At age 12, Kelly Lynch remembers a ride downtown with his father.
As they drove along Clinton Street approaching the north river property, Lynch’s father said here, close to the city’s center, was where steam engine No. 765 belonged, a location that would allow people to discover and appreciate the vintage locomotive.
Now at age 27, Lynch is championing the idea of bringing locomotive No. 765, a steam engine bought and restored by the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, to downtown as the centerpiece in a plan to develop the north river property.
“It was the image of people discovering (steam locomotive No. 765) and using the engine as a social gathering space that kept me up nights trying to figure out how to make this happen,” said Lynch, who is the society’s volunteer public relations manager.
Lynch’s idea for Headwaters Junction, an educational and entertainment venue that would provide a link to local attractions like the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, isn’t new. Lynch first proposed the idea more than two years ago, before the historic Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad freight depot on Clinton Street was demolished, but hasn’t been able to gather enough monetary support for the plan.
What’s changed is the opportunity for funding through the Legacy Fund, money the city made on the lease and sale of its old electric utility City Power & Light.
About $47 million will be immediately available while an additional $28 million will trickle in over the next 12 years.
Lynch’s proposal carries a price tag of about $20.5 million, based on estimates from other cities that have tackled similar endeavors. He said if completed in its entirety as it’s proposed, Headwaters Junction would require funding from various sources, but the Legacy Fund provided the vehicle for the idea to take off.
A nod from the task force determining how the funds should be spent could provide a boost to the plan in convincing the mayor, his administration and the community that Headwaters Junction is a viable option for the north river property near the St. Marys River just north of downtown.
Headwaters Junction is mentioned in the Legacy Task Force’s riverfront development master plan and implementation, one of four spending categories for the fund. Nine projects were proposed and approved by City Council last month, including a feasibility study to examine riverfront development.
Task force members wrote that incorporating Headwaters Junction into a mixed-use development “should not be overlooked. The consulting firm (performing a feasibility study) should give Headwaters Junction its due diligence when developing a vision for our riverfront and North River.”
John Urbahns, community development director, said the team determined that the plan for Headwaters Junction provided a unique opportunity and should be given more consideration. The $500,000 riverfront study will investigate the best use for property around the city’s rivers, including the north river property.
At the heart of the plan is to return Berkshire steam locomotive No. 765 to downtown Fort Wayne where it had been on display as a monument to the 1955 Elevate the Nickel Plate project that opened a two-track overpass above city streets. Because of deterioration to the steam locomotive, the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society removed the locomotive in 1974 and has since restored it.
Other parts of the plan are a restaurant and banquet center, miniature railroad, trail access and a performance area.
Lynch, who owns a media agency and teaches cinematography at Huntington University, has developed an extensive and detailed proposal, but said he’s not tied down to specific details.
“I’m completely open to changes,” he said. “There are certain caveats of the plan, but at the end of the day visitor experience is the most important thing.”
One caveat is the venue’s location on the north river property. Lynch said the tie-in with the rivers and downtown is an important feature that should remain.
But the entire property is about 37 acres, said Dan Wire, a member of the team that developed the riverfront proposal. Wire, a retired teacher and a self-proclaimed river advocate, believes there’s a misconception that Headwaters Junction would take up the entire property, but in reality it could be just one acre.
“Some people don’t understand that it could be added value to whatever else is there. It would be the whipped cream on the ice cream sundae,” Wire said.
Lynch said the locomotive is a part of the city’s history and it can’t be enjoyed by the community in it’s current location, in a warehouse about five miles east of New Haven.
“There’s a certain type of magic that this thing inspires,” he said of No. 765.
He said the engine, and the city’s history with the railroad industry it represents, could improve residents’ connection with the city, making it a destination not just a location, along with attracting tourists from outside the area. He stressed that the engine wouldn’t remain stagnant. It could reintroduce passenger rail in the area, become the subject of affordable school field trips, and provide training opportunities for students, he said.
He hopes that the nod from the Legacy team in its proposal in the end culminates in the realization of his plan.
“It’s nice to have this credibility from Legacy, but is it going to mean something?” he said. “Accolades don’t build buildings.”