Will Electric Works be an 'inclusive' development in Fort Wayne?

In recent years, Fort Wayne has seen considerable growth and development in the form of public and private projects—from the Parkview Regional Medical Center's sprawling Dupont campus to the City of Fort Wayne's decade-long transformation of downtown, starting with Parkview Field in 2009. 

But while many projects have enhanced Fort Wayne's quality of life in specific ways, for specific people, their effects haven't been all positive or inclusive—particularly for the city's most underprivileged residents and neighborhoods. 

Fort Wayne’s largest project to date is Electric Works, a 39-acre, 18-building adaptive reuse of the city's vacant General Electric (GE) campus, transforming it into a thriving, mixed-use innovation district. After a long and tumultuous road to securing support and $286 million in funding to close on phase one of its development in 2020, the project broke ground in 2021. 

Kevan Biggs, President of Biggs Property Management, is a partner with the master redevelopment group behind Electric Works, RTM Ventures LLC, collaborating with the Cincinnati-based Model Group and other Fort Wayne area investors and partners on the project. Biggs

He says the 12-acre first phase of Electric Works is expected to generate nearly $300 million in economic impact during construction and almost $400 million in annual economic impact once it opens in 2022. But more than another cool project or economic driver in Northeast Indiana, Electric Works is intended to change the way development is done here, starting with its role as an "innovation district."
 
“This is the largest—and has the potential to be the most catalytic—project ever done in this region,” Biggs says. “We felt there was a real obligation to not waste this incredible opportunity—that a lot more can be done other than providing a cool real estate project for the community.”

The Electric Works campus is south of downtown Fort Wayne.
 
Across the U.S., innovation districts are emerging in cities as physically compact, transit-accessible, and technologically-wired hubs within communities. They offer a variety of housing, office, and retail options, and perhaps most importantly, they allow leading-edge anchor institutions in cities to connect with startups, business incubators, and accelerators. 
 
The Brookings Institution reports that these hubs of innovation have the "unique potential" to spur inclusive and sustainable economic growth in cities.
 
"At a time of sluggish growth, they provide a strong foundation for the creation and expansion of firms and jobs by helping companies, entrepreneurs, universities, researchers, and investors—across sectors and disciplines—co-invent and co-produce new discoveries for the market," Brookings reports. "At a time of rising social inequality, they offer the prospect of expanding employment and educational opportunities for disadvantaged populations given that many districts are close to low- and moderate-income neighborhoods."

A rendering shows plans to make Electric Works a regional hub of culture and innovation.
 
Considering that the GE campus has been vacant for decades and surrounded by economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in Fort Wayne's urban core, Biggs and his team believe establishing an innovation district at Electric Works could improve conditions in the area.

From early on in the project's inception, Biggs says RTM Ventures has been implementing diversity and inclusion measures as key parts of Electric Works's success, too. He cites listening sessions with neighborhood leaders and seeking investors from diverse segments of society as two concrete steps toward these goals.

“We have a number of African American investors who came in early with us, and we were thrilled to have not only their investment, but also their voices heard on this project, as to how we’re shaping it moving forward,” Biggs says. “Leading the project with this inclusive mindset sets us apart from anything else I’ve seen in Fort Wayne.”
 
Now that construction has commenced, Biggs anticipates more opportunities for the public to weigh in on decision-making at Electric Works, as the shell of the campus is built out and businesses start leasing spaces.
 
“We want input from a lot of perspectives on what the common areas of Electric Works will look and feel like,” Biggs says. “There are a lot of nuances in projects, and when you go into a project, you can often immediately tell which market the developers are trying to attract. So we want to take that very seriously with Electric Works and make sure it’s a truly welcoming, community space.”

Electric Works will be a mixed-use cultural district with a variety of offices, businesses, dining options, and living spaces.
 
In the meantime, he says another way his team is being inclusive with Electric Works is by hiring “a diverse set of hands” to build it. While a once-planned partnership to hire minority contractors through the nonprofit Joshua's Hand has fallen through, Electric Works’s development team is making other efforts to hire diverse builders, spearheaded by Larry Weigand of Weigand Construction.
 
“We’ve made it a goal of giving 15 percent of our construction contracts to what are defined as ‘underutilized business entities,’” Biggs says. “That includes minority-, women-, and veteran-owned businesses.”
 
