Winning just 18 percent of the vote in the 2011 Republican mayoral primary meant Eric Doden was available when Gov. Mike Pence asked him to head the Indiana Economic Development Corp. But even then, Doden was thinking about how he could more directly benefit his hometown.
The $27 million Cityscape Flats housing complex rising from a 2.7-acre tract that was filled with mostly blighted homes just a few years ago — and the interest the still-incomplete project has already generated — indicate he's succeeding.
"Everything you do is a risk, but I thought what we needed to take the (Fort Wayne) economy to the next level was more downtown housing," said Doden, who was named CEO of Greater Fort Wayne Inc. in 2015 but remains a partner in Domo Ventures, one of the project's developers. That risk seems to have been rewarded: There are 200 names on a waiting list for 163 apartments and two of 14 townhomes have been sold even though construction hasn't even begun yet, proving the wisdom of changing them on the fly from rentals to owner-occupied units and expanding eight of them to accommodate rooftop patios.
A cynic might scoff at Doden's definition of "risk." The city paid about $2 million for the site just west of Parkview Field then donated it to the developers, along with $7 million or so in other incentives. But the private sector is investing $20 million, and the taxes the project and its residents will generate, and the positive impact it and other recent downtown improvements are having on nearby real estate, seems to justify the city's risk as well. And if this project and others make money, fewer government dollars may be needed to entice developers in the future.
Hey, we can always hope.
"(The changes) were driven by the market," Doden said. "People started asking, 'Can we buy the townhomes?' So we decided we should shift. Then people asked, 'Can there be garden rooftops?' It was a brilliant idea."
That's worth remembering, because no amount of government subsidies can overpower market forces forever. Cityscape Flats was announced on the heels of a 2014 study by Zimmerman/Volk Associates suggesting a demand for 1,500 downtown housing units over five to seven years, but Doden suspects even that rosy scenario may prove too conservative.
He's banking on it, in fact. If that demand proves illusory, it will be hard to sell those townhomes for between $270,000 and $375,000, plus the thousands more residents will have to pay to design, complete and furnish the interiors. It will be hard to find tenants willing to rent apartments for between $880 and $1,763 per month. We won't know for sure until the apartments begin to open in February and the townhomes accept tenants in late summer, but for now the demand seems real. The developers of the $40 million, 124-apartment Skyline Tower now under construction just a few blocks away certainly hope so.
"I think this is going to be an active-lifestyle property," Doden predicted of Cityscape Flats. "It will bring people together, millennials and empty nesters, and that will make it special. Some people like to spend time at the lake and downtown, others want to walk to work or to other amenities. It will be a really interesting place to live."
Does that sound like the CEO of Fort Wayne's top economic development agency talking? Sure, but they're also the words of a businessman who is risking plenty of his own money and credibility on a project that seems poised for success, to the benefit of backers and the community alike, so long as it gives customers what they want at a price they're willing to pay.
Doden will brief reporters on Cityscape Flats' progress Thursday, revealing some of the figures and images you see here. It's a good story to tell.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at email@example.com or call him at 461-8355.