“We've always been in love with this area and what it means to Fort Wayne,” she said. It's not just the history tied to the old GE campus, but the wealth of arts and crafts people who call the area home, she added.

The neighborhood bordered by Broadway on the east and Jefferson Boulevard on the north is part of the West Central Neighborhood, but the homes there aren't as grand as the ones you find on the other side of Jefferson Boulevard, the Scheeles said.

And the neighborhood has had its share of drug houses, like the streets off Wells Street where Browning lives. There are more problems with drugs as you head south to the railroad tracks, Julianne Scheele said.

'Depends on who they cater to'

Rentals are what bothers Harold Black and his family on Swinney Avenue, south of the old GE factory. Black, 77, has lived on the street since he was 1 year old.

He remembers when people rented out rooms to GE workers during World War II and when the company offered activities for family and the community.

A retired contractor, Black and his wife, Barbara, 74, a former waitress who worked 41 years at Hall's restaurant on Bluffton Road, are focused on their street, paved with red brick.

The brick needs repair and they're frustrated that the city won't get to it. Repairs were done on Grand and Wilt streets, they said, but Harold sees no reason to attend City Council meetings and complain.

“They don't pay attention to us anyway,” he said. The area is technically in the West Central Neighborhood, but “it's known as the cruddy part. We don't get anything done,” he added.

The street is the neighborhood's heart for the Blacks and their daughter, Melisa Cross and her husband, Dave, who live in a house on the other side of Swinney Avenue.

“This street is 100 years old,” Black said as they congregated on his front porch recently.

“I knew a man who laid the brick in 1917. He used to live in the corner house across the street.”

That house is still occupied, but a house across Thompson Street was torn down several years ago. It had been a drug house. Now it's a vacant lot with a nice tree.

The neighborhood “got worse with the drugs,” Barbara Black said. “Rental properties bring in the wrong crowd.”

While Harold Black would like to see the GE buildings rehabbed into another factory, his wife, daughter and son-in-law don't believe that is practical.

Now they back the renovation, but believe that it's a mistake to woo a trendy crowd.

“It depends on who they cater to,” Melisa Cross said. “The hipsters? That only lasts so long.”

Melisa Cross, 36, who is in law enforcement, bought her house 15 years ago. She and Dave, a factory supervisor, believe the downtown ballpark was a good investment. Their sons attend Study Elementary School and they are happy with it.

Taxes are reasonable. Melisa Clark estimated she and her husband pay between $200 and $400 a year. Nearby amenities include Moody Park, where their two sons enjoy playing.

They will wait out the redevelopment, but none of them, including Browning and the Scheeles, are for the proposed downtown arena that has been proposed across from the TinCaps stadium.

“As long as they don't forget about us and as long as there is investment in the areas around it,” Dave Cross said, he is looking forward to most of the coming changes.

For Scott Scheele, that comes with a caveat: “I like the architecture and history. I don't think they should get rid of that.”

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