In a report that emphasized upward mobility and inclusion in Indiana’s second largest city, a ULI Advisory Services panel for the Electric Works redevelopment project in Fort Wayne, Indiana, focused on the economic importance of being a destination with an “open tent.” That means having real and stated plans that emphasize the inclusion of the entire region.

And while many have emphasized that “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (or DEI) is good for the fairness of the Electric Works project, that is not all it is. The panel emphasized that that approach was good for the business model as well.

“When you look at the trends and who has had access to this Electric Works project as it moves forward, there has been some evidence of systematic exclusion there,” said panel member Joanna Mack, an architect based in Sacramento, California, with Salazar Architects and expert on collaborating with historically excluded communities in urban development.

“Diversity of thought equals innovation, and innovation equals economic vitality,” said Mack. “There are multiple reasons to take this approach. And one of them is that everything from big businesses to smaller entrepreneurs can benefit if their customers come from everywhere. The place where they do business, like Electric Works, needs to reflect that.”

Many U.S. cities, especially those in the Northeast and Midwest, have old and unused manufacturing or electricity generation plants from a different generation. What to do with them now can be costly and difficult to rebuild and repurpose.

In this case, the 39-acre (15.8 ha) Electric Works campus first became a center of industrial innovation in 1883. Around the turn of the century, Thomas Edison’s fledgling General Electric Co. acquired the business. At its peak during the 1940s, G.E. employed about a third of Fort Wayne’s workforce.

The 18-building complex closed in 2015 and was left dormant until a public-private partnership took the lead in 2017 toward restoration. Ancora Partners and the City of Fort Wayne, Allen County, and the State of Indiana partnered on the $286 million first phase including more than 700,000 square feet (65,032 m sq) of space that includes office, education, healthcare, retail entertainment, and community use among others.

A future $129 million second phase will include 297 residential units—including 76 affordable units for residents 55 and older—a large parking garage, an early childhood learning center, a fitness and wellness center, and 9,000 square feet (836.1 m sq) of commercial space. The third phase, of which planning will begin this year, will include 27 acres (10.9 ha) of new development and an additional 500,000 square feet (46,451.5 m sq) of historic buildings for a variety of uses, including residential, retail, office, and hospitality.

While the panel would not go into specifics, they said they heard from several minority Fort Wayne residents that “they did not know if they would be welcome there.” Panel member Taylor Ralph, founder and president of REAL Business Consultants in Tampa, said one way to solve that perception problem is “that you have to meet people where they live and communicate in their languages, and in their communities where they feel comfortable.”

The panel also said Electric Works need to involve more DEI-designated businesses in this large project. Right now, the project has about 6 percent DEI-designated businesses operating out of the phase one rebuild, according to the panel, with a goal of 10 percent an achievable goal to hit soon. That percentage should rise, the panel indicated, as the $129 million second phase is completed within the next few years.

Panel member Faron A. Hill, president of Peregrine Oak, an Atlanta-based advisory services and capital markets firm, said that Fort Wayne has a great basis of residents, from multiple ethnicities and age groups, “whose families have been here for many generations and don’t plan to go anywhere.”

“Fort Wayne has a civic engagement at its core that can be the basis for success for this project for everyone in the city,” said Hill.

Besides the previously mentioned Ralph, Hill, and Mack, the panel also consisted of the following: ULI panel chair Fernando Costa, assistant city manager of Fort Worth; Dr. Lorin Carter, an equity, small business, and wellness consultant in Dallas; Dawveed Scully, managing deputy commissioner, City of Chicago, Department of Planning Development, Bureau of Planning & Design; and Jill Hunger, assistant director, Department of Community Planning, Housing & Development, in Arlington County, Virginia.

There are several things at play that may allow this project to rise to the growth goals presented as important. First, its location, in a historic district and near downtown Fort Wayne (and with the inclusion of different price-point housing planned), will make it a destination place for everyone from empty-nester baby boomers to more recent college graduates.

In fact, in late April of this year, the National Parks Service designated Electric Works as a nationally recognized “historic district.” When the designation was announced, Jeff Kingsbury, chief connectivity officer for Ancora, lead developer of Electric Works, said “Electric Works is about creating a place that inspires a new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs for the next 100 years.”

The State of Indiana is very much involved in this project. Vincent Ash,  vice president of real estate development for the Indiana Economic Development Corporation said that “companies are seeking diverse employees, and the Electric Works project is part of that statewide economic strategy.”

“That playbook will not only be able to be replicated in other parts of the State of Indiana, but in the rest of the country as well,” Ash said.

The urban planning dynamic has changed quite a bit in recent years, with metro areas the size of Fort Wayne (about 450,000 in population) being leaders nationally in both economic growth and a desired balance of both the younger and older populace while attracting migration. In some respects, the old hub-and-spoke system of the big city urban and surrounding suburban dynamic has been replaced with smaller cities being able to combine density and urbanism and provide nearby necessities and cultural amenities.

And the inclusion of all walks of life is becoming a big part of that urbanism. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review reflected the need to be more “adaptable” for city planning saying:

“Companies that are good at change focus on development, particularly talent development. They help their employees build new skills, augmenting their resilience and that of the broader organization. DEI activities support those efforts by ensuring that all talent is developed, meeting employees where they are today, supporting a variety of career pathways, and fairly distributing growth opportunities.”

Those in attendance at the panel presentation saw that the Electric Works project could have some lasting impact for the region, given the time, space, and size of the project.

Alison Gerardot, chief impact officer for the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne, sees the need to keep the focus on how the Electric Works project needs to think differently, both in terms of economic development and community outreach.

“What all this starts with is relationships, one at a time,” she said after the panel’s presentation. “There is an old saying used in lots of areas, and that is ‘repair, reconnect, and rebuild.’ That is what needs to be done with this project. It is all about relationships and we’re glad to see that is a priority with this.”