Biggs points out that this commitment to inclusivity is not mandated by Electric Works’s funding sources, which is typically what inspires “inclusive” hiring practices on projects.
 
“We’re not just trying to check boxes; we’re trying to do the right thing,” he says.
 
He adds that making projects inclusive by choice, as opposed to checking boxes, also makes it easier for minority entrepreneurs to accept contracts from Electric Works because they don’t need to be certified as official “minority-owned businesses” to qualify.
 
“That can be a challenging designation for business owners to get, and it often discourages minority business owners from even considering to bid on projects,” Biggs says. “So we’re really trying to break down those barriers and communicate that to the labor market here.”

Fort Wayne residents tour the future Electric Works campus.
 
Taking these extra steps to be inclusive does require additional legwork and costs on the developers' part, in terms of managing more, and often smaller, contractors on the project.
 
“But we’re committed to doing that,” Biggs says. “We know that, if there’s not that intentional effort to make a project diverse and inclusive upfront, then we tend to go to our comfort zones and develop from there. Fort Wayne, in my opinion, desperately needs there to be a more concerted effort to focus on serving the true complexion of our community—not just certain segments of it.”
 
But while the Electric Works team's focus on inclusivity is, in some ways, values-driven, it's not entirely motivated by philanthropy, Biggs points out.
 
“It really comes down to the fact that making a development inclusive is a sound business decision," he says. 
 
Ultimately, he believes projects that are authentically inclusive from the get-go are going to reach more residents in Fort Wayne in the long run, which is a win for developers and the community alike. He points to the American Tobacco Campus in Durham, N.C., as an example of the type of inclusive innovation-based environment his team is hoping to replicate here.
 
“Sometimes, it takes visibility beyond our Fort Wayne community to understand the deeper value of inclusivity in cities, which touches the very core of a community's culture,” Biggs says. “Those of us on the Electric Works team feel the culture of development in Northeast Indiana needs to change and evolve to have a more inclusive mindset.”

The principal partners in RTM Ventures are Josh Parker of Cross Street Partners, Kevan Biggs of Biggs Development, and Jeff Kingsbury of Greenstreet Ltd.
 
Along with changing how the Fort Wayne area physically develops projects, Electric Works is also intended to be a symbolic ground zero for shaking up the way Fort Wayne thinks about economic development, in general, Biggs points out.
 
For generations, Northeast Indiana's economic development strategy has largely revolved around attracting behemoth corporations, the likes of a GE, to the region to supply residents with jobs and opportunities. But while GE has roots in Fort Wayne and its massive campus demonstrates the benefits large corporations can bring to a community, its vacancy and surrounding depression in recent decades also reveals the inherent instability of concentrating a community's wealth and job opportunities in the hands of a few.
 
“There are way too many companies that leave our community and leave this huge chasm in their wake that’s almost fatal to the community,” Biggs says. “GE once employed a third of our workforce in Fort Wayne, and over the years, they've completely exited our community, and it caused a lot of families to suffer for many years through decline.”

The name for the future Electric Works development pays tribute to an early name for General Electric, as Fort Wayne Electric Works.
 
Biggs and his team hope Electric Works, rising from the ashes of the GE campus, will mark the dawn of a new era in Fort Wayne's economic development strategy—an era when leaders spend fewer resources wooing big corporations to town and redirect that support to a more diverse, hyper-local hub of innovators, like those who will occupy the future innovation district.
 
As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, some businesses are poised to thrive in times of crisis, while others are susceptible to extinction. Distributing Fort Wayne's resources and job opportunities more equitably among local innovators could help the community withstand future storms and generate sustainable growth and wealth.
 
“What we’re doing at Electric Works is cultivating all the wonderful talent we have in our community, and giving residents additional incentives and supports to do their own thing—to grow an idea, to start a business, to take a small business to the next level," Biggs says. "You never quite know where that might lead.”

But influencing this scale of change—even positive, more inclusive change—in a community that's experienced neglect and has been burned by "investment" in the past comes with challenges of its own.

Electric Works is the largest project Fort Wayne has considered in recent years.
 
'How do you do gentrification with justice?'

One of the biggest unanswered questions about Electric Works is: How will a project of this nature and scale in an economically depressed part of town impact the neighborhoods around it and across the city, at-large? 

