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Future of site excites neighbors, officials

February 14, 2017 GMT

Those involved in the fight to preserve Fort Wayne’s General Electric complex Monday cast the pending redevelopment of the 31-acre site in a positive light.

Members of the West Central Neighborhood Association and the GE Campus Coalition said they are hopeful after learning that Cross Street Partners of Baltimore has taken on the job.

“I’ve never been sure that I’d see this,” said Charlotte Weybright, a former neighborhood association president and coalition member who led small rallies to save the campus.

“I was hopeful, but with the massive size of the buildings and the number of square feet – well, I was hopeful, but worried. And now it’s happened.”

Neighbors said they understand the campus, which sprawls on both sides of Broadway just south of downtown, won’t be transformed overnight.

Cross Street envisions an innovation-driven, mixed-use neighborhood of educational, residential, retail and office space, which residents said they approve.

“We feel that the GE project would be an anchor for the West Central Neighborhood, as well as … a center­piece for the success of downtown Fort Wayne,” said Ben Wahli, the neighborhood association’s current president.

Still, some residents weren’t quite ready to exhale. Mike Anderson, a longtime West Central resident and housing rehabber, called the announcement “tremendous” and “wonderful.”

But Anderson added he was looking for more specifics after developers did not say Monday how many or which of the site’s 17 buildings would be preserved.

“I wanted more detail,” he said. “West Central has been working on this for a long time.”

Democratic City Councilman Geoff Paddock, who convened the coalition to help determine the fate of the campus that lies in the 3rd District he represents, said specifics should come “relatively soon.”

Developers have indicated they will likely convene more meetings with residents as the project moves forward to determine what the community wants and would support, Paddock said.

“I have really dreamed for this day for a long time,” he said. “The way it’s been presented really exceeded my expectations.”

West Central neighbors noted that the project should help improve the market for homes on the southern side of the neighborhood, which is nearest GE, where dilapidated properties remain.

Wahli added he would “be remiss” if he didn’t mention an oft-voiced hope for a grocery and drugstore as part of the project.

Larry Weigand, CEO of Weigand Construction, Fort Wayne, and Chuck Surack, president and CEO of Fort Wayne’s Sweetwater Sound, agreed the project should spur the next phase of city development.

Weigand said he was “impressed” by the project’s potential to impact 500,000 people a year who would visit, live or work at the site.

That statistic was cited as a personally motivating factor by Eric Doden, CEO of Greater Fort Wayne, in his announcement of the agreement with Cross Street Partners.

“I think that was a very impressive statistic,” Weigand said. He added the project “keeps us going” in continuing downtown area development.

“I’d like to think that a lot of my employees will live down here,” Surack said. “I know they want to live downtown.”

Jill McDevitt, executive director of ARCH, Fort Wayne’s nonprofit historic architecture preservation group, said the group stands ready to assist the project’s next phases.

“I’m really excited in a lot of ways,” she said. “There weren’t any details today, and we want the integrity of the campus to be preserved through this project, so we’ll have to keep an eye on it.

“But hopefully, it’s looking positive.”

rsalter@jg.net