Fort Wayne City Councilman Tom Smith.  Courtesy photo.

Talk with City Councilman Tom Smith (1st-D) for any length of time, and inevitably the conversation will work its way to downtown and revitalization. Tom has had many ideas over the years – some of them accepted and some not so well received by the community. Tom’s suggested move of the replica of Old Fort Wayne from its present location along Spy Run Avenue a few years ago was controversial. He suggested the move as a means of developing the riverfront into retail stores and river-front recreation.

One of Tom’s ideas, which is yet to be realized, involves the General Electric complex on Broadway. I felt it fitting to present his idea as talks of a “Broadway Corridor Project” are beginning.

Tom and I met on August 20th. At that time, there had been rumors flowing in the media and community about GE selling off its operations in the Broadway complex and pulling out of Fort Wayne. It’s hard to fathom – one of our earliest remaining major employers pulling out, but it is necessary to try. The probable loss of GE needs to be part of the conversation when talking about downtown and in particular the Broadway Corridor. But, what a daunting task, especially when you consider the size and number of buildings involved.

Tom’s idea goes back to 2006 when he was instrumental in initiating talks with Parkview Health. It had announced it was pulling out of its Randallia Drive location and heading North to the I-69/Dupont Road area. He was able to introduce citizens from the surrounding neighborhood to Parkview upper echelon management and together, they formed Parkview Select.

The group looked at what could be saved and possible uses for what would remain. It was comprised entirely of Parkview employees and citizens – no government involvement. “I formed it and got out of there,” Tom shared. “It showed me something. You can take a group of citizens, and they can sit down with a major corporation, the largest local employer, and work with them.” Today, Parkview Health is still planning its significant move but will leave a community-type hospital and some of the current facility, structures, and services.

Tom wants to take this idea, of a community partnership, and apply it to the General Electric complex. From the News-Sentinel, June 20, 2006:

A model of citizen leadership

City Councilman Tom Smith thinks Parkview Select’s meetings with the hospital about the future of area neighborhoods is a model of citizen leadership that can be effective elsewhere. He plans to propose a project at Wednesday night’s Southwest Area Partnership meeting that would involve General Electric’s empty buildings on Broadway. “What if the partnership formed a committee to work with GE? It could say something like, ‘Why don’t you take one of these empty buildings and gut it, clean it out, rewire it, start from the ground? Maybe it could have a business or manufacturing downstairs and living space above. You’re a cutting-edge company. This is looking out over the horizon.’ Maybe this could be something that could be imitated all over the country, and it would have started here.”

The idea does have merit when one considers the campus as a whole; it’s a lot of buildings to have vacant and deal with at one time. Why not approach GE now and start with one building, before they pull completely out of Fort Wayne? He feels with the added authenticity and enthusiasm of citizens, General Electric would have increased the incentive to listen and work the idea into reality.

Speaking of that enthusiasm, it becomes evident as he talks about the GE campus. Consider the park next to the property; the sight lines down Broadway; the different heights and setbacks of the various buildings and the way the buildings “knife” into Broadway – all this makes for, “one of the most beautiful industrial settings in America, maybe even the world.” The buildings themselves are immense, and it’s their size that makes them alluring for redevelopment as mixed-use projects. Towering is how I would describe them, especially as think of various viewpoints from Harrison Square and the Western side of downtown.

Tom remembers back to the 1960s when he worked second shift pushing a broom for GE. In particular, he remembers finishing with his work early in his shift and having time to explore the vast buildings.

I would sit up on the roof near the GE sign and look out over the entire city. It was just fantastic! I was able to wander around in the buildings – and they are so impressive and amazing, I mean they are jaw-dropping when you’re inside. I have such a fondness for these buildings.

Taking one building as a starting point sounds like a great idea, right? When Tom tried to put his plan into practice, however, he discovered that making contact with the person(s) in the large General Electric corporation who could listen to proposals and possibly make decisions was next to impossible. At the Fort Wayne level, there doesn’t seem to be anyone responsible for the complex. Regardless of his hard work, progress with his ideas has alluded him. So, any further development at this point depends on luckily encountering the one person able to initiate the change.

Whatever you think of Tom’s ideas, they are necessary to downtown or Broadway Corridor revitalization. Whether the ideas die a quick death or live to become brilliant reality, it’s dreams that stimulate us and move Fort Wayne to realize the potential it has.

1 COMMENT

  1. Tom Smith is exactly right. Now is NOT too soon to get in front of this opportunity. In fact, given the doldrums that the whole country is about to enter, this is the BEST time to start an aesthetic conversion of these magnificent buildings – with an explicit and enthusiastic priority for residential life rather than commercial delusions.

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