It’s official: the city will seek $10 million in Legacy funding for the first phase of the Riverfront Project. The rest of the $20 million project will be sought from Regional Cities funds and private donors.
Getting the request on the table will keep momentum going on a project that’s important not only to Fort Wayne, but to all of Northeast Indiana. Supporters throughout the region understood from the beginning that riverfront development would be the centerpiece of our Regional Cities plan, but the clock is ticking on those funds. And Regional Cities dollars can’t be accessed unless those making the request can demonstrate that the majority of the cost will be covered by other sources.
That, of course, is what makes the Legacy Fund, created through the lease of City Light and Power to Indiana Michigan Power in the 1970s, such a blessing to the community. By consensus, the fund, which now stands at $40 million, has been set aside for "transformational" projects.
If any endeavor meets that definition, it is the effort to transform the downtown riverfront into a destination for walking, boating, dining and educational activities. The city’s first-phase plans are for development on the north and south shores of the St. Marys River between Harrison Street and the Wells Street Bridge. The public portions of that development will include a promenade, park pavilion, streetscape, boardwalk and dock.
The expectation is that developing the riverfront will further spur downtown’s growth by attracting more visitors and encouraging new stores, restaurants and other amenities. The new riverfront will tie in with a network of other plans, including renovation of The Landing, the enhanced arts campus and whatever lies ahead for the old GE campus. All of that, in turn, will improve the quality of life here and make the region a more attractive place for the kinds of workers and businesses we need to lure and keep.
It is a bold plan, but Fort Wayne has the resources to carry it out.
Mayor Tom Henry’s announcement that the request will go before the Legacy Joint Funding Committee on Nov. 9 should end speculation the city was simply planning to gobble up all of the Legacy Fund as the Riverfront Project gets underway. In September, the City Council, citing uncertainty about the size of the pending request, moved to freeze any other Legacy grants for the rest of the year.
That probably was unnecessary, considering that only one Legacy funding request has been approved by the council since the review committee came into existence in fall 2014 – a previous $6 million grant for the riverfront’s planning and acquisition stage. Fortunately, those fears helped the council settle on a wise alternative for helping other transformationally inclined projects: giving out loans from the Legacy Fund, rather than grants.
Such loans, which have been proposed for the Botanical Walkway and Clyde Theatre projects, are a good way to stretch Legacy dollars.
But the concept of "saving" the rest of the Legacy Fund for future generations isn’t the wisest choice. We have an opportunity to move forward now with a bold, innovative plan that could be far more meaningful than setting aside a pot of money for future generations in Fort Wayne and northeast Indiana.