Residents on Fort Wayne's South and Southeast sides, poised to see some of the biggest impacts, are already wrestling with the complexity of these questions and dissecting the pros and cons for themselves.

Andrew Hoffman lives about a mile away from the Electric Works campus in the Williams Woodland Park Neighborhood of the 46807. Hoffman

Celebrated as Fort Wayne's "first planned neighborhood," Williams Woodland Park is a beacon of late-19th and early-20th century design with houses that have regal pillars and Arts and Crafts details. Many of its homes were once owned by prominent local citizens and some fell into neglect for a period of time before being revived in recent years as downtown Fort Wayne has redeveloped.

“It’s a pocket historic neighborhood," Hoffman says. "We’re like this island of historic homes that has really benefited from all the 46807 development over the last couple of years and people choosing an urban lifestyle. We, ultimately, want the best for all the neighborhoods around us because we don’t want to just be the island.”

As the former Executive Director of NeighborLink Fort Wayne, Hoffman has seen firsthand many of the historic homes on the South side, suffering from neglect. He also intimately understands the challenges homeowners on the brink of poverty face in improving the value of their houses with limited access and resources. He hopes the presence of Electric Works will help homeowners in the area by boosting property values and inspiring positive investment in nearby neighborhoods.

“A lot of these fantastic, historic neighborhoods in the area have been abandoned and forgotten for a long time, and they’re deteriorating to the point where we’re getting really close to those neighborhoods not being able to turn over," Hoffman says. "So, I’m optimistic and hopeful in the Electric Works project because we need to see more redevelopment happen in Fort Wayne. We’re a good city, especially when it comes to neighborhoods.”

Andrew Hoffman lives in the historic the Williams Woodland Park Neighborhood near Electric Works.

Such improvements, however, can come at a cost, Hoffman recognizes. Gentrification is a real concern whenever redevelopment happens in urban areas.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Gentrification occurs when neighborhoods are transformed from low to high value and can result in displacing long-term residents and businesses." That displacement tends to negatively impact low-income, rural, Black, and Hispanic residents while concentrating wealth and wealth-building opportunities in areas that exclude them, a 2019 study by National Community Reinvestment Coalition found.

While gentrification is not yet widespread in Fort Wayne, a National Community Reinvestment Coalition study says Fort Wayne is showing early signs of gentrification, particularly as downtown and its nearby neighborhoods see reinvestment.

For Hoffman, the gentrification of long-neglected parts of the city, like the abandoned GE campus, may be inevitable, and in some cases, even necessary to support long-term growth in Fort Wayne. But as developers attempt to improve the area, he hopes they are considering important questions.

"How do you do gentrification with justice?" Hoffman asks. "How do you, as a developer, make sure you’re meeting the needs of various demographics and not just making things great for those who can afford to be a part of it?” 

Ultimately, he hopes the project executes in the way Biggs and others have described, and becomes an economic driver, utilizing intentional design and decision making to bring life back to parts of the city that desperately need it. 

"I would love to see the whole South Central or the urban core be redeveloped and preserved and bring things back to being walkable, engaging, and social," Hoffman says. "We need that, as a community. Investing in relationships is important. Our built environment dictates so much about how humans interact.”

Do it Best is the largest privately held company in Indiana and the future anchor tenant of the Electric Works campus.

'There’s a lot of history here, and there’s still a lot of poverty here.'

Electric Works is located on the far South edge of downtown Fort Wayne's eclectic West Central Neighborhood. 

Known for its colorful, historic, and often castle-like homes downtown, which have become a hot commodity in recent years, West Central is one neighborhood in Fort Wayne that has already been suspect for gentrification.

“Over the past decade, houses in the West Central Neighborhood that once were divided into apartments have been converted back to single-family homes," the Journal Gazette reports. "Houses in the area are listed at up to $455,000 on Zillow.com, a real estate website.” 

West Central is a historic, communal neighborhood in walking distance of all the amenities downtown.

PJ Thuringer describes himself as being from the “not so flashy side of West Central just a block north of the tracks right by the Electric Works campus” in a house built in 1865. He sits on the board of the West Central Neighborhood Association. 

“This part of West Central is one of the oldest, continually lived-in neighborhoods in the county," he says. "There’s a lot of history here, and there’s still a lot of poverty here. It’s more of a mix of incomes. We love our neighborhood, good and bad.”

