Fort Wayne is hoping to use Housing and Urban Development dollars along with city money to bring in at least 20 new businesses by 2020.
New franchise and retail businesses have come to the downtown area in recent years, like the Harrison and Ash Brokerage buildings, and the City has plans to expand that growth.
On Dec. 2, Mayor Tom Henry announced a partnership with Michigan-based Indigo Centers to attract more retail to the southeast side of town.
A recent study noted that upwards of 120 retail businesses can be supported in the southern part of Fort Wayne.
“We must remain committed to increasing our economic development possibilities in south and southeast part of our city, because we know there are opportunities in retail and restaurant and other forms of hospitality, and all we need to do is take that first step,” said Henry.
Whether they attract 20 businesses or 120 businesses in the next five years, the City’s goal is clear: stimulate the local economy with more retail business.
Fort Wayne’s Director of Neighborhood and Housing Services Heather Presley-Cowen says the City wants to provide financial incentives to attract new businesses.
“When we say incentives, it’s really not to make the impossible possible, it’s to make the competing option available for a business,” says Cowen. “Now if a business says, ‘I’m not going there because I can’t thrive,’ we’re probably not going to want to fund that.”
Of course, location is critical to a business’s success, and the City has a system in place to determine who to bring in, and where.
“We’re working through a lending partner who’s looking at the financial viability of that business, their capacity to carry out what they’ve said, their track record,” she says. “So we’re looking to the experts to tell us who, but we are looking at all of our major neighborhood and commercial corridors to fill them back out again.”
Adding more retail businesses and restaurants can help stimulate a local economy, but it also comes with a risk. Smaller local businesses may have a hard time sharing the market with big competitors.
Sam Hyde has operated the Hyde Brothers bookstore on Wells Street since July 1992, and knows the challenges a small business can face. However, he thinks the local economy has a place for stores like his.
His store has survived the Internet, digital readers, and printing on demand. New technology has affected his business over the years, but he says these changes had a much bigger impact on larger retailers.
“The big, big, big chains have just vanished,” Hyde says. “It was sudden, it was a matter of five years for it all to come crashing down. Rumor out there is Barnes & Noble hangs out by its Nook, but that’s what’s keeping them going. It’s brutal.”
He says another retailer could make his operation more difficult, but he thinks his store offers something other big retailers can’t.
“I don’t know where the new books will come from, but the used bookstores have a slight advantage because some things we have nobody else has because you can’t read them on a Nook,” he says. “It’s the continuous wash of new titles, new books, and the people you meet in a bookstore; the unusual characters in here everyday.”
The City is hoping to have at least four new retail establishments operating by the end of 2016.