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Last updated: Sun. Nov. 18, 2012 - 01:01 am EDT

Iconic GE site’s future: Blight or a new light?

Company, city officials discuss likely uses

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FORT WAYNE — It sits on property at least four times the size of Harrison Square, looming over the southern edge of downtown like a giant question mark.

It has been decades since the General Electric campus along Broadway generated the frenetic buzz that comes from nearly 10,000 employees working on the site.

But in January, a new milestone of inactivity will be reached: Just 30 employees will remain on a complex that stretches nearly three-fifths of a mile, east to west, plus more beyond.

It’s hard to overemphasize the history of the sprawling campus: Electric motors – always the mainstay of whatever company occupied the site – have been made there since before 1885.

General Electric has been there since it bought the former Jenney Electric Light Co. in 1911, and Ewing Street and Fairfield Avenue were made one-way to facilitate the traffic generated by thousands of employees flowing in and out of the plant at shift change.

But now, the future is uncertain.

The bulk of the campus – the remaining employees will be in one building – could become an eyesore of staggering proportions, a mockery to the reinvigorated downtown just steps away.

Or it could be the next step in downtown’s resurgence, an opportunity of unprecedented size and scope.

‘Still in the process’

With 1 million square feet of space, the Broadway campus is so big that GE officials are assessing exactly what they have, and what issues each building brings to the table.

With some of the buildings having been used for industrial processes for up to a century, there could be environmental issues that either need to be addressed or could prevent certain future uses, such as converting them into apartments or condos.

There are most likely infrastructure issues to be addressed such as wiring, plumbing and heating and cooling that would need to be updated before some structures could be used again.

But at this point, officials simply don’t know because that assessment hasn’t been done yet.

“They’re still in the process of inventorying what’s there,” said Greg Leatherman, the city’s redevelopment director. “They’re looking at condition, previous uses and the ability to readapt them.”

GE officials say they’re committed to Fort Wayne and want what’s best for the city.

“We’ve been talking with the city, and we’re in communication with the Economic Development Alliance,” said GE spokesman Matt Conkrite, based in Chicago. “Mostly, we’ve just been talking about what we’re doing with the buildings.”

Whatever happens, Conkrite said, GE will not let them become an eyesore. In October, when GE announced it was moving 130 employees to an office park on Coliseum Boulevard, Conkrite said GE would prepare the buildings for long-term weather exposure and ensure there is no decay.

One issue facing the campus is its source of heat and power. West of the complex, on the west side of the St. Marys River, is a power plant that provides all of the heat and electricity for the GE complex.

By today’s standards, that is terribly inefficient, Leatherman said, but that inefficiency grows every time another building goes unused, spreading the cost over fewer and fewer buildings. It also means the buildings aren’t connected to the rest of the city’s electric grid and don’t have their own heating or cooling systems.

“That’s no longer economically viable,” Leatherman said. “That’s one of the things they’re dealing with.”

But how that central power and heat source affects the future usability of the buildings is unknown, too: Does it make them even less desirable? Or does it create a blank slate for future infrastructure?

“Those are issues they need to get their hands around,” Leatherman said.

Ripe for many uses

If location is everything, that is especially true for the GE campus. It sits in the middle of an Urban Enterprise Zone, meaning there are long lists of incentives for businesses that opt to locate there.

“There are wonderful incentives available,” Urban Enterprise Association Director Gina Kostoff said. “And on top of that, you’re smack dab against downtown and the Broadway corridor is booming.

“It’s really an area that can be ripe for so many things.”

In addition to property tax breaks, Kostoff said there are tax credits for hiring employees who live within the zone, there are tax credits for the employees, and tax credits for interest on loans and investments. Kostoff said businesses looking to expand are “floored” when they discover how much they can save by buying a building in the zone rather than renting.

Those incentives – already in place – may make the difference in whether a new venture is viable, she said.

The incentives are also part of what officials say will absolutely be required for turning the campus into something else: A public-private partnership.

“The city’s not going to do anything on its own,” said John Urbahns, director of Community Development. “Just like with Harrison Square, with the hotel, the ballpark, the parking garage, where we had partners lined up who wanted to do things.”

‘Our doors are open’

Leatherman said that while the potential for problems exists, the potential for redevelopment is huge, and there are good signs that may happen.

He said there have been similar situations with GE complexes across the country, and many of them have been successfully repurposed. The key similarity among them, he said, was that city officials kept a constant, open dialogue with GE.

“They’ve been great partners in repositioning properties,” Leatherman said. “The best thing we can do is talk to them, and we are.”

GE’s Conkrite said the company wants to keep the conversation going.

“We’re open to any serious discussion about development of the site,” Conkrite said. “Our doors are open to having more discussions.”

Urbahns, the city’s community development director, said the city will take its cues from GE, especially since at least one building will continue to be used.

“It’s all going to depend on GE and where they want to head with it,” Urbahns said. “A lot hangs on GE and what their plans are.”

And a lot depends on the market.

“We’re going to need to be creative, and the market’s going to need to be creative,” Urbahns said.

“The campus is the size of some downtowns.”

But that creativity has been seen previously, though on a vastly smaller scale, in Fort Wayne, officials said. They cited the conversion of the Anthony Wayne Building into residential condos, the Scottish Rite and Chamber of Commerce buildings’ purchase by the University of Saint Francis and the long-vacant Duemling Clinic’s conversion into a center to house those who have aged out of foster care.

Officials said there are other good signs: The biggest is the fact that GE is still here. In addition to the 30 employees who will remain on the Broadway campus, there are the 130 employees who will be in the Executive Center Building on Coliseum.

“We know from talking to them they’re willing to work with us,” Leatherman said. “They’re proud of their heritage and what they have meant to the city.”

dstockman@jg.net


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