Homes in Fort Wayne's West Central neighborhood have seen a surge in investment in recent years.

A lover of history, Thuringer feels that part of the appeal of Electric Works is its ability to preserve the historic buildings of the GE campus, which have sat in disrepair for decades, contributing to blight and a sense of loss in the community.

“You cannot waste those buildings; you cannot let them crumble; and Fort Wayne has not had that great of a history of preserving iconic structures,” Thuringer says. “There are plenty of spots you can point to in the downtown area where they should have saved the buildings.” 

Within West Central, the local historic district has expanded to include Thuringer’s home, which he says will ensure that the homes in that area stay there, and the authentic nature of the neighborhood remains intact.

Thuringer’s hope is that Electric Works continues this legacy of investing in the area's authenticity, and, as a white man himself, he hopes Electric Works takes things a step further by making itself purposefully diverse, inclusive, and attractive to people from across the city. 

“It needs to be for all," he says. "I hope it’s for all. In this city, there seems to be this demarcation line that goes back to the redlining days and that People of Color are not necessarily welcomed in certain areas, historically. I want more for this city. In order for us to grow and move forward and be successful and attract businesses and future residents, we need to be inclusive.”

Electric Works will be transformed into an innovation district in Fort Wayne.

Overall, Thuringer welcomes changes to the neighborhood that Electric Works will inevitably bring. 

“I’ve always considered this neighborhood to be a part of downtown, so Electric Works contributes to the vibrancy of the area," he says. "Yes, it’s going to change the feel of the area, but it’s going to be a vibrant, connecting place that brings people together in a place where people want to be.”

'It’s like a monument to blight. It needs to be redeveloped.'

Achieving her life’s dream of buying and renovating a Victorian home, Arline Nation has lived in the Hoagland Masterson neighborhood just South of West Central since 2013 and has been actively engaged in improving conditions for herself and her neighbors. 

“I was president of the neighborhood association from 2016 to 2020, and I completely immersed myself in learning how my neighborhood got to where it was and what I could do to help change it.”

With Electric Works so close by, Nation is excited about the possibilities. 

“I am wildly in favor of redeveloping that site," she says. "I can see it from my front porch. I think probably half my neighborhood can see it from their homes. It’s like a monument to blight. It needs to be redeveloped.”

The Electric Works campus has been disconnected from its surrounding neighborhoods for years.

Even so, Nation admits that her neighbors may be a bit more skeptical. 

“I think, for the most part, my neighbors are in favor of the project, but there’s also a distance as in, ‘It really doesn’t have anything to do with us,’” she says. 

Nation says that for decades, neighborhoods like hers have been deprived of improvements, neglected because of their socioeconomic demographics, and left without a decision-making voice.

While she isn’t sure if Electric Works will be designed to appeal to everyone, she’s still hopeful about its potential. 

“I don’t see Electric Works as an overall negative," she says. "I think it’s going to help my neighborhood and others in the area grow and improve. For the city at large, I think Electric Works will be a huge benefit. I think it will draw in a lot of people from all over the city. I think my neighborhood would benefit from increased economic diversity and diversity in our education levels. I hope it will grow my neighborhood and that it will get new housing construction, that it will revitalize our vacant commercial structures and vacant commercial lots. I hope it saves a lot of our older buildings and gives them new value.”

Inside the buildings of Fort Wayne's former GE campus.

'This is Hoagland Masterson, and no one gives a damn.'

Also in the Hoagland Masterson neighborhood is Fort Wayne native and master gardener Yolande Black. Black has mixed feelings about the impact Electric Works will have on her neighborhood. 

“I’m glad to see the complex being used," she says. "It would be a waste to let it go. It’s a huge complex with its own history. I’d like to see mixed businesses come in, not just corporations. Maybe a small hotel, restaurant, independent shops. We are fortunate enough in Fort Wayne to have a lot of small businesses, and I’d like to see that carried on.”

What gives Black pause is the number of slumlords renting homes in the area around Electric Works right now who don’t seem to care about the neighborhood. 

“This is Hoagland Masterson, and no one gives a damn,” Black says. “They just think it’s a poor area. No one cares because of the neighborhood. I don’t have a lot of hope for this area. Standards that are made OK in our neighborhoods aren’t acceptable in West Central. People don’t care what happens here. You have these double standards for businesses and what they can do. You have the double standards for what the landlords around here are allowed to get away with, and you have homeowners, like me, who are trying to maintain our property with some dignity and some respect, but the double standards are making it hard for us.”

