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File photos
Employees will exit the Fort Wayne GE campus on Broadway for the last time in 2014. What lies ahead for the sprawling campus? Conversion to residences is among the options that have been raised.

Lighting the way

For a century-plus, GE and Fort Wayne energized the nation

At its height during World War II, GE employed about 20,000 workers on its city-like campus off Broadway.
GE’s lighted sign has been a Fort Wayne skyline fixture for decades – and will continue to be so for now.
Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Courtesy GE
Motors of all types have been produced by GE workers through the years. The plant was such a vital cog in the World War II effort that its sign was turned off lest it attract enemy bombers.
Photos courtesy GE
The women’s basketball team of 1916-17 is one of many teams GE sponsored in Fort Wayne for decades.

More than most cities, Fort Wayne is blessed with icons that symbolize its history and its character. The church steeples, the confluence of the three rivers, Santa Claus at Christmastime, the ornate top of the Tower Bank. And perhaps the brightest icon of all: the giant blue sign that shines every night just past the southwest edge of downtown.

GE.

For more than 100 years, General Electric’s Fort Wayne operations have been a part of what defined us. They once were a city within a city, a sprawling campus of buildings that employed almost 12,000 people and served customers around the nation.

GE in Fort Wayne was more than a source of jobs and taxes. Its leaders were community leaders. Its workers were your friends and neighbors and relatives. Its inventions and products helped change the way Americans lived.

Its role in World War II defense production was so crucial that the big blue sign was turned off to prevent an attack on the plant.

The company and its predecessor, Fort Wayne “Jenney” Electric Light, played a key role in getting cities across the country to understand the promise of artificial lighting. Imagine: The first night baseball game was played here.

As General Electric proposes to close its remaining operations, we pause to honor the past and ponder the future.

Today we present some images from our files, from the History Center, and from General Electric’s own collection.

We can offer only to begin the discussion of what lies ahead for this remarkable campus of 13 buildings and more than 1 million square feet of space just beyond the city’s center. (Talks with the unions involved must proceed for several weeks before GE’s plans become official.)

Last fall, GE’s 1,100-employee tenant, BAE Systems, announced plans to move near Fort Wayne International Airport. Most of the buildings are already empty. Within a year, all of them could be.

Are there plans for these buildings and this seemingly prime real estate so close to a rejuvenated downtown?

It’s not easy to guess what structural, infrastructural and environmental problems might have to be overcome. Few even have been inside most of the buildings to know what kind of condition they’re in.

Developer Jerry Henry, who has saved many buildings and helped tear down others, believes the GE complex’s future might be tied to the trend of younger people returning to downtown living. “Nowadays,” he said, “I think there’s only one use for those buildings, and I think it should be housing” Henry said some of the buildings could be used as “shells” for modular apartments that are “ready to go.”

Both the city and GE talk of ongoing discussions but decline to say much more at this point.

Pat Morello, who has been general manager of the Fort Wayne GE operations for the past 10 years, said, “We’re in contact with the city and with the mayor. I think that the city will find this property valuable.”

Right now, Morello’s concern is meeting with the union and providing for his remaining employees’ future.

Asked to reflect on the history of what was once one of the city’s dominant presences, Morello said he doesn’t think anyone made the wrong choices.

It was a matter of times changing.

“In the old days, it was refrigerators and motors and DC generators – through the ’50s and ’60s. Then refrigerator production went to Louisville, transformers left in the ’90s. In 2010, we stopped making electric motors for golf carts.

“I don’t know what happened in 1950. I was born in 1965. But business is cost-driven, efficiency-driven, speed-driven. All of the general managers, I’m sure – they’ve always focused on the customer.”

One thing won’t be changing in the near term. GE spokesman Matt Conkrite says the sign is a long-lived, low-maintenance LED light.

“We have no plans to shut that down soon.”

Tim Harmon is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.

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