The Journal Gazette
Sunday, December 15, 2019 1:00 am


An economic steam engine

Headwaters Junction offers the 'wow' factor that's needed in riverfront's next phases

About 40,000 passengers, young and old, will board a train in Akron, Ohio, for a pretend trip to the North Pole this holiday season, with Christmas carols, hot cocoa and Santa, of course. Sound like fun? Sorry – the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad's Polar Express trips sold out quickly, as they do each year.

The opportunity for a holiday train excursion or a summer trolley ride to the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo was the sort of attraction we hoped to see when the Land Collective unveiled designs for the next phases of riverfront development earlier this month. Promenade Park was an instant hit when it opened last summer, and the design group's proposals for a second and third phase of development promise more of it. But more river overlooks and walkways winding past restaurants, retail and condominium developments seem a bit, well – underwhelming. Where is the year-round attraction that will draw residents and visitors to the riverfront repeatedly? Where's the “wow” factor? Where is Headwaters Junction?

“This is about you. It's about a reflection of your interests and your city,” David Rubin, founder and principal for the Philadelphia-based Land Collective, told audiences at the Park Foundation Pavilion before sharing the latest proposals. The new designs are for areas immediately east and west of Promenade Park and along the riverfront at Bloomingdale and Guildin parks.

Judi Wire, a member of the Riverfront Advisory Committee and vice president of the Wells Corridor Business Association, said merchants in the area are excited about the development plans in the area of the old Wells Street bridge, but hoped for more.

“We would like to see something on North River property that complements Science Central – some type of attraction,” she said. “We did talk about it on the (Riverfront Advisory Committee). I would say we were hoping for a bit more.”

The proposal succeeds in Land Collective's goal of connecting neighborhoods to the riverfront, in creating inviting entrances to it and in respecting the dynamics of a river that routinely overspills its banks.

It also emphasizes what some residents long have been calling for: return on investment, in the form of projects that will generate tax revenue. Renderings highlight places to “build on current private development successes, such as the Superior Lofts, the Boutique Hotel, The Landing, the Premier Riverfront site, and The Lofts at Headwaters Park.” 

A railroad-themed attraction proposed for a portion of the North River site might seem contrary to those goals. It is not.

• Railroad operations are a part of Fort Wayne's fabric, as authentic as its three rivers and its canals. Locomotives and freight cars were built here and neighborhoods grew up around the train yards. Fort Wayne was the largest railroad city between Altoona, Pennsylvania, and Chicago.

• Headwaters Junction is a natural fit with the St. Marys River, the riverfront and adjacent neighborhoods. The proposal is to operate excursion trips and a trolley on a limited basis, primarily on weekends and for special events. Imagine those Polar Express trips, the Easter Bunny Express, Ghost Train and more.

• Created as a nonprofit, Headwaters Junction won't be subject to taxes. But it is likely to serve as an economic engine every bit as mighty as the vintage steam locomotive that will serve as its centerpiece. Now operating out of New Haven, the 765 draws thousands of passengers and onlookers for its limited excursions, including train enthusiasts from around the world. Headwaters Junction is projected to draw as many as 146,000 visitors a year, with a total economic impact of about $65 million. “This is a significant regional and local impact,” concludes a 2018 analysis by Stone Consulting.

There's much to like in Land Collective's plan. Add Headwaters Junction and the next phase of riverfront development really picks up steam.

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