High stakes

on the riverfront

By Connie Haas Zuber
Take a look at our riverfront — if you can. It’s not easy to get even a glimpse of the rivers most places. It’s obvious Fort Wayne sees itself as a city with rivers going through it rather than a city built along three rivers.

The history of human interaction that made our rivers opaque with silt, that forced those rivers to carry sewage and an unhealthy cocktail of things spilled onto pavement, sprayed onto lawns and fields and dumped at the end of industrial processes has, from the viewpoint of the rivers, been one failure after another.

Right now, Fort Wayne and the entire region have a chance to do something right, to capitalize on the rivers that have been our bane and blessing since time immemorial.

So, what will it be, Fort Wayne? Is it finally time to do riverfront development right?

A pent-up demand for access to our rivers has joined increased awareness of how cool riverfront places are in other cities. We’ve picked up on how much progress has been made cleaning up the rivers here and spotted an opportunity (or several).

“The time is right,” Deputy Mayor Mark Becker said, to plan to do downtown riverfront development right. The city administration expected to send its recommendations for how to spend the $75 million Legacy funds (proceeds from the lease and then sale of City Light to Indiana Michigan Power) to City Council for approval on Oct. 30. A big chunk of that opportunity money will be earmarked to plan and provide seed money for downtown riverfront development.

Becker adds that it is “historic” that the Regional Opportunity Council announced in 2011 that riverfront development in downtown Fort Wayne is the region’s most important quality of life goal.

A light really is shining at the other end of the tunnel through which the city will travel as it decides how to use the Legacy fund for what everyone is calling a “bold and transformative” riverfront project. And it really is a train.

It’s No. 765, the 1944 Berkshire steam locomotive the city saved in 1963 and put on display in Lawton Park after it pulled the first train across the elevation that opened up development of the city’s north side and triggered Fort Wayne’s boldest and most transformative economic boom to date.

No. 765 hasn’t been on display at Lawton Park since 1974, though. Thanks to the skill and dedicated hard work of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, it has been put back on the rails where time and again it demonstrates its star power, attracting thousands to buy tickets for its excursions and tens of thousands to watch it on its way.

Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society volunteer and spokesperson Kelly Lynch (who admits the huge potential of this idea keeps him up nights) first suggested bringing No. 765 back home to downtown from its current domicile in the country east of New Haven as early as 2006. Even though the historic freight station building at Clinton and Fourth Street that could have been part of what Lynch calls Headwaters Junction is gone, using the steam engine as an attraction to build traffic for the retail, restaurant, residential, recreational and entertainment businesses that could be developed there is still an idea with currency. It got the attention of the Legacy Fort Wayne Downtown and Riverfront Development Champion Team, and it was one of the top three projects in public online voting the Legacy task force used.

The Champion Team report says “The Headwaters Junction proposal proved to be big, bold and transformational. Incorporating this feature within a mixed-use development should not be overlooked.”

Lynch and all No. 765’s fans are waiting eagerly for the next step.

“It’s kind of funny to spend three years (pitching the idea to the Legacy committees) and get one sentence,” Lynch said. He paused thoughtfully.

“It’s a good sentence.”

Fort Wayne has come a long way (with much territory still to cover, granted) from the days when the rivers were regarded as too dangerous and/or polluted to enjoy. We only thought of them because of the annual threat — or costly reality — of flooding.

On many levels, we’ve begun to right our relationship with our rivers.

• The hundreds of millions of dollars invested since the 1980s through City Utilities (because the Environmental Protection Agency ordered us to) by everyone who uses city water and sewer service is paying off with lower amounts of pollution going into the rivers. Cleaner water is being returned to it after treatment. Through other related efforts, we’re also reducing the amount of pollution from other sources through the watershed, especially from agricultural land.

“The St. Joseph River Watershed agency is testing the river every week in 28 sites (and the City of Fort Wayne tests, too), and it meets full body contact criteria 60 to 70 percent of the time,” said Dan Wire, a longtime river advocate and founding member of Friends of the Rivers who is involved with a new organization that will spearhead water cleanup efforts on a regional scale.

In fact, he said, Fort Wayne’s rivers are always clean enough “that you can still do anything you’d want to on the rivers except for one thing and that’s going for a swim.” He reminds people that this year’s Riverfest (on the St. Joe as it goes through the IPFW campus) had Mark Becker and other dignitaries in the water tubing and they’re all fine.

• When you give people access to the rivers, they come and they love it.

Riverfest attracts thousands of people to the St. Joe riverbank each year, with the pontoon rides especially popular. Rivergames gets people onto the river and spectators onto the riverbanks as do the Three Rivers Festival and the William Wells celebrations. And two riverfront businesses have proved the rivers can be part of a successful business plan. Fort Wayne Outfitters sells and rents kayaks and canoes and has a landing on the St. Marys River at its Cass Street shop. The Deck at Hall’s Gas House downtown is a seasonal hit with many people willing to wait for one of the outdoor tables overlooking the St. Marys.

Finally, the newly dedicated Martin Luther King Jr. bridge on Clinton Street over the St. Marys is a grand gateway to the heart of downtown and a beautiful structure with its wide walkways, soaring superstructure and fun colorful light shows at night.

No. 765 would look so good steaming past it.

New downtown riverfront development has been on the radar here for years. Graham Richard remembers it as one of the possibilities under consideration during his years as mayor — before the Harrison Square/Parkview Field project became the focus of downtown development. Becker sees the Harrison Square project as good practice for riverfront development.

“It’s hard to think about what we have the potential to achieve,” he said. “Back then, we hadn’t lived in a community that had a vibrant (downtown) ballpark. Going through the Harrison Square project helped us understand what we can do, what we have the capacity to achieve.”

Richard says the city is facing a leadership challenge today, the same challenge it had to answer to build Harrison Square.

“It’s the same question as for any other multi-million-dollar development,” he said. “Where will the leadership come from? The public or the private sector? Who will take the lead to move vision to action?”

Posted: Wed, 11/21/2012 - 1:47 pm
Last updated: Wed, 01/23/2013 - 2:20 pm