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Posted on Sat. Jun. 28, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

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City's new redevelopment director faces great expectations

Justin Brugger wants to maintain downtown momentum begun by Harrison Square

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With Parkview Field widely acknowledged as both popular and successful, several major projects in the works and the area more alive than it's been in decades, it's easy to forget that the most significant event in downtown Fort Wayne's recent past was the result of a long and sometimes contentious debate and a far-from-unanimous City Council decision.

But when council voted 6-3 in 2007 to proceed with the baseball stadium and other components of the $160 million Harrison Square project, did its subsequent if sometimes delayed success minimize opposition to similar future efforts? Or has that success encouraged unrealistic expectations?

Either way, Justin Brugger will be in the hot seat -- a place the city's new 34-year-old Redevelopment Commission director is a pretty cool place to be.

"I do feel pressure to keep the success going. There's a lot of energy downtown, and young people want to be here now," said Brugger, who assumed the job last month after Greg Leatherman was promoted to Community Development Director. Brugger was previously a senior program manager for City Utilities after coming to Fort Wayne from Oklahoma in 2001 -- at which time he sensed a "depressed attitude" gripping the city.

When I asked Brugger to list the strengths he brings to the job, his response at first seemed curious, but was in fact both appropriate and reassuring. Instead of boasting about his vision or philosophy, Brugger said he will use his expertise in government , management and public finance to implement goals set by the administration and commission as effectively as possible. And the commission's most recent downtown project -- its participation in the $100 million Ash Brokerage/Hanning & Bean project -- represents a significant shift in a promising direction.

Whereas Harrison Square was instigated by the city, the Ash Project originated in the private sector. That doesn't mean the city won't help -- its contribution will be about $39 million -- but Brugger said the success of Harrison Square and, hopefully, the Ash project should result in still more private investment, with the city's role being to level the playing field so it's just as cost-effective to redevelop a site as it is to build in the suburbs.

There will be plenty of opportunities to test that philosophy: The city has identified several potential downtown sites for redevelopment, including 3.6 city-owned acres west of Parkview Field; the historic Columbia Street Landing, and 29 acres north of the confluence of the three rivers, to name just three. And Brugger will have tools at his disposal not available until recently, such as the ability to compete for funds from the city's $70 million "Legacy" account and potentially more millions from the Capital Improvement Board.

Leatherman, who became redevelopment director in 2005, said those tools and downtown's momentum should help Brugger, "but other issues will come up that will be different (than any seen previously). Only now are we saying, 'Maybe Harrison Square wasn't a bad idea.' "

That realization happened only because people were willing to assume a calculated risk of failure. Brugger knows he will face that choice, too, but has also seen how prudent risk can, in time, be rewarded.

kleininger@news-sentinel.com


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.


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