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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, November 14, 2015 10:09 pm

Bring good things to life at GE site

The effort to reimagine the collection of now-unused GE buildings just southwest of downtown Fort Wayne seems to be gathering some momentum.

For the past six months, an unofficial group of citizens led by City Councilman Geoff Paddock, D-5th, has been meeting to talk over ideas for using some of the 12 buildings that are still standing. They’ve kicked around such possibilities as using some of the space for lofts, apartments,  shops, businesses – even a movie production studio.

GE itself, which has been circumspect on its plans for the site, met with Mayor Tom Henry and others recently and appears receptive to ideas.

  "We don’t want to keep the property," company spokesman Matt Conkrite said Friday. "We want to work with the city to redevelop it."

Two organizations will join Paddock’s ad hoc group to try to get wider feedback on the most promising proposals.

Greater Fort Wayne Inc. and IPFW’s Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics will help organize more structured public discussions that will be moderated by the center’s director, Andrew Downs. Downs first will have smaller meetings with whom Paddock called "stakeholders" in the matter, including neighbors, businesspeople in the area, college students and community leaders.

Paddock said Friday his group is interested in the success other cities have had in repurposing old factory campuses. He’s particularly intrigued by a restoration project at the 800,000-square-foot former Studebaker Corp. assembly plant in South Bend. According to the South Bend Tribune, a developer has finished removing such hazards as peeling lead paint, asbestos and PCBs and is preparing to turn the building and two smaller structures into a technology center he says may employ 3,000 people.

There are Fort Wayne stories to draw from as well, including Science Central (the old City Light and Power building), Randall Lofts (a former warehouse) and Superior Lofts (the former Graphic Packaging building). Of course, nothing the size of the giant GE facilities has been repurposed here.

"This is a huge, old facility, so this is proving to be quite a challenge," Paddock said. It’s clear to him all or most of the funding would have to be private.

GE spokesman Matt Conkrite said Friday his company isn’t involved in the effort to get public input here. But he said GE officials "met informally" with city and Greater Fort Wayne officials last week. "We talked mainly about the safety of the sites," Conkrite said. "We’ve had some vandalism and some intrusions recently" and the company wanted to make sure the buildings and the neighborhood were kept safe.

In an email, city spokesperson John Perlich described the meeting as "a productive discussion."

"We realize this is an effort that’s going to take time," Perlich wrote. "No specific plans are in place at this time, but we’re encouraged by GE’s ongoing willingness to meet with us to see what options could be possible for the property."

The ultimate fate of the GE campus, so big and so close to Fort Wayne’s thriving downtown, should concern everyone who wants to see the city continue to prosper. The public discussions being planned should play a key role in whatever solutions to the empty GE site are found.