FORT WAYNE – When its complete, it will stretch 80 miles from Pokagon State Park near the Michigan border to Ouabache State Park in Bluffton, but the part of the Pufferbelly Trail most anticipated is just north of downtown Fort Wayne.
The 2.6 miles of trail between Headwaters Park and Fernhill Avenue – known as Phase 1 – is seen as key to tying the north side of the city to downtown, creating a pedestrian link from Glenbrook Square to Science Central, the Wells Street corridor, Headwaters Park, and all downtown has to offer. Not to mention its connection to the heart of the citys 70-mile trail network, and the spur that is planned to connect the trail to Franke Park and the Fort Wayne Childrens Zoo.
But the trailhead planned for the south side of Fernhill was going to disappoint at best: With only the 100-foot wide New York Central Railroad corridor to build in, plans called for 16 parking spots and a small pavilion.
We needed much more than that, but thats all the room we had, said city Dawn Ritchie, Greenways manager for the city. This is going to be a premier trail that provides more connectivity than any other trail we have. It was disappointing.
It was especially disheartening because in survey after survey, Ritchie said, what trail users say they want most – besides more trails – are things at trailheads such as drinking fountains and restrooms.
Meanwhile, developer Todd Ramsey was having his own problems. Business was booming at RCI Developments ice rinks at Lutheran Health SportsCenter and at SportONE Parkview Fieldhouse next door. When both had large events going on, parking lots were overflowing.
Six weekends a year, everything collides, Ramsey told the citys Redevelopment Commission this summer.
To Ramsey, the problem with the trailhead sounded more like an opportunity.
Rather than try to cram it into a parcel with no space for it and only right-in/right-out access off Fernhill, Ramsey proposed building the trailhead on the north side of the street, between the road and the fieldhouse. There would be room for a huge parking lot, a big pavilion, dozens of bike racks, restrooms and drinking fountains.
In short, the city would get the trailhead of its dreams for its premier trail and the ice arena and fieldhouse would get overflow parking.
The only catch was paying for it, but Ramsey had an idea for that, too.
Theres already a Tax Increment Financing district covering the area, a designation that takes the increased property taxes caused by development and uses them to pay for the infrastructure that made the development possible. In other words, the property owner pays the new, higher bill for the land that now houses the development, but the extra amount paid goes to a special fund to pay for things like sewer lines, roads or streetlights.
Ramsey proposed using the existing TIF to reimburse some of his costs for building the trailhead, meaning the city would get the Taj Mahal of trailheads without having to front the cash to pay for it.
Well pay for it, then wait for the TIF to build up the funds and pay us back, Ramsey offered.
To the joy of trail officials, the Redevelopment Commission has taken him up on the offer. Ramsey estimated the cost at $1 million. Redevelopment Commission Executive Director Greg Leatherman said the commission has given preliminary approval to an agreement to reimburse RCI Development up to $478,000.
Thats the amount it would cost us if we were going to buy the land, build the shelter, the restrooms, install a turn lane, put in the lighting, all of that, Leatherman said. And the money comes from reimbursement of property taxes theyre already paying.
The agreement will get final approval when all the paperwork is complete, such as documents guaranteeing the city use of the land and maintenance agreements.
It provides them with the parking they say they need to attract large regional and national events and the city gets a trailhead earlier and the taxes from rink and hotel and fieldhouse pay for it, and eventually we get the increased taxes, as well, Leatherman said.
Ritchie said the original trailhead would have cost about $100,000, so the cost to taxpayers is even lower, and officials believe the benefits of the trail will more than pay for the investment required. Having pedestrian access to the core of the city will be a major boon, she said, and the federal government will pay 80 percent of the cost.
When the trail is finished – construction is scheduled to begin in 2015 and be completed in 2016 – it will also create a 2.9-mile loop from Lawton Park, up the St. Joseph River, west along State Boulevard to where the Pufferbelly will cross on a new bridge, and back to Lawton near the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge.
Here youve got a developer that recognizes the importance of the trail and theyre so excited about it they keep asking, Whens it going to be built? Ritchie said. Were elated.