What type of place is Fort Wayne going to be?

Kelly Lynch is the type of person who looks around himself and sees opportunities.

As a kid, he watched his father working on the famous No. 765, a restored 1940s train, and he saw the opportunity to work on trains himself someday.

Growing up, he watched the 765 sell out thousands of tickets on every excursion it took, and he saw the opportunity to channel its excitement into something great.

Then, as a 23-year-old fresh out of college in 2009, he watched downtown Fort Wayne thriving during a baseball game at the newly opened Parkview Field, and he saw the opportunity to make his dreams a reality right here.

“That first night at Parkview Field, there was this energy when the sun was setting behind the buildings downtown,” Lynch says. “There was this feeling in the air.”

Parkview Field and related projects have been a catalyst for downtown growth and investment.

It was the feeling that anything could happen—that Fort Wayne was becoming a different place than the city he knew growing up only a few miles away in the small town of Spencerville.

It was the feeling that if Fort Wayne could make a highly controversial project like Parkview Field a success, then maybe even a kid from Spencerville could make something happen in Fort Wayne, too.

So despite opportunities in Los Angeles or Chicago, Kelly decided to stay in Fort Wayne and invest here instead.

He developed plans for a railyard park attraction called Headwaters Junction that features train rides downtown to various destinations around the city.

The 765 pulls into the LaSalle Street station in Chicago on one of its excursions.

Over the last 10 years, he’s been working with city planners to make it happen, and although his journey is far from over, he keeps coming back to that feeling he got the first night at Parkview Field.

When people talk about regional projects, they often speak in terms of numbers and facts. They map out costs and projections, risks and rewards, like they’re doing a math equation.

But Kelly has learned that there’s more to it than that. Kelly Lynch

“There are all these intangibles that come with these projects that are speaking to people just like Parkview field spoke to me,” he says.

That’s why Electric Works—what promises to be Fort Wayne’s largest project to date—is so significant.

As plans for the proposed $220 million project to renovate the west side of the old General Electric campus hang in the balance, intangible factors are at play in the community.

They have people of many backgrounds in Fort Wayne waiting in the wakes, watching for opportunities, and asking themselves that one critical question: What type of place is Fort Wayne going to be?

***

Taylor Hollister and Sam Stevens are a couple in their 20s.

She’s 22, and he’s 25.

They met in Fort Wayne a few years ago and bonded over the fact that they both dropped out of college at Indiana University in Bloomington.

They both grew up in the Summit City, too.

She grew up in the suburbs on the Southwest side of town and dropped out of college to work for a tech startup in San Francisco.

He grew up in an “impoverished area” of the city’s 46807-zip code and dropped out of college because he was in a bad place at the time.

Over the last several decades of disuse, the 18 remaining buildings on GE's campus have fallen into disrepair.

When Sam was 9-years-old, his dad died, leaving his mom to raise four kids on her own. Over the years, she dealt with bouts of alcoholism under the pressure of single parenthood, he says.

Sam was the second youngest of his siblings, and he wanted to be an actor. But there was no money for that when he was a kid, and even if there was, there were no creative outlets in his neighborhood, or anywhere else around Fort Wayne, for him to explore an acting career. Sam Stevens

So he spent his spare time running around the neighborhood with his “hooligan friends” in middle school and high school, causing trouble.

“I used to be really cynical about Fort Wayne,” Sam says.

He remembers the time his mom’s car got its windows bashed in. All of those days driving around the south side, losing motivation with every empty building he passed on the streets.

The biggest and emptiest of them all were the buildings of the old General Electric campus that loomed over Broadway as a physical reminder of everything dead and gone.

Like Parkview Field was a symbol of opportunity to Kelly, these buildings were the exact opposite of that to Sam growing up. They told him everything he needed to know about his hometown and his future in it.

They told him there was no hope.

“Just the aesthetic of what you drive through every day will shape your opinions of the world around you,” Sam says. “When you only grow up in impoverished areas, you really don’t see a way out.”

Parts of the old General Electric campus have sat empty for decades.

For him, it took dropping out of college and reorienting the way he thought about life thanks to a book he read by Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich.

“I got away from a cycle I created in my own head that, ‘Nothing’s ever going to change; I’m going to live in poverty forever,’ to, ‘No, if I take the necessary steps, I will achieve what I want,’” he says.

Today, he was recently promoted to assistant manager for the valet parking service he works for, and he’s acting in his spare time. As he’s made changes in his personal life, he’s been inspired by seeing changes in the city around him, too.

