New book shows power struggle behind Electric Works

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Fort Wayne, Ind. (WANE) – Chris Mead, the author of “Turning Rust to Gold – Fort Wayne’s Fight for Revival,” claims his new book is a useful case study for chamber of commerce leaders who want to learn what can happen when you fight city hall.

City Hall seems to be fighting even that.

“The timing is curious,” notes John Perlich, spokesman for Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry, suggesting the book is meant to influence the mayoral race.

The book (available at rusttogold.org) shows the power struggles behind the scenes of Electric Works, the city’s massive transformation of the old General Electric campus. Most of those struggles are between former Greater Fort Wayne President Eric Doden and current Deputy Mayor Karl Bandemer. Neither was available to comment to WANE 15.

Doden published the book and is quoted often; Bandemer declined to speak to the author.

“That’s right,” Mead says genuinely. “And I regret that. I tried. I got nice emails back from both the mayor and the deputy mayor. You know, I would have loved their point of view. But I understand.”

Mead insists he had final control over the content of the book, even allowing Doden to be described as a “Genghis Khan.” He adds that he found 45 other city leaders who provided details to knit together the stories of a Henry administration that, at least for a time, seemed to be quietly undermining Electric Works.

Mead lives in the Washington, D.C. area where he runs Magicians of Main Street, a consulting firm for chambers of commerce. His only other book is “The Magicians of Main Street: America and its Chambers of Commerce, 1768-1945.” When asked, he says he does not know Republican candidate Tim Smith.

‘the fiction, fantasy and fairy tale section…’

Working with an advance PDF-copy of the book, WANE 15 tried to confirm independently a few of the book’s accounts.

Many people declined to talk to us on the record, not wanting to pick sides publicly during an election cycle.

But FWCS Board of Trustees member and Democratic city council at-large candidate Steve Corona did.

‘Well, first of all, if this manuscript ever becomes a book, I want to make sure Barnes & Noble places it in the fiction, fantasy and fairy tale section,” Corona begins.

“With respect to the specific incident about the meeting with Dr. Robinson and Karl Bandemer and myself, Karl never tried to discourage Dr. Robinson or the school board from getting involved in Electric Works. That did not occur. Absolutely.”

Mead claims in the book that Bandemer told Dr. Robinson and the board not to lease space in Electric Works. Robinson later, according to the book, mentioned Bandemer’s comments at a meeting of Greater Fort Wayne.

“Deputy Mayor Bandemer urged caution,” Corona explains. “At the time – this goes back in the middle of 2018 – he urged caution. The project was struggling to get letters of intent, signed leases. And he just said be careful.”

Mead says he has “three or four” people who shared Dr. Robinson’s comment with him for the book.

“I don’t think Eric Doden would have called a press conference the next day to ‘out’ the mayor if there wasn’t something said at that meeting,” Mead adds.

“And that was the reason he quit the chamber. That wasn’t in the newspapers that day. He wasn’t getting the support of his board in forthrightly saying who’s against and who’s for this Electric Works project.

“And so if he calls that press conference, and then it was stopped by his chair while he was out of the office? Why would that have happened if something funny didn’t happen at that board meeting? So that, to me, is not just what he said, but what he did and what others did.”

WANE 15 did receive emails in March of 2018 from Greater Fort Wayne that first announced, then shortly afterwards canceled, a press conference to “discuss the action steps needed to make the Electric Works project a reality.”

Steve Corona also sent WANE 15 emails last week from each of the other school board members, all denying talking to Deputy Mayor Bandemer about Electric Works.

Dr. Robinson was another person who declined to be interviewed for the book. Through a spokesperson she tells WANE 15 that “she and Fort Wayne Community Schools have been supportive of the Electric Works project from the beginning and recently signed an intent to lease space in the building.  Conversations that may or may not have taken place in the past are not relevant at this point.”

‘It seems obvious…’

“Turning Rust to Gold” frequently quotes Sweetwater Sound president and founder Chuck Surack. He says the book’s telling of his role in the launch of GFW’s “Opportunity on the Edge of Greatness” campaign is “absolutely correct.”

The book found a 2016 Surack quote that “it seems obvious the mayor and deputy mayor aren’t interested” in Electric Works.

Surack tells WANE 15 he does not feel that way now and that “it’s been very clear that the mayor’s office is for this project today.”

“I think most of what (the book) said was accurate.” Surack continues. “What I was disappointed in, is that it clearly is slanted and one sided. I wish it had been a more balanced report because there’s a lot of great things that are going on.

“Eric Doden is a good friend of mine. It’s his version of what’s happened in Fort Wayne and he’s entitled to his opinion and his version. I’m not going to discount that or argue with it. But it’s only one person. And I think you could have five books and you would have five slightly different opinions of what happened.”

Both Mead and Surack believe Electric Works will happen.

“We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Eric,” Mead says he’s been told.

“And it was a double cutting remark. Meaning we would never have gotten this far without his push. But at the same time, because he alienated some people, that caused it to be where it is now – not quite done. So he’s both. And that’s the story.”

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