Dreaming big: GE project puts Fort Wayne in national spotlight

While national news headlines about Fort Wayne were once reserved for jokes and job loss, the reputation of this former Rust Belt city is starting to shine.

In 2017, the Huffington Post stopped in Fort Wayne on its Listen to America Tour, highlighting local spirit, downtown boutiques, and renovations at the old General Electric Co. campus.

Now, GE is putting Fort Wayne in the national spotlight again, and this time, the story is about dreaming big.

The GE project promises to be one of the biggest renovation efforts in northeast Indiana's history.

Fort Wayne earned a large feature in the Wall Street Journal in early January for its ambitious efforts to renovate the GE campus, a $440 million project that spans more than 1.2 million square feet near the heart of downtown.

Once employing almost 40 percent of Fort Wayne's workforce, GE's local operations declined in the late 1960s, turning it's sprawling campus into a ghost town.

"There was so much sentiment that GE would never be anything other than a fenced off part of our community," says John Sampson, President and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership.

The company eliminated its final jobs in the city in 2014, leaving the 18 buildings still standing today looming over the Broadway corridor as physical reminders of what northeast Indiana lost in the manufacturing era.

In its heyday, GE employed roughly 40 percent of Fort Wayne's workforce.
Now plans to renovate the campus into a mixed-use cultural district called Electric Works are turning Fort Wayne into a poster child for the Rust Belt's rebirth nationwide.

"The reality is, communities not unlike Fort Wayne all across the Midwest have been written off based on this historical Rust Belt moniker," Sampson says. "Fort Wayne is a leading example of communities reinvesting in themselves, having hope, a purpose, and a future—and creating that themselves."

For decades, Fort Wayne has taken pride in being "the city that saved itself," overcoming the odds during the Flood of the 1982, and again when large employers like General Electric and Harvester closed.

A photo from the GE archives shows that the campus was once a busy center of community life.

The city's perseverance through these hardships is a concept Eric Doden of Greater Fort Wayne, Inc. likes to call "grit."

"Grit is a combination of passion plus perseverance, and I think what this shows the U.S. is that we're a gritty city," Doden says. "We're passionate about our community, and our region, and we will persevere to see these big projects through to completion and to fix the problems that exist."

Doden, Sampson, and other regional leaders hope breathing life into the old campus brings residents and jobs back to northeast Indiana in new ways.

"In many respects, that's exactly what's going on here," Sampson says. "We're saving ourselves again."

But while the concept of rebirth is not new to Fort Wayne, projections for the scale of the GE project may make it the biggest test of northeast Indiana's grit in modern history.

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

Swimming upstream

As a demographer at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Rob Paral studies migration trends in cities across the Midwest.

"I look at data on Midwestern communities a lot, and look at things that make them grow or not grow," Paral says.

In his research, he's seen aging populations and steady migration out of cities like Fort Wayne for decades now.

Ironically, with the loss of manufacturing jobs like those at GE, people throughout the Midwest have been moving west or south, and this trend is something he thinks makes Fort Wayne's plans for the GE project extremely unique—even different from similar projects like the American Tobacco Campus in Durham, N.C.

While the Carolinas are gaining population to buoy development, Fort Wayne is driving development under the presumption that if you build it, they will come.

"It's trying to create population growth, not just take advantage of existing population growth," Paral says. "In my opinion, it's a different situation."

The GE campus is about a five-minute drive from Downtown Fort Wayne on the South Side.

While any city invests in itself and takes on public projects to advance its opportunities, to some extent, the sheer size and scale of the GE project also makes it unique.

"It strikes me how large it is," Paral says. "It seems enormous."

As spokesperson for the future Electric Works campus, Kevin Erb worked with the Wall Street Journal reporter, Shibani Mahtani, to put the GE project into perspective in a GDP analysis.

"If you look at for the GDP for Fort Wayne compared to Chicago, and then you extrapolate that, this would be a roughly $12-14 billion dollar project in Chicago," Erb says.

And even in Chicago, that's a big deal.

"It would be the biggest project here in the city," Mahtani says. "I don’t know of any $12 billion Chicago projects."

The sheer size of the GE buildings stunned Chicago-based reporter Shibani Mahtani of the Wall Street Journal.

A story worth telling

As a reporter based in the Windy City, Mahtani says one of the largest projects right now is a renovation of the Old Chicago Main Post Office at around $300 million.

So when she heard about the GE project, and realized the scale of it despite stagnating domestic populations in the Midwest, it caught her attention as a story that should be told.

"It’s really interesting that, within this context, Fort Wayne is trying to embark on a big, defining project, which will be risky, but also has the potential to transform the region and the city," Mahtani says.

The name for the future Electric Works development pays tribute to an early name for General Electric, as Fort Wayne Electric Works.

Working with Erb and members of the Regional Partnership, she arranged a time to visit Fort Wayne for two days during the week before Christmas. But even she admits that she underestimated the size of the GE campus until she toured it with a Wall Street Journal photographer.

"Architecturally, these buildings are amazing and crazy looking," Mahtani says. "The visuals are really strong. Even to see the old bowling alley and all the old score sheets from the 1980s is pretty crazy."

Skywalks connect buildings of the GE campus.

Even so, she explains that the city will need a lot of investment and interest from companies, retailers, and restaurants to make the project successful. Her research on similar developments, like the American Tobacco Campus, indicates that another important step will be securing strategic partnerships with universities.

Durham is at the center of the Research Triangle in North Carolina, anchored by North Carolina State University, Duke University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which all feed young graduates into the city.

Seeing this trend, Electric Works already secured Indiana Tech University as its first official tenant in mid-December, announcing its intentions to lease 10,000 square feet of space in building 19 on the west campus.

Mahtani says if Electric Works can connect with other key universities, like Notre Dame and Indiana University, as well, its chances of success are higher.

“It remains to be seen whether fresh grads would consider (Fort Wayne) an option,” Mahtani says.

It's a risk. But it's that risk—that willingness to recognize the challenges and keep moving forward—that's making northeast Indiana a newsworthy place on a national scale. And leaders like Doden hope it inspires citizens, too.

"What we're proving as a community is that we have the courage, the capital, and the talent to get these projects done," Doden says. "I think it's an exciting time to be part of Fort Wayne."

Electric Works is expected to be a mixed-use cultural district with loft apartments, an incubator office space, and a food hall.

In 2015, the Regional Partnership did a study called the Our Story Project that personified northeast Indiana by identifying its top character traits.

Across the board, from city to city, their study showed that the region is a "contender"—a gritty, fighting, underdog, venturing into uncharted territory and dreaming big against all odds.

As Vice President of Marketing & Strategic Communications at the Regional Partnership, Kate Virag says this underdog mentality is part of the reason northeast Indiana rallies around projects like GE despite the challenges, and part of the reason it's getting national press.

"It comes down to you have to have a story worth telling," Virag says. "We do."
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Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.