A junkyard in the Hoagland Masterson neighborhood near Electric Works.

Black says she is hoping against hope that her neighborhood will see some change and reinvestment as a result of Electric Works. 

“It’s going to take some far-sighted people to see what the possibilities are in some of these homes, and I just don’t see it right now,” she says.

Black’s house is being considered for the national registry and, despite the difficulties, she takes pride in maintaining her garden and her home. 

“My house sticks out like a sore thumb because of the yard, but it shows that there is somebody who lives here that cares," she says. "And as long as I’m here, and if I can get this house registered, then I’ll be OK because I know nobody can come in and make major changes, and it has to stay the way it is. That’s what I’m aiming for. Eventually, I would like to leave Fort Wayne and move closer to my daughter. In the meantime, I’m healthy. I’m lucky, I hope I survive this pandemic.”

'What happens to those folks who can’t afford to live in this community?'

While homeowners and landowners in the vicinity of Electric Works may benefit from the project, the story looks different for renters in the same depressed neighborhoods, struggling to make ends meet.

That is a story Melissa Rinehart knows well, as the Executive Director of Wellspring Interfaith Social Services near the Electric Works campus. Rinehart

Founded in 1968, Wellspring is intended to serve youth and adults in downtown's immediate neighborhoods with a variety of needs from food and clothing, to opportunities for educational advancement and socialization.

“Electric Works is right in our backyard,” Rinehart says. “We’re right on Broadway. We’ve been in the West Central neighborhood for the last 50 or so years.”

As someone who works daily with low-income residents, Rinehart’s major concerns about Electric Works pertain mostly to the residents who may be displaced by the project. 

“I’d love to see a project that’s incredibly diverse and progressive come to this community, but the realities in making that happen take a lot of groundwork," Rinehart says. "To make that happen, people in the surrounding neighborhoods, including us, get displaced. That’s what happens when these large projects take place.”

Electric Works is a 39-acre, 18-building adaptive reuse project that seeks to transform the city's vacant General Electric (GE) campus into a thriving, mixed-use Innovation District.

As an example, Rinehart points to the demolition of homes that happened as part of the construction of Parkview Field in the mid-2000s.

“A lot of houses were leveled, and a lot of those people were using our services, so that displaced them,” Rinehart says. 

She's already seeing a similar impact from Electric Works, too. When discussions about the project surfaced a few years ago, property values in the neighborhoods surrounding the campus shot up, and some of Wellspring's beneficiaries could no longer afford to live in the area.

"Our foodbank numbers for those we serve in the immediate neighborhood went down by half two years ago, and it keeps declining because they can’t afford the rent," Rinehart says. "What happens to those folks who can’t afford to live in this community? They go to other parts of the city, or they become homeless.”

While Rinehart says she isn’t against the existence of Electric Works, she also isn’t sure it’s going to benefit the entire community. 

“I think people get excited about a really great idea, but is it going to give the return on the investment that everyone thinks it will?" she says. "West Central keeps booming, but are we pushing problems out to other neighborhoods?”

Residents tour the future site of Electric Works.

'We don’t want it to be a knee-jerk reaction after everybody realizes the rents have escalated.' 

To instill a sense of hope, Biggs says his team at Biggs Property Management has been a leading authority on rental property management of specialized housing, including conventional housing, Rural Development, HUD, Tax Credit and Section 8 communities for more than 40 years. 

They're a Decatur, Ind., based company, and one project that brought them into the Fort Wayne market was the Renaissance Pointe affordable housing community in Southeast, which opened in 2011 and has contributed to revitalization in the quadrant.

Phoenix Place neighborhood in the Renaissance Pointe area.
 
Biggs says Renaissance Pointe's success is a large part of his team's interest in Electric Works, too. They understand that the rental market and landlord complexion is varied within historically neglected neighborhoods, like those around Electric Works. The area is home to low-income renters, but not all low-income renters are “bad renters,” and gentrification is not selective to good renters or bad renters.
 
“Before we even bought the property, we recognized that affordable housing would be an important part of the overall master plan of Electric Works,” Biggs says. “We don’t want it to be a knee-jerk reaction after everybody realizes the rents have escalated, and now we’ve lost a lot of good renters in the community."
 
