Some big projects in downtown South Bend are priming the city to be on the forefront of modern technology. The old Union Station at the southern end of downtown is an important technology hub in the region, but for it and other technology-based businesses to grow here the city says it had to make a solid investment.
Road construction on Lafayette Street looks and sounds like a typical summer project, but a closer look shows it’s anything but typical.
“It’s a huge deal,” said Bill Schalliol, a representative from the city’s business development division.
Pipes and wires in a freshly dug trench are part of the first phase of a power infrastructure plan, carrying underground electricity and a fiber optic line to a nearby dirt pile on the south side of Sample Street that will soon be Ignition Park. The wiring and electricity will also go north, to the old Union Station.
“This power is really key and essential to making everything happen,” Schalliol said.
“Without power, you can’t grow,” added Kevin Smith, proprietor and owner of the Union Station Technology Center.
A South Bend native, Smith also owns the fiber optic line connecting the city to Indianapolis and Chicago. The Union Station Technology Center is a hub for computer traffic and a support system for technology companies – including all the supercomputing for the University of Notre Dame.
Growth has also forced the technology center to expand next door, to Studebaker building 84 – also called the Ivy Tower.
“We have a lot of big deals in the hopper right now. Frankly, some of them we really can’t serve because we need more of those things – power and connectivity. So this is perfect timing,” said Nicholas Easley, director of strategic initiatives at the Union Station Technology Center.
Alongside the $8 million the city agreed to invest, Smith said he’ll pay at least $10 million of his own and re-pay the city in taxable improvements.
Common Council member Dr. David Varner, who is generally frugal when deciding how the city should spend money, voted in favor of what’s currently a two phase public-private partnership with Smith’s company and the city.
“If you go through his building, he's rethought, he's retro fit, he's adapted that station and that facility for the needs of today and he's been very successful at it. So I think you go for your successful opportunity when you have it rather than just a shot in the dark,” Varner told WSBT.
“I think having an opportunity to prove yourself helps,” added Smith.
The second phase of the project is slated to begin in the next few months. It includes renovating Studebaker building 84. An architecture firm has already been hired to begin that work, Smith said.
Varner and Smith are hesitant to talk about job creation numbers in the local technology field. But both said they expect high paying, white collar positions to be created.
This type of infrastructure, Smith said, could potentially put South Bend on a national stage.
A local business that's been on the south side of downtown since 1927 is moving because of the expanding power grid and potential for technology growth. Hamilton Towing and Auto Body will move because the city bought the land at Lafayette and Sample for just under $1 million.
The Hamilton family started the business to repair Studebaker cars that were damaged on the assembly line. The business agreed to have its first building empty by August, another by next April and it will be out of the last building along Sample Street in two years.
“It’s one of those things where if you’ve got companies that are coming to invest in property and location, you don’t need a car lot full of wrecked cars next to you that constantly have people coming in and out, impounds and accidents,” said Rick Hamilton. “We totally understand but we’re not happy about it.”
Hamilton says he plans to relocate the business but doesn't know where yet.