State tourism generated $12.7 billion in visitor spending in Indiana last year, with Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch noting that Regional Cities programs, which had awarded $42 million in local grants, were helping make the region more welcoming to residents and visitors.
In Fort Wayne, the opportunity to increase the impact of these significant tourism dollars is within reach at the North River (former OmniSource) property.
In the past 10 years, dozens of studies, recommendations and endorsements have made it clear that North River must become (as a 2007 study states) a “family-oriented, local and regional destination that will attract visitors year-round” and that the only attraction to be roundly endorsed for the site is Headwaters Junction.
Headwaters Junction is an attraction that will accomplish many things:
• It will create a “rail-yard park:” an atmospheric, romantic and immersive public space set against the backdrop of industry and connectivity. This will be the type of place you want to take your family, friends and visitors to show off your community.
• It will connect area attractions by way of a trolley and tourist railroad system, making it easy for visitors and residents to visit multiple attractions along our riverfront without ever getting in their car.
• It will house world-famous, operating railroad attractions, an 1879 depot on the National Register of Historic Places, and programming in a landmark structure called a roundhouse, which will be designed for entertainment, education and recreation.
This past December, 6,000 people traveled to the eastern edge of Allen County for the 17th annual Santa Train. Rather than riding along the riverfront or stopping downtown, these passengers – some whom came from more than two hours away – were 10 miles from downtown. Last summer, more than 2,000 people journeyed from more than 30 states and around the world to ride behind the city's vintage steam locomotive and train in Chicago – instead of coming to our riverfront. These popular, sustainable and successful people magnets already exist; they just need a home at North River.
Not only was Headwaters Junction endorsed by the mayor's Legacy Fort Wayne committee in 2011, SWA Group's riverfront master plan in 2015 and made part of the Regional Cities Plan that same year, studies show it would bring 140,000 additional people to our city – year round. This is the type of attraction that will benefit current and future businesses along the riverfront and contribute $60 million to the local economy. What would 15,000 extra visitors mean to downtown in the winter months?
Headwaters Junction was part of the only proposal recently submitted to develop North River. As the city entrusts David Rubin and Land Collective with creating a detailed and comprehensive plan for Phases II and III of the riverfront – including North River – one thing is clear: North River needs Headwaters Junction.
Kelly Lynch is vice president of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society and executive director of Headwaters Junction.