Oil in the river: The battle for public perception

Oil frequently bubbles up in one section of the St. Mary's River.
Oil frequently bubbles up in one section of the St. Mary's River.

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Leaders call public perception toward Fort Wayne’s three rivers a challenge to momentum.  But both the city and the man behind downtown’s riverfront dining monopoly don’t think oil leaking into the St. Mary’s River will deter development.

The rivers can be a beautiful site, often hidden around downtown Fort Wayne. More and more people are becoming interested in developing around them.  The city has even hired a Houston-based firm to study them for $500,000.

But the rivers are marked by a troubled past.

Oil leaking into the St. Mary’s River is left over from an old gas manufacturing plant where Hall’s Gas House now sits.  NIPSCO’s parent company left the mess, so the gas company is responsible for cleaning it up.  Leaders with NIPSCO and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) don’t think the oil is making a huge environmental impact.  But its effect could still be far reaching.

“Public perception is probably our biggest hurdle to overcome,” said Dan Wire, executive director of the Tri-State Watershed Alliance.  “What we’re dealing with now is just a legacy of a former industry that is no longer there.  And we just need to address it.”

Ben Hall knows a thing or two about riverfront development.  He’s the general manager of The Deck, an outdoor eating area connected with Hall’s Gas House.

“We’re pretty much the only guys operating anything food and beverage on the river at least in downtown,” Hall said.

The oil in the river outside his restaurant isn’t slowing down business.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

“I’ll say it about every year…I’ll say there’s no way we could possibly do more [business] than we did this current year,” Hall said.  “I’ve been proven wrong at least the last three to four years.”

The bigger challenge in Halls’ eyes is making a riverfront business work year-round with Fort Wayne’s climate.  If it wasn’t connected with the Gas House, he doesn’t think The Deck would make it.  That’s because it’s only open when temperatures are warm enough to eat outside.

“If you were trying to replicate this and have to also build, fund, support, and staff everything that goes on behind the scenes from here, you’d be hard pressed to make it go on five months out of the year,” Hall said.  “It’s going to be hard.  You’re still paying property taxes 12 months out of the year.   You’re still insuring 12 months out of the year. You still have to keep the lights on and the heat going when its winter.”

Hall continued, “If it’s a lot of road blocks and it’s difficult to plow through it, you might just walk away and say, ‘I’m keeping this idea and I’m going to throw it up on the interstate someplace.’”

Pam Holocher is the city’s deputy director of community development.  Holocher agrees that what people think about the rivers matters a lot.  But she thinks the oil has been a non-issue toward public perception.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people in my private life and in my business life and I’ve talked a lot about the rivers.  And to be honest with you, no one has mentioned that,” Holocher said.

Wire must have been talking with different people than Holocher.  Folks have asked him about the oily problem.

“You know sometimes we’ve come by and people have asked me, ‘What’s that smell?  Where’s that coming from?’”

Instead of the oil, Holocher said folks bring up other problems in the river:  Dirty banks, garbage, and overgrowth.

“Actually those I think are pretty easy.  I’m not saying they don’t come with a price tag,” Holocher said.  “I don’t think the fact that the rivers are brown, especially after a good rainfall and all the sediment comes from the farmers’ fields, that that is going to deter us in any way to develop along the rivers.”

Back at The Deck, a half a million dollar study is raising more eyebrows than the oil in the river.

“I’m as much of a cynic as anybody about, ‘Let’s do another study,’” Hall said.

As Dave McIntosh dined at The Deck, he agreed with Hall.  “I’d rather see them spend the money on developing the river than studying it.  You can study it until the cows come home.  But it’s time to develop it,” he said.

Still it’s something Holocher and city leaders think is necessary to help corral all the different ideas toward riverfront development.

“This is going to be a project that is going to impact us in a transformational way probably as much as anything we’ve ever done,” Holocher said.  “I think $500,000 is definitely worth the money.”

In the near future, the city plans to gather public ideas about riverfront development through things like meetings, surveys, and online sites.

It should take the Houston-based SWA group 12 to 18 months to finish their study on Fort Wayne’s rivers.

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