Bending Toward Opportunity

Bending Toward Opportunity

Reinvention is a common theme across the Midwest, but in South Bend, Indiana it’s somewhat of an industry in and of itself. The city’s East Race Waterway, an urban kayaking destination, was once an industrial sluice-way. Its Central High School is now an apartment building.

Now entrepreneurs are seizing on South Bend’s potential as a hub for electricity infrastructure, reanimating two historic buildings to leverage the city’s newfound enthusiasm for public-private partnerships.

“One thing we do really well is capture heat,” said Nick Easley, director of strategic initiatives for Union Station Technology Center. That building, once South Bend’s main train station, is now home to a massive data center. The cold climate cuts cooling costs, and the convergence of several railroad easements meant the location already housed plenty of fiber optic cables. Now Easley and others are looking to repurpose waste heat from their data centers to help stabilize the area’s electric grid.

“When I bought Union Station,” said Kevin Smith, the local businessman behind South Bend’s emerging Renaissance District, “only a mother would love it.” He saw fire pits from squatting tenants and gang graffiti, but also ornate brickwork and a bowed ceiling 45 feet high. Once the key hub of South Bend, the 1920s train station is now a major connection point for data shared over the internet, as well as the basis for a new “premium power district.”

That designation includes Smith’s newest asset, the nation’s sole remaining Studebaker manufacturing plant. The 850,000-square-foot facility has been derelict for nearly 50 years, but the city has kicked in millions to help remediate the site for reuse. The Studebaker plant, also called the Ivy Tower Building, would connect to Union Station by underground tunnel, totaling more than 1 million square feet for mixed-use development.

“