The public’s share in the public/private Ash Brokerage project grew Monday with a Capital Improvement Board vote to increase investment in the downtown project from $6.5 million to $10.5 million.
The decision pushes the contribution of all public funds to $49.5 million, including interest and debt payments. It’s a huge stake for taxpayers; certainly one to watch carefully.
That said, the larger share of the total $108.5 million project comes from private investors – successful business owners who wouldn’t commit $59 million without serious consideration. Some other points should offer reassurance, as well, beginning with the history of another public/private endeavor that ultimately turned out quite nicely for downtown Fort Wayne.
When city officials and Atlanta-based Hardball Capital eight years ago pitched the idea for a downtown baseball stadium, the reaction was swift and harsh. Critics attacked from all directions: Memorial Stadium was a perfectly good venue; taxpayers would be at risk; no one would want to live in the proposed condos.
None of the new buildings proposed for Harrison Square has any chance of being successful, predicted a letter writer in late 2007. After two years of good attendance at the baseball stadium due to its novelty of being new, attendance will go down dramatically. The owners will pull out, and the city will be left with an empty space.
But the skillfully designed project encompassing a new hotel, ballpark, city park, and commercial and residential space did succeed, even through the Great Recession. The naysayers were soon silenced by the vibrant and popular Parkview Field, and the most stubborn skeptics fell quiet when The Harrison opened and quickly drew tenants.
Jason Freier, chairman and CEO of Hardball Capital, said the Parkview Field proposal, like every other investment, carried some risk but was carefully built on research of similar projects and existing business conditions in Fort Wayne.
We thought the project had an extremely good chance to make a positive impact on the city, but we had to be ready to defend it because this was a public/private partnership, he said. People couldn’t envision what we were envisioning. It was very hard for people who hadn’t been to other markets to see what we wanted to do.
As early as the middle of the TinCaps’ first season, however, public sentiment had shifted. The economic downturn delayed development of The Harrison, but any qualms about the long-term viability of the project have vanished as the sixth baseball season begins. The energy created downtown made it possible to propose a $108.5 million project that invites people to live, work and play in the central city.
I think you would have to work very hard to find people who don’t believe it’s a success, Freier said of the ballpark. We’ve hosted about 30 different cities at Parkview Field. People hear about the success and want to know what have we done right. Fort Wayne’s name is out there.
Hardball Capital worked with two city administrations on the project, including some individuals who have been involved in Ash Brokerage’s Emerald Skyline project.
The work that was done there was as good or better than we’ve seen anywhere, said Freier, now at work on a proposal for a new stadium in Savannah, Georgia, where Hardball’s Sand Gnats play ball.
The work by Fort Wayne officials should reassure taxpayers, whose risk is limited. Most of the public investment comes from tax-increment financing from the redevelopment district and the project itself.
Freier recalled the enormous speed bump encountered in financing The Harrison development. Those challenges will inevitably arise with the Ash project, requiring public officials to watch spending carefully. The payoff, however, looks to be as promising for economic development as Parkview Field has been for community development.