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East Coast connections soon could be a reality in Fort Wayne, with the assistance of Legacy Fund money.

Latest grants show need for new discussion on Legacy Fund

Everybody agrees on this: Getting an airline to schedule regular flights between Fort Wayne and either Newark, N.J., or Philadelphia will be an excellent move.

Fort Wayne’s bid to become a bigger player in the national economic development scene depends on a lot of factors. A fast, direct link to the East Coast may not, in itself, convince a company that it needs to locate in Fort Wayne. But it’s one of those things that can weigh in a company’s decision. When “Fort Wayne” is in the “arrivals-departures” column of major airports, it’s like a little, blinking free ad that says, “Hey! This is a city to be taken seriously.”

So kudos to the city, the county, Greater Fort Wayne Inc., the Indiana Economic Development Council and the Regional Opportunities Council for working with the Airport Authority to put together a $2.5 million incentive package that will probably persuade United or American to come through with the new daily flights.

Like Councilman Tom Smith, R-1st, who was among the eight councilmen who voted for the measure Tuesday, we’re tempted to “swallow hard” and applaud its passage.

But in casting the lone vote against the air-subsidy plan, Councilman Russ Jehl, R-2nd, raised some thoughtful arguments.

Discussing his vote Thursday, Jehl emphasized that he is just as excited about expanded air service as everybody else. But, he said, “the discussion should have been, ‘This is a great idea, now who’s going to pay for this?’ ”

The council balked last week when the city proposed devoting a two-year total of $600,000 in Legacy Fund money to underwrite the project. This week, the measure passed after the city proposed using $300,000 of Legacy money – the fund derived from the lease and sale of the city-owned electric utility – and $300,000 from county economic development income tax revenue.

Jehl said he objected to this funding strategy because the Airport Authority is a separate governmental entity, with its own ability to tax and bond. “That blurs the lines of good government,” he said. “It’s no different than, say, the library asking us for funds.”

Jehl asked why the Airport Authority didn’t put up the money from its own cash reserves which, he said, stand at $9.5 million. (The city’s general fund, by contrast, has just $5.2 million.)

And, he questioned whether this kind of “spontaneous request” was a proper way to use Legacy money. The fund, he pointed out, was originally to be devoted to the areas of youth and youth sports, downtown development and riverfront development.

There are two sides to the Airport Authority questions. Jessica Miller, the Airport Authority’s air service and community relations manager, pointed out that the federal Small Community Air Services Development grant that the authority obtained for this project requires community partners. Moreover, “when the airlines see that you have all these community organizations supporting you,” it helps persuade them to come here.

In addition to the $600,000 that the grant provides, the Airport Authority also partnered with Greater Fort Wayne Inc. on a $500,000 contribution to the package and is preparing to waive another half-million-dollars in fees for the airline during its first year here, Miller said.

What’s beyond dispute is that the general goals and uses of the Legacy Fund deserve another serious round of discussion. Only a few weeks ago, there was some discomfort with the decision to dedicate $3 million in Legacy funds to the renovation of buildings for the downtown campus of the University of Saint Francis. Though giving public dollars to a religious institution gave some pause, the allocation fit clearly into the strategy of downtown development.

This latest expenditure, though, seems more of a stretch.

If the seats are filled on the upcoming East Coast flights, it may not ever be necessary to touch the Legacy money.

But much of the Legacy Fund, now at $51.7 million with an additional $27 million coming in from I&M over the next 11 years, remains to be dispersed.

Before the next got-to-do-it-now opportunity drops from the heavens, the city, the council and the citizens they represent deserve to see clearer delineations on how this unique fund should be used.