Thus, he says that throughout the process of bringing Electric Works to life, his team will be screening renters and developing solutions to ensure that “good” renters can stay in the area.
 
“When you’re thoughtful about creating an affordable housing development and it’s done in a well-managed way, you have the controls in place to create a diverse and thriving community, among people of multiple income levels,” Biggs says. “Housing is a very important part of an innovation district to work, so we don’t want to displace renters as a part of the community fabric.”

The Electric Works campus is located in Fort Wayne's historic West Central neighborhood.
 
So what qualifies as “affordable housing” in a project like Electric Works?
 
In the past, to qualify for low-income housing tax credits, rental properties had to either have at least 20 percent of their units set aside as rent-restricted for households with incomes at or below 50 percent area median income (AMI). Or they had to have at least 40 percent of units set aside to be rent-restricted for households with incomes at or below 60 percent AMI.
 
However, in 2018, the Consolidated Appropriations Act allowed property owners to accommodate households with incomes up to 80 percent of the AMI, so long as the average income/rent limit in the project remained at 60 percent or less of the AMI.
 
Biggs feels this shift in the way affordable housing is determined will help his team create more dynamic and mixed-income housing opportunities at Electric Works to accommodate renters in a wide range of budgets.
 
“It really allows developers and property management companies to solve a lot of housing issues in a flexible way,” he says.
 
But the question remains: If the area around Electric Works improves, even in a way that includes "good" renters and landlords, where will the other renters and landlords go?

'A lot of the poverty and other problems are going to come Southeast. Where else is it going to go?'

Southeast Fort Wayne is a formerly redlined part of the city, which continues to be dominated by diverse populations of residents, from Black to Hispanic, Latino, and Burmese. The area has also suffered from historic disinvestment and neglect, lacking access to fresh food and locally owned businesses.

Many residents in Southeast echo similar concerns as Rinehart, fearing that if troublesome renters and landlords are displaced from the Electric Works area, they may move to Southeast and worsen conditions there.

Diane Rogers, a Black woman and current President of the Oxford Community Association, has lived on the Southeast side of town the majority of her life. She remembers this part of town as having thriving Black neighborhoods when she was growing up. Rogers

“We had so many things right there in our backdoor," Rogers says. "Politics and economics have really rerouted the wealth out of our community. I just find it really sad to see. Black people used to own businesses up and down streets like Hanna, Lewis, and Pontiac. Now, people who look like me don’t have those storefront businesses anymore.”

Rogers points to an inequitable distribution of wealth in the city, making it difficult to maintain infrastructure or support development in the Southeast quadrant. 

“I stay active in the community, reminding people that we are responsible for what comes into our community, but if you can’t get the financial support for that, the community will deteriorate,” Rogers says. “There’s nothing wrong with having a nice downtown. But older communities are forgotten, maybe because it doesn’t have the historical designation.”

As construction on Electric Works begins and revitalization efforts move forward, Rogers worries that poverty will be driven out of the surrounding downtown neighborhoods into Southeast neighborhoods, which are already dealing with their own challenges. 

“When they force those people out of that community over there, a lot of the poverty and other problems are going to come Southeast," Rogers says. "Where else is it going to go?”

Diane Rogers, a leader and longtime resident in Southeast Fort Wayne, questions whether Electric Works will benefit her community.

While the project has been lauded as an inclusive venture that will draw in people from all across the city, a disconnect is still felt on the Southeast side. 

“Electric Works doesn’t have anything to do with my community,” Rogers says. “Some people say it will benefit my community; I haven’t seen anything in my lifetime that has benefitted my community. It’s a nice plan, but it’s not in walking distance of the people who live in my community. I’m glad to see they’re doing something for that community around Electric Works, but I don’t know how that’s going to affect my community.”

In a world not built on fairness, Rogers understands the reality but still wishes for better. 

“My life is not determined by other people thinking I’m successful," she says. "My life is determined by what I have been able to inspire and encourage people to do to make their lives better and to be grateful for what it is that we have. But still, if the wealth and opportunities aren’t distributed fairly, how are people supposed to feel like they’re included?”

'Hopefully, folks from over here will end up with jobs long after the construction is over.'

