It's long seemed that Mayor Tom Henry harbors misgivings about the Electric Works project. Now his administration's lack of enthusiasm is on the record just as the Electric Works developers, like nearly everyone else in the world, find their efforts slowed or halted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an interview with The Journal Gazette's Sherry Slater last week, the mayor and Nancy Townsend, the city's redevelopment director, revealed they've had concerns about the development firm behind the multimillion-dollar project from the beginning. That seemed to mesh with years of behind-the-scenes stories of conflict between the mayor's office and RTM Ventures, the development group that proposes to turn the west side of the abandoned GE campus into an office, retail and innovation center.
The interview stemmed from RTM's request for an extension of undetermined length on Thursday's deadline for sealing the $248 million plan. In letters to the developers last week, the city rejected an open-ended extension but indicated it is amenable to considering another extension.
The city's initial response sounded somewhat grudging – as though developers Josh Parker, Jeff Kingsbury and Kevan Biggs were trying to get away with something by citing delays while Allen County is sheltering in place and thousands of Americans are dying from exposure to the coronavirus. A letter from attorney Jon Bomberger on behalf of the city said some of the delays were because of “matters within the developer's control prior to the impact of COVID-19.”
Time seems to move slower these days, but just 21/2 months ago, Henry, Townsend and Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb were among those who gathered on the fifth floor of GE's Building 26 to celebrate the Do it Best Corp.'s decision to move its international headquarters to Electric Works. Beyond affirming Do it Best's long-term commitment to our area and offering the promise of 90 new jobs, the announcement pushed RTM past the city's requirement that at least 200,000 square feet be spoken for before the agreement could be sealed.
“It is a transformational day, it is a historic day, it is a joyous day,” Holcomb said at that Feb. 13 gathering. Though everyone agreed there was more yet to do, the sense was that Electric Works had passed its biggest final hurdle.
Then, of course, the world turned upside down.
Yes, public dollars will be more precious than ever. And yes, it would be frustrating to see the deadlines for this ambitious project once again pushed back.
But whatever matters remained unresolved before the virus hit, RTM's request for more time to close the deal does not seem like a dog-ate-my-homework type of excuse. Remember, none of the $62 million package of local public funds and bonds will be allocated until the deal is proved viable and finalized, and the balance of Electric Works' $248 million cost would be underwritten by private investors and state and federal tax credits. That money could flow into Fort Wayne at a possibly crucial time, creating jobs and bolstering hope that Fort Wayne can regain its economic development momentum.
No one knows how long the COVID-19 crisis will continue. But this would be precisely the wrong moment to give up on the Electric Works dream.