How do you reconcile the limitless promise of Electric Works with the distaste city officials hold for the $280 million public-private partnership? Hours of discussion at Fort Wayne City Council's meeting Tuesday offered insufficient explanation, but a deeper investigation should.
Council members' frustration at answers from Community Development Director Nancy Townsend and Tim Haffner, counsel for the city, was apparent at Tuesday's meeting. Speaking on behalf of Mayor Tom Henry, who declined council's request to speak, the two offered no better explanation for pulling $62 million from the project than the Redevelopment Commission did in voting unanimously to cancel the economic development agreement on Aug. 3.
After three hours of discussion, council voted unanimously to proceed with an investigation of negotiations between the city and the developer. It will consider a resolution authorizing a probe on Tuesday. Much is at stake:
Outside investment: Electric Works represents a massive investment in Fort Wayne at a perilous economic juncture. Outside investment amounts to nearly $100 million, with an additional $86 million in federal and state tax credits paid to northeast Indiana's benefit. Those credits will be lost if the project dies.
Jobs: The investment would fuel an estimated 1,000 construction jobs in the years ahead, and another 1,600 permanent jobs are estimated once the campus is in operation. The total tax revenue impact over 20 years is estimated to be nearly $1 billion, according to the 2017 Novogradac study. The impact on human capital is incalculable, with education, health care and industry employees working side by side.
Regional vitality: Officials throughout northeast Indiana acknowledge the benefits smaller communities derive from Fort Wayne amenities. Proximity to Electric Works' attractions – shops, restaurants, a year-round farmers market and more – would help neighboring cities attract and retain talent.
Neighborhood development: The GE campus isn't going anywhere. Even with the $3 million already invested in cleanup, the factory buildings stand empty and continue to deteriorate. If demolition is the ultimate result, the cost is estimated at $30 million to $40 million.
Integrity: Fort Wayne has garnered much attention for its bold vision for Electric Works, including publicity in national financial publications. The project's demise – and the city's broken relationship with RTM Ventures – is likely to harm the city's ability to tackle new projects, as well as its credibility with state officials who have backed the vision.
Do it Best: The largest privately held company in Indiana has leased about 200,000 square feet of Electric Works. An economic impact study puts the cost of losing its 400 current jobs and another 100 potential hires at $100 million a year. Northeast Indiana simply can't afford to lose a national company's headquarters, its workforce and their contributions to the regional economy.
“I understand that originally Electric Works was a quality-of-life project. We talked about the dollars and cents of it,” Councilman Russ Jehl said Tuesday. “But now it's the No. 1 retention project and our community's reputation is at stake. I don't know how to quantify those two things.”
Who could quantify such a loss? Council is demonstrating its responsibility to taxpayers and to the community at large in demanding to know what went wrong in the public-private partnership and, we hope, in ultimately putting a stronger deal back together.