Donita Mudd is a lifelong Fort Wayne resident and former GE employee who views Electric Works through the lens of her career as a window treatment contractor. For Mudd, one of the biggest benefits of Electric Works could be job creation and introducing people to new careers. 

“I think, initially, Electric Works could impact the Southeast side of Fort Wayne if they follow through and give contracts to small businesses and minority contractors, like myself, so that we actually have work on that site," she says. "It could go a long way in showing larger businesses and contractors the possibility of business from the Southeast side of Fort Wayne, the money we can make, and the experience we can bring to their businesses. The labor piece is important if we’re concerned about seeing our city grow and inspiring others who might be interested in this type of work.”

Donita Mudd is a lifelong Fort Wayne resident and former GE employee.

Mudd is a proponent of seeing economic development being put back into the community surrounding Electric Works and preserving the historic GE buildings. The lack of similar opportunities to preserve history on the Southeast side, however, hasn’t gone unnoticed. 

“I think it’s great for developers to take that property and repurpose it,” Mudd says. “Fort Wayne is not known as a community for appreciating our historic buildings.” 

Mudd gives the example of Ward Elementary School, later renamed the L.C. Ward Educational Center, located near the intersection of Oxford and Warsaw Streets. For years, the building constructed in 1931 had been scheduled for demolition while local residents rallied to save it. Finally, in January 2021, the decision to repurpose the building into a neighborhood health facility was made.

“It would have taken a small fraction of the budget for Electric Works to be used on the L.C. Ward property,” Mudd says. “The world doesn’t work by doing what’s right or what’s considerate for an area, but if it was possible to take a small percentage of the budget for Electric Works and put it in an adaptive, nonresidential, reuse project in a property that’s in Southeast Fort Wayne, even 2-5 percent of that budget would do a world of good.”

Diane Rogers was one of the organizers behind Friday's protest to save Ward School.

When it comes to the direct impact of Electric Works on the Southeast side, Mudd is optimistic about the long-term job potential it could create. 

“Hopefully, folks from over here will end up with jobs long after the construction is over," she says. "Hopefully it will draw some people into construction jobs and various trades, as well. This could be an opportunity for them to get their feet wet and learn about construction and want to continue to grow into that field and make a career of it."

But once the construction is complete, Mudd is more conflicted. 

“Once it’s all said and done and people start going to Electric Works and working there, they won’t even have to come through this part of town," she says. "I doubt we would have hardly any residual effect in this neighborhood.” 

“I think, initially, Electric Works could impact the Southeast side of Fort Wayne if they follow through and give contracts to small businesses and minority contractors, like myself, so that we actually have work on that site," Donita Mudd says.

Even so, she recognizes the project is ultimately good for the city and its urban neighborhoods. 

“I hope it becomes one of those go-to spots for the state where people would come to Fort Wayne, possibly bring their businesses to locate there, and possibly live there," she says. "It would be an area where people in other parts of Fort Wayne could come into the city instead of heading out to more suburban areas. That would be great for the city.”

'I think these four quadrants also serve as a barrier at times, not physically, but in people’s minds.'

Cherise Dixie has lived on the Southeast side of Fort Wayne her entire life and is currently the Southeast Area Partnership Chair.  

“There’s been a large disinvestment Southeast for many, many years," Dixie says. "Those of us living Southeast see the attention given to other quadrants of the city. We had these four quadrants developed, in part, for community policing eons ago. But I think these four quadrants also serve as a barrier at times, not physically, but in people’s minds. We see it when it comes to how the money is doled out and who gets the attention.”

Such barriers, real or imagined, make it difficult for a development, like Electric Works, to make good on the inclusivity it’s promising. 

“Personally, I’m finding it difficult to see a direct relationship or correlation between the development of Electric Works and how it may positively impact the Southeast,” Dixie says. “I think that a lot of people who live Southeast don’t feel included, even though they may have had public meetings. It still doesn’t give the feel that that’s meant for us. It’s something else that’s over there.”

The Fort Wayne Police Department's quadrant map.

Many point to the proposed jobs that Electric Works will create and attract, but Dixie isn’t so sure the Southeast will ever reap any of the financial benefits. 

“They keep talking about job creation, and that’s great, but are those jobs going to have a living wage? Or are those jobs going to be, quite frankly, the jobs we already have here Southeast--where you’re making minimum wage and can’t afford to live anywhere, let alone take care of your family?" she asks. "So, I’m not so sure. It remains to be seen.”

