The reimagining of downtown Fort Wayne had just gotten under way when House Bill 1514 squeaked through the Indiana legislature on the last day of the 2009 session. It's interesting to ponder what might have happened if the determined, bipartisan effort to get the bill through had failed. Or rather, what might not have happened.
The measure was an effort to redirect some of the revenue from Allen County's food and beverage tax, which had been created in the 1980s to pay off the bonds for Memorial Coliseum construction; a growing portion of that revenue was no longer needed for the Coliseum bonds. HB 1514 changed the name of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Convention and Tourism Board, technically a capital improvement board that oversaw the Grand Wayne Center, to the Allen County-Fort Wayne Capital Improvement Board, and put the board in charge of investing food-and-beverage revenue in projects of public interest.
By themselves, those changes, which created no new taxes or significant costs, were not of great concern to lawmakers from other parts of the state. But the changes were part of House Bill 1604, which also addressed controversial aspects of Indianapolis' Capital Improvement Board. “These bills, they take on water,” state Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, recalled last week. “The heavier they get, the more likely they might sink.”
On the session's last day, concerned that HB 1604 might not make it, GiaQuinta, then chairman of the House Rules Committee, transferred the Allen-related changes into HB 1514, which also contained legislation for Bloomington and Evansville. With support from lawmakers from those areas as well, GiaQuinta recalled, HB 1514 passed the House 20 minutes before adjournment. Two members of the local Republican delegation, Sen. Tom Wyss and Senate President Pro Tem David Long, shepherded it through the Senate.
Since HB 1514 went into effect 10 years ago this week, the board's careful channeling of what is now about $6 million a year in tax revenue has helped get many of the area's most ambitious efforts under way. They include the Riverfront Project, the Skyline Garage, two downtown hotels and the planned expansion of the Civic Center Parking Garage. Potentially, the board's most significant venture has been its willingness to commit $45 million in bonding to the Electric Works project – crucial to the deal that is slated to come together later this year.
“It was significant,” recalled John Stafford, who once was a member of the Convention and Tourism board and now is a consultant to the CIB. “It gave us a source of revenue that we could use for major economic development projects that wasn't previously available – a tool that many major communities have. ... Legislators were fairly specific that we don't want this to be used for something that is an ordinary expenditure for local government. We want it to be used for activities that enhance the economy of Allen County. I think it has fulfilled that expectation.”
Under the new arrangement, the board retained the same structure as the old Convention and Tourism Board: Three members were appointed by the county commissioners, three were appointed by the mayor and those six members selected the board's chairman.
“To my mind,” Stafford said, “the legislators were looking for an entity that would represent both city and county interests, as opposed to giving a portion of the money to the city and a portion of the money to the county.”
It turned out to be an effective vehicle to channel public revenue toward development projects.
Getting HB 1514 passed, Gia-Quinta said, was one of the moments he's proudest of as a legislator. “When you look back on it after 10 years,” he said, “I think it was in some respects kind of ahead of its time.” Parkview Field had just opened that spring, and many still feared that it had been a costly mistake. The bill's authors even had to write in a phrase making it clear no food-and-beverage taxes would be used to support the baseball stadium.
Change and transformation have become a way of life in Fort Wayne. Foresight and smart horsetrading by a bipartisan group of legislators helped lay some of the groundwork for what's going on today.