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Could nonprofit revitalize downtown?

The concept has worked in downtown Chattanooga.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008 - 10:41 am

Ten million dollars.

That's what Rich Davis says is needed to create a nonprofit organization he believes could achieve what the public and private sectors have not: make downtown Fort Wayne so attractive that people will be eager to invest their time, talent and treasure there.

Inspired by the River City Co., which has attracted more than $1 billion to downtown Chattanooga, Tenn., since 1986, Davis and others say the proposed agency could solicit money, buy property and seek developers for projects that might not happen otherwise.

“More research is needed, but 2009 will be a critical year,” said Davis, president of the Downtown Improvement District, a tax-supported group that promotes the central business district. “The first step is to prepare a compelling presentation for our community partners.” Convince people and organizations with lots of money to part with some of it, in other words.

In one sense, the timing couldn't be worse. Thanks in part to recent tax-reform legislation, government - which has funded the expansion of the Grand Wayne Convention Center and downtown library and paid for most of the city's new $30 million baseball stadium - has less money to spend. Private developers and foundations, meanwhile, have been hard hit by the recession, which is one reason the proposed condos and hotel are behind scheduled.

So with jobs seemingly being cut on a daily basis, creating a greater demand for traditional social services, why should anybody be willing to invest in an organization dedicated to downtown redevelopment?

Because, in the long run, a healthy downtown helps create a healthy economy, according to River City President Paul Brock.

“You have to take the long view,” he said. “I'm not saying we're responsible for everything that's happened here. But we helped pull everything together by bridging the public and private sectors. It helps to have an entity that wakes up every day to work the plan.”

Fort Wayne has a downtown improvement plan, too. What it lacks is money to implement the plan. A “community development corporation” would accept tax-free contributions it would use to buy land, develop projects or promote other improvements.

In Chattanooga, it all started in 1986 with $12 million in grants from eight local foundations and seven banks. Whether that kind of money would be available in Fort Wayne remains to be seen. The recent market meltdown has reduced foundation assets by millions of dollars, and the demand for the money that remains is great.

But a mostly privately funded downtown-improvement group would have significant advantages over the public-funding model preferred in Fort Wayne up to now. River City's annual budget of $1.8 million is 94 percent privately funded, Brock said, which may be one reason downtown improvement in Chattanooga seems to have been less controversial than in Fort Wayne, where polls have revealed widespread disapproval for the $125 million Harrison Square project.

River City's projects have included a river walk, $45 million aquarium that attracted 1 million visitors in its first year and a new 12-screen movie complex operated by Carmike, which also operates in Fort Wayne. Those and other improvements have spurred new housing, recreational and business investment, but the recession has hit Chattanooga hard, too: Some projects are having trouble finding tenants in a slowing economy.

Even so, such an organization could tackle certain projects more effectively than government or individual investors. City Redevelopment Specialist Sharon Feasel said a nonprofit could apply for grants and “bank” property until suitable projects and investors are identified - in the process perhaps preventing other projects not consistent with existing plans. And working through the agency, several investors may be able to achieve what a single developer could not.

Right now, this is only an idea spurred by a local delegation's visit to Chattanooga last year. How would a Fort Wayne version of River City Co. operate? Who would decide which projects are funded? What would its mission be? Those and many other questions will have to be answered, I suspect, before anyone is willing to donate a dime.

But it would be appropriate if the first contribution came from the many businesses and individuals whose interests and properties have increased in value because of the investment that taxpayers have already made downtown.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel.
E-mail Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.