Straight From the Mayor's Mouth

An exclusive, extended interview with Mayor Tom Henry about arenas, new jobs, tunnels, designing our downtown and much more!
Jun 1, 2016
Stacey Root
Steve Vorderman

This is an exciting time for our city! Fort Wayne has committed itself to becoming a sought out destination for traveling visitors, businesses and people looking for a great place to call home. With all the revitalization taking place in our downtown, on our riverfront and throughout our city—and all the excited chatter among residents—it’s hard to keep track. Business People sat down with Mayor Henry for an update on the various projects we can expect over the next few years in the Summit City.

A downtown entertainment, sports and events center has been proposed in Fort Wayne. Where would it be located?

Mayor Henry: It’s been recommended that it go on Jefferson Boulevard right across from Parkview Field. The reason for that is high exposure and, logistically, it could attach to the Grand Wayne Center through a skywalk. 

How many people would the arena seat?

About 5,500 to 6,000, which would be smaller than the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, but larger than the Embassy Theatre and Foellinger Theatre. According to consultants who’ve studied the viability of a potential arena, there are a lot of visiting attractions for that size of venue that want to come out here.

What can we expect in the next year or two in riverfront development?

One is property acquisition and demolition along the riverfront. We also have to do a lot of soil borings along the riverbanks to make sure it’s strong enough to support the riverwalk. I think we’ll also see a lot of growth in river activities. We actually have a person now whose job it is to make sure people in our city are aware of the boating and festival activities taking place. 

Have you done anything for the river water quality?

Our rivers are already clean; they may not appear that way because they have a dirt bottom and are only about five or six feet deep. In fact, Fort Wayne is one of the best places in the country as far as passing all of the water quality tests that are required; our water has won national awards for its taste and quality!

An attempt at making sure the rivers are clean is the tunnel project we’re starting in 2017 that will take about five to six years. Our goal is to reduce combined sewer overflows to just a couple a year. In return it will clean our rivers. This will be the biggest project City Utilities has ever undertaken. 

There are a lot of new housing developments going in downtown. Can these accommodate the rising demand?

If you’re thinking of moving downtown, you better be quick. The demand far exceeds the supply. That’s why the Cityscape Flats are being built by Parkview Field; that’s why the new Skyline Tower is being built; that’s why the Superior Lofts are being built.

The demand is high for two reasons: We’re getting more people working downtown with the new Ash building and other businesses expanding. Also, the Baby Boomer generation is getting to retirement age and doesn’t want to live in the suburbs anymore. Those people want to be downtown as long as you offer them a reason to be downtown.

What’s the latest update on the Ash Skyline Plaza?

The parking garage is complete. Ash Skyline Plaza, home of Ash Brokerage, is open. By this time next year the tower next to it for the new apartments will be getting built and that’s where the new Ruth’s Chris restaurant will be. The Golden bar and restaurant will be there. Lake City Bank is already there. DeBrand’s will have a store there. 

I was speaking with Tim Ash recently, and he said the receptiveness of the community has been incredible!

The General Electric sign on the facility that has been a part of Fort Wayne for 100 years is being taken down. Why did GE make that decision and what will happen to the sign?

GE’s decision to remove the GE sign at the Broadway campus was due to safety reasons and to protect the sign to avoid deterioration. The City of Fort Wayne appreciates GE’s commitment to being good stewards of the property that it owns and placing an emphasis on safety. The sign will remain in storage at the campus for the foreseeable future.

Has there been discussion about any use for the GE campus?

The City of Fort Wayne, Greater Fort Wayne Inc. and GE are involved in proactive discussions about the future of the GE property. 

We continue to have positive discussions with GE about the future of the campus. Everyone realizes this is an effort that’s going to take time. Collaboration will be key in moving forward to find an appropriate future use of the campus. We’re encouraged there’s open communication designed to find ways to make a meaningful difference for the community.

Even though no final decisions have been made about the future of the GE property, we recognize and value the campus as part of an important corridor in the community. We’re optimistic that a viable plan will be developed that will build on the positive momentum and investment we’re seeing in Fort Wayne. 

Walmart has announced a new milk processing plant it’s constructing. How is this significant for Fort Wayne?

What really excites us is that this is Walmart’s first entry into that type of facility. We’re the only one. Historically, it has bought and shipped milk which doesn’t have a very long life cycle. So, Walmart wisely figured out that if it were able to package it themselves it’d be able to get it to stores quicker. 

Logistically, our location is very close to several hundred Walmart stores. From Fort Wayne, Walmart can reach all those stores in a very quick period of time. We often refer to ourselves as the crossroads; well in this particular case, we prove to be that!

The Walmart plant will generate 200 new jobs. Do you think 2016 will be a better year for employment than 2015 which had 1,600 new jobs?

Seeing our city growing and the momentum and excitement of our citizens at having more visitors, that’s what companies are looking for—a vibrant community. If a company is going to move or someone is going to build a company here, they want to make sure it’s a thriving community that’s growing and prosperous. Many times they bring their employees with them and they want their employees to go into a community that has an inviting quality of life. 

That’s why we work so hard on making downtown and our neighborhoods as attractive as possible. It’s all part of economic development. 

The new farm-to-fork restaurant Tolon has opened on The Landing and seems to be a great success with its creative culinary menu and laid back urban vibe. Is this the tone the city is looking for on The Landing?

That’s the kind of atmosphere we want on The Landing. That kind of coziness and personal relationship between the offerings and the customers. I think that’s exactly what attracts developers. The Landing can be a real eclectic area and offer the types of amenities young people want. 

The Model Group, based in Cincinnati with a specialty for urban, historical areas, has been chosen to redevelop The Landing. What prompted that decision? 

The Model Group has done a number of these types of projects and this is exactly the type of place it’s looking for. It has done a lot of urban, historical renovation projects which is why The Model Group fell in love with The Landing. Columbia Street is very similar to what it’s done in Cincinnati, except it was many more square blocks there. This project is going to be tremendous for our downtown.

Will you be searching for a builder soon?

Yes, with The Model Group’s input. 

We want to have a common theme. That’s been the problem over the years. The City has had different developers, different builders. There’s never been any continuity or connectivity. That’s why I don’t think it’s ever really taken off. We’ve tried for decades to get something that’s really sustainable and we think this is going to be it. The Model Group’s job is to make sure whatever goes in The Landing complements each other. 

You’ve been working a lot to revitalize the neighborhoods. Why has this been a focus of your administration?

Neighborhoods are a challenge as far as infrastructure because a lot of the money we use to fix that comes from the gasoline tax. And there’s never enough. I may need $5 worth of work done but I only get $2 or $3 in gasoline tax so I have to wait for that extra $2 or $3 until next year. But next year, that original $5 price may rise another $2 or $3. 

We’ve realized we’re behind in these projects. This has been the case for several administrations. It’s nobody’s fault, it just kept rolling over. 

A few years ago we made a strong commitment in partnership with City Council and the Fiscal Policy Group to increase funding for neighborhood infrastructure projects. Instead of investing $5 or $6 million a year into infrastructure, we’re now devoting more than $20 million each year throughout the entire City. We knew it was important to the neighborhoods. We’ve invested in three years what we would normally spend in about 10 in order to meet the needs of the community. 

Any other projects in the works?

People are going to see a lot of construction on State Boulevard. This year will be preparation work for 2017 when we do the State Boulevard straightening project. This will be a tremendous investment to enhance safety and the quality of life in our City. 

IMG Insurance Management Group

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