“Before my very eyes, I’ve watched this city transform,” he says. “It was something I used to resent so much because all I saw was my own area—my own neighborhood, the 07-area around GE completely run down. Now it’s a place that I’m very proud of. I’ve opened up to a different side of the city, and all of these projects have been very instrumental in that.”

***

Like Sam, Taylor has also seen Fort Wayne changing, particularly to become more welcoming to entrepreneurs and creative thinkers. Taylor Hollister

After leaving IU, she moved to San Francisco to be at the center of the startup capital of the world.

While there, she worked for an early-stage business developing an event-finding app. She even lived in the “Facebook House,” where Mark Zuckerberg’s original team lived and worked.

“I lived with someone from Apple and a person who was the lead engineer for Nest,” Taylor says.

Then she started working for Ben Carson’s presidential campaign in 2016, and when that ended, she moved back to Fort Wayne to finish her degree at IPFW.

But she came home to a different city than the one she left behind.

The Electric Works campus is south of downtown Fort Wayne.

As a high schooler growing up in the suburbs, she knew Fort Wayne as the place it was often advertised as: A “family-friendly town” and a “great place to raise your kids.” But she didn’t really consider it the type of place that you came right out of college if you wanted to be at the top of your game in business or innovation.

Now, she sees the city’s narrative shifting to be more inclusive, largely thanks to visions for projects like Electric Works.

“We have been moving toward a community that attracts people like Austin-people, or Chicago-people, or Silicon Valley-people because we’re putting out these signals that Fort Wayne is not just a family-friendly town,” Taylor says. “We are a business-friendly town. We are an innovator friendly town. If Electric Works doesn’t happen, it would kind of shut down that signal rather than make it stronger.”

The buildings of Electric Works wait for a decision in disrepair.

For the time being, she plans to stay in Fort Wayne, and she thinks the city is ideally suited to build a robust startup community of its own.

“In Silicon Valley, you have to know the Mark Cuban types; you have to be in these inner circles,” she says. “But in Fort Wayne, you can go to events that are open to everyone and free.”

Looking to the future, she envisions Electric Works as a way to keep shifting the city’s narrative, particularly among youth before they leave for college, like a business version of Science Central.

“When you’re a kid, Science Central helps you fall in love with science,” Taylor says. “I feel like Electric Works could do that with innovation, business, and just helping people feel inspired about life.”

***

Along with giving residents a new outlook on the city, Electric Works could also be the next step in the evolution of the south side, Sam says.

He sees it as a way to help kids like himself access outlets for their potential and find success faster, right in their own backyards.

A few weeks ago, he and Taylor met with Travis Sheridan, CEO of Venture Café, who the Electric Works team invited to speak at the Atrium in downtown Fort Wayne. In talking with Sheridan after the events, they learned about the work Venture Café is doing in underprivileged communities around the world.

A rendering shows plans to make Electric Works a regional hub of culture and innovation.

If Electric Works comes to fruition, it will come with an innovation district that has the potential to house programs like these in Fort Wayne, Sam says.

It could break down the barriers to success right in his old neighborhood.

“There aren’t enough community facilities or programs that help people who come from very impoverished areas have a leg up in being able to get out of poverty,” he says. “I know a lot of other people in my area where, if they had access to something like that, they would be light years ahead of where they are today.”

***

Imagine downtown Fort Wayne busy with people. Imagine people taking train rides and streetcars to key destinations, exploring streets lined with the storefronts of small businesses. Imagine the old General Electric campus as a hub of culture, community, and innovation.

It’s not a picture of Fort Wayne’s future. It’s a picture of Fort Wayne’s past, Kelly says, and that’s what gives him hope.

“All of this stuff becomes more possible when you realize that we had it to begin with,” he explains.

Tour groups explore the old General Electric buildings.

While some see bold, transformational projects like Electric Works and Headwaters Junction as being “risky” endeavors, he sees more risk in not pursuing these projects—in letting dreams go unrealized or letting changemakers spin their wheels.

There’s risk in losing Fort Wayne's history and the people who see a future in it.

“Yeah, there’s risk in Electric Works; there’s risk in development, but there’s also risk in doing nothing,” Kelly says. “There’s risk in driving talent other cities. The story of Fort Wayne needs to be the story of opportunity.”

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara is a Fort Wayne native, passionate about her hometown and its ongoing revival. As Managing Editor of Input Fort Wayne, she enjoys writing about interesting people and ideas in northeast Indiana. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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