When Mayor Tom Henry held a news conference last September to announce plans for a $71 million downtown housing, office and commercial development, it would have been logical to assume that – like Harrison Square before it – the project was the result of careful planning by city officials.
But as was made clear this week, that assumption would have been wrong on both counts. The so-called “Project Emerald Skyline” is in large part the fruit of the accidental but mutually beneficial cooperation between two private businessmen who were willing to think more of Fort Wayne than it sometimes thinks of itself, and to act accordingly.
“We were looking at 'north river' (vacant land north of the confluence of the city's three rivers formerly occupied by an OmniSource scrap yard), for our new headquarters, but that deal fell through,” Tim Ash, president and CEO of Ash Brokerage, explained to about 70 people at a Wednesday morning forum on the project sponsored by the Downtown Improvement District. It developer Bill Bean introduced himself to Ash at a local car dealership that the two began to share their separate visions that ultimately merged into an extraordinarily exciting project in the heart of downtown.
“The buzz in town was that (Ash) was looking at a new headquarters, and we shared ideas and love of the community and talked about what could be done in an urban setting. There's a wonderful opportunity north of the rivers, but I prefer the project where it is. Doing it north would pull people from the core,” Bean said.
And so, some day soon, most of the buildings on the block bounded by Wayne, Harrison, Webster and Berry streets will come down, the venerable Cindy's Diner will be moved (owner John Scheele hopes to reopen at Berry and Maiden Lane in July), and a gleaming architectural showpiece will rise in their place with two years. In addition to a 165,000-square-foot office building, the project will include 19,000 square feet of retail space, townhouses and a parking garage and residential tower that Bean said is now planned to soar 17 stories.
Ash will eventually bring about 350 employees downtown, and Bean said his apartments, townhouses and condos will cater to high-end residents – all of which should benefit existing downtown businesses and attract still more, including, hopefully, a grocery.
Downtown Improvement District President Bill Brown said the project should also spur improvements to neighborhoods close to downtown. “No longer will it be, 'Do I want to invest in that old house?' Those who come early and invest will benefit.”
None of this is to imply that government did not play an important role in the project. The city has said it will contribute at least $19.5 million toward the parking garage, land acquisition and other improvements. But the point is that this project might never have happened – at least not in its present form – if not for the willingness of Ash and Bean to turn a chance encounter into a conversation, and talk into action.
“This is not just about commerce, but about community. We want to put community first,” Ash said. “We have to be bigger thinkers in Fort Wayne. I was recently in Des Moines, which is investing $400 million in its downtown, and imagine the vibrancy. We're taking a financial risk, but you need to take risks to inspire people to invest.”
“Fort Wayne undersells and under-appreciates itself,” Bean added. “Where I see opportunity, the naysayers see obstacles. A lot of people could make things happen in Fort Wayne, and some of them are investing in other communities. I don't know why we don't feel better about ourselves.”
I'm not advocating the use of rose-colored glasses. Fort Wayne has its problems, but so does every other city. Government should take the lead in addressing some of them, but as I've written for years, people blessed with wealth, vision and talent should willingly use some of it to improve the community in which they live and have prospered.
This shows what can happen when they do, with or without the help of government or even a little serendipity.
It took a year, but a neglected park I profiled last April will get a facelift this Saturday.
Guldlin Park, on the banks of the St. Mary's River just south of the Van Buren Street Bridge, will be cleaned up by volunteers with Revealing Our Rivers from 8 a.m. to noon. If you're interested in helping, call 348-2871.
The 6-acre park, named for early Fort Wayne suffragette Addie Bleekman Guldlin, became home to the city's first public playground in 1911 before the structure burned just two years later. But as the city explores riverfront development, its boat ramp and proximity to the St. Marys should assure the almost forgotten little park enjoys a brighter future.