Paul Singh came away from a tour of the Electric Works site with a great impression of the project and said so during a Startup Week event presented as a fireside chat with Eric Doden on entrepreneurship, investment and economic development.
Doden is CEO of Greater Fort Wayne. Singh was making a Tech Tour stop in the city for Startup Week as part of the traveling he does across the country in his Airstream looking for excellent investment opportunities between the coasts. His LinkedIn page refers to him as chief hustler for the Results Junkies investment group.
The RTM Ventures partnership is developing the 39-acre former General Electric campus in downtown Fort Wayne, which has 18 buildings totaling more than 1.2 million square feet of space.
The campus, renamed Electric Works, will be repurposed as a mixed-use, place-based innovation district, including commercial, retail/market, institutional, residential, hotel and community space.
Of about 600,000 square feet of space in the project’s first phase, from 60,000 to 80,000 will be innovation space suitable for a range of early-stage businesses, from coworking space used by individual entrepreneurs to space for small teams to higher-level space.
“We’ve seen a lot, and I don’t think we’ve seen anything of that scale,” Singh said of the project, which is expected to require $220 million for the first phase.
“Entrepreneurship is the fundamental driver of growth in every city,” he said. “Now, a little asterisk on that is you still need a place to do it; you can’t just do it from a Starbucks or whatever.”
The Fireside Chat at the Philmore on Broadway was an Electric Works event, and in addition to his praise for the local project Singh described a coworking space he started and shared his enthusiasm for the concept of a shared location that is more affordable than commercial office space but better than a home office.
“Coworking spaces across the country I think are not only going to be the largest economic footprint in the communities they’re in, but I also think in the next five to 10 years they’re going to be the center of discussion about the future of work in this century,” he said.
To illustrate the value of smart, energetic entrepreneurs discovering new opportunities for collaboration at coworking spaces, he shared a conversation he had about measuring their output where he was told “in the short run, it’s about collisions per square foot, people running into each other in passing.”
“Five years after this (Electric Works) center opens up, I’ll bet that there will be 40 or 50 venture-financed companies within a 10-mile radius,” Singh said. “I’ll make that bet right now because I’ve seen it before.”
Investors flying into a city for an update on the progress of a company that attracted their funding will naturally want to make good use of their time in the region by looking into its other promising entrepreneurial endeavors, he said.
“The most important thing any city or any leader, including anyone in this room, could do is shine a spotlight on entrepreneurship,” he said in response to a question from the audience.
With many Electric Works supporters in the audience, Crystal Vann Wallstrom, its managing director of innovation, provided a brief update on important developments with the project, noting Parkview Health was finalizing a 10-year agreement it had been negotiating with RTM for space there.
The audience also heard the Fort Wayne City Council had approved on a 6-3 vote the awarding of $10 million for the project from the city’s Legacy Fund.
The council also approved $3.5 million in local income taxes for the project. Both votes were preliminary; final votes occurred at the council’s Oct. 23 meeting.
Doden would like to see unanimous approval from members of the Allen County-Fort Wayne Capital Improvement Board when it votes Nov. 6 on whether to support the project by agreeing to repay $45 million in bonds for it with food and beverage tax revenues.
“We do not have all of them on board,” he said. “They need to hear your voice. They’re easy to find. They’re on the internet; it’s a thing called Google.
“We have the mayor that needs to hear your voice; we have city council that needs to hear your voice; we have county commissioners that need to hear your voice, because it would be a crying shame for us to have to wait another year to start this project,” Doden said.
“Electric Works is going to happen, but here’s the deal: The longer we wait, the more that we miss the collisions. It took two years of my life and I’m just calling it like it is,” he said. “We’ve already blown through a year we didn’t have to blow through, and it’s time to stick our neck out and say, ‘Enough’s enough; let’s get this deal done and let’s move on.’ ”
Greater Fort Wayne’s work on the project required hundreds of phone calls to General Electric Co. and railroads at its site, and Doden said when he was tired of making them, what drove him to continue was the thought that half a million people would be on the Electric Works campus each year.
Over the 40-year shelf life of an average project, “that’s 20 million people that are relying on me to make a phone call today,” he said.
In an appeal for public support, Doden said bringing the project to fruition would require effort, energy and a lot of bold leadership from people attending the fireside chat. Supporters need to make their voices heard because public officials are susceptible to crowds that want something, he said.