August 29, 2023

Development Puts Fort Wayne’s Historic Electric Works in New Light

Though its name has changed over the years, the Fort Wayne Electric Works campus has been a beacon in the skyline of Fort Wayne, Indiana, since 1883. Founded at a time when experimentation with electricity was new, the facility was built to house the Fort Wayne Jenney Electric Light Company, which was later acquired by General Electric.

Since its inception, the property has been a hotbed of innovation and invention—employing more than a third of the city at its heyday in the 1940s—so it’s fitting that with GE having moved on, the property has undergone a conscious redevelopment to make it a space of revitalization and rejuvenation in a way that honors its history while making way for the generations of Hoosiers to come.

A sepia toned overhead view of the Electric Works campus in Fort Ward.

photo by: Electric Works

A historic image of the Fort Wayne Jenney Electric Light Company building.

A black and white image of the interior of the Electric Works facility.

photo by: Electric Works

Historic interior photograph of the Electric Works building

To former GE employees, many of whom are still around, Electric Works is hardly recognizable. Where there were once industrial machines and factory workers crafting electric motors and transformers, there are now restaurants, coffee shops, florists, local retail stores, office spaces, public art, a farmers market, a STEAM school, and more. Anchoring the development is the new world headquarters for the Do It Best Corporation, a member-owned global chain of retail hardware stores founded in Fort Wayne in 1945—harkening back to Electric Works’ roots as a place of creation and industry.

Restoring the Heartbeat of Fort Wayne

“It really did check all the boxes for a perfect project to support,” said Mike Palien of the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC), a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which provided critical tax credit financing to fund the development.

A wide angle view of a brick structure, known as the Electric Works, as the building is under construction.

photo by: Lauren Bertke

Exterior of the Electric Works building during rehabilitation.

The total development cost was more than $286 million, of which NTCIC invested in the $40 million in federal historic tax credits generated by the development and provided $12.5 million in New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) allocation, making it their largest investment to date. The NMTC allocation is especially important because it’s designed to attract capital to historically underrepresented communities, especially low-income areas. Often, private banks and lenders see investments in such places as risky, so traditional financing options can be challenging.

Employment at GE began declining in the 1950s and the company closed its doors and turned out the lights at the facility in 2015, leaving a hole in Fort Wayne in terms of employment opportunities.

“The closure of the GE campus was more than just the loss of a workplace; it was a part of Fort Wayne’s heartbeat,” Palien said. “As jobs and opportunities left the campus, there was a definite ripple effect in the surrounding community. Neighborhoods that once thrived with the energy of the workers and their families experienced a quieting, and some homes, like the facility itself, awaited a new chapter.”

A wide angle view of the Electric Works facility after restoration.

photo by: Ferguson Advertising

Exterior of the Electric Works building after rehabilitation.

Jeff Kingsbury, a co-founder of Ancora, the mission-driven real estate development company that’s leading the team renovating Electric Works, saw the changes in Fort Wayne firsthand––it’s his hometown.

“The campus was likely headed for demolition,” said Kingsbury. “We see a lot of potential in the middle part of our country, in communities like Fort Wayne. Innovation has largely happened on the coasts, but we see a lot of assets in the heartland, that if leveraged with public-private partnerships and the right place-based investment strategy can spur innovation in an impactful way. And this property was of a scope and scale that would allow us to do that.”

One of the best parts of the project for Kingsbury was hearing stories from people in the community for whom the facility was beloved.

“It’s gratifying to feel like we're giving something back. A lot of the things we value as a company, and I personally care about––historic preservation, access to healthcare and healthy food, affordable housing, creating inclusive and sustainable communities––are wrapped up in this project,” said Kingsbury. “To be able to do all those things in one project is exciting, but to be able to do it in the place you grew up is rewarding.”

Inspiring the Next Generation

Beyond its sheer size and scope, what sets Electric Works apart and makes it innovative is the STEAM high school—Kingsbury’s favorite aspect of the redevelopment. True to its history as a place of creation and industry, the Fort Wayne Community Schools’ Amp Lab is training the next generation of innovators.

Students spend half their day in their typical academic classes and the other half at Amp Lab in a project-based learning environment. The school partners with businesses, many of whom are based in Electric Works, to challenge the students to come up with solutions to real-world problems the businesses are facing. The students use technology like 3D printers, graphic design, and digital animation to come up with solutions to problems. The students learn how to work as a team, as well as valuable entrepreneurial skills along the way. Because everything they’re learning has a practical application, there’s never a question of “When am I ever going to use this?”

Exterior of the Electric Works facility with the "Do it Best" sign on top and a large black "Electric Works" sign in front.

photo by: Ferguson Advertising

View of one of the entries into the Electric Works complex, featuring a sign for one of the new tenants, the locally founded Do it Best Company.

View of some of the murals and art work in the tunnel of the rehabilitated Electric Works facility.

photo by: Ferguson Advertising

View of one of the tunnels to the Electric Works complex with some painted murals connecting the structure to its history.

“It gives them exposure to careers and opportunities that they may not have known existed,” said Kingsbury. “That’s the really powerful part of this. It gives young people an equitable chance connecting with mentors who may be innovators or inventors and we believe that’ll unleash a whole new level of innovation in this community.”

Amp Lab just graduated its first class last year, sending 219 doers and changemakers into the world.

Still, the magic happening at Electric Works is far from complete. Phase 2, which is expected to be complete in 2025, includes 297 units of affordable and workforce housing, an early childhood learning center, and a wellness center. There will be more phases beyond that, with the entire redevelopment of all 39 acres and restoration of 1.2 million square feet of historic building space to be completed by 2035.

The effects of a project like Electric Works breathing new life into an secondary or tertiary city can’t be overstated.

A close up of a multi-colored mural at the Electric Works.

photo by: Ferguson Advertising

Detail view of the Electric Works mural in the tunnel leading to the facility.

“We have confidence in the future of Fort Wayne. [The city] has invested in itself and reversed a long-term trend of population loss and now we have a pretty significant net population gain,” said Kingsbury. “I attribute that in large part to the quality-of-life investments that they’re making.”

With the redevelopment and other initiatives the City of Fort Wayne is taking, the future of the town is so bright it’s electric.

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Mandy Shunnarah (they/them) is a writer who loves old things. When they're not writing their next book, they can often be found wandering around historic places like theatres, cemeteries, and author homes (usually with permission). Learn more at mandyshunnarah.com.

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