On the plus side, Electric Works will play a major role in preserving the historic GE buildings, something Dixie wishes could happen in her part of town, as well. 

“I’m all for saving old buildings,” Dixie says. “I’m really pleased that the GE buildings will be used for something good. But why is it that we can look at an old GE building, and say, ‘Wow, we can do this, and let’s put millions of dollars of city money to support that establishment,’ but when it comes to a building like an L.C. Ward in the Oxford area, they can’t think of anything to do with it? There’s not the same excitement or dollars being thrown behind it to leverage development in that area. Why can’t you visualize a coffee shop or a mixed-use development or an apartment building? Why can’t you see that, but you can see so much elsewhere? So that’s a little disheartening because we see that often.”

Protesters take to the front steps of Ward School on Friday, Aug. 7, 2020.

'A lot of people have promised Southeast a lot of things, but there have not been promises delivered.'

As someone who has invested in affordable housing in Southeast Fort Wayne in the past and stayed active on blight elimination projects in the area, Biggs says one of his personal goals is to keep working with neighborhood leaders in Southeast. He wants to make neighborhood-benefitting investments there, so that all tides rise together as Electric Works comes to life.
 
"We can't take our eye off the ball," Biggs says. "Electric Works is a wonderful project that’s going to be a huge lift for the entire region, but community planners need to continue to stay focused on areas like Southeast that need the investment the most."
 
With this in mind, Biggs has been encouraged by the number of Fort Wayne area investors who have stepped up, not only to help Electric Works get across the funding finish line in 2020, but also to pledge that they will take their return on investment from Electric Works and reinvest their earnings into Southeast Fort Wayne projects, specifically.
 
"That's incredibly encouraging," Biggs says. "There's been a lot of talk over the years about people trying to help Southeast, but this is the first time I'm aware of that people have made specific pledges to intentionally invest in this part of the community."
 
Biggs says he sees Southeast as a part of Fort Wayne that's full of potential, home to a large population base that doesn't currently have access to services, like grocery stores, within close proximity.
 
"Why should they have to drive 25 minutes across town to buy fresh produce or purchase clothes?" Biggs asks.

Amenities like Pontiac Mall are assets in Southeast.
 
From a community development standpoint, he believes it will take a large project, or a handful of large projects, to act as a “center of gravity” in Southeast and really move the needle on attracting investment there. He also believes projects with this catalytic potential are already in the works behind-the-scenes.
 
"It's fairly confidential, but several projects are bubbling up right now, and I'm pretty confident one will emerge to be that anchor project," he says.
 
Even so, Biggs says he understands a healthy skepticism around projects like Electric Works and other developments intended to help Southeast.
 
"I would be skeptical myself because of how the broader community has acted and reacted over the past 10-15 years, and probably even longer," he says. "A lot of people have promised Southeast a lot of things, but there have not been promises delivered. That's one thing Councilman Glynn Hines has shared with me many, many times since we did our project at Renaissance Pointe."
 
Despite these concerns, Biggs says he's humbled by how Southeast leaders have worked with him on Electric Works and other developments in the Southeast area, and he hopes that these collaborations continue to grow stronger in the future.
 
"We’re going to need everyone towing on the same side of the rope," he says. "I want to continue to be open and transparent and work with the Southeast community, in particular, because I think there’s been a lack of transparency and frankly, goodwill, in the past."

General Electric once employed a third of Fort Wayne's workforce before exiting the community and leaving its massive campus vacant.

In imagining what the future of Electric Works might be like as a Southeast resident, Dixie says she hopes it will be able to capture some of the nostalgic feelings of the GE campus as a means of fostering goodwill in the broader Fort Wayne community and helping people across the city thrive. 

“My biggest hope for Electric Works is that it becomes a very inclusive space that continues the legacy that GE had,” Dixie says. “GE touched a lot of lives throughout Fort Wayne—Black, white, and others. It would be nice if, years from now, people could look at Electric Works and still have that same sentiment or feeling that they were impacted in some way positively by them being there.”

Editor’s Note: This story is a joint project between Fort Wayne Ink Spot and Input Fort Wayne looking at the catalytic potential of Northeast Indiana’s largest project—and how it will affect various neighborhoods near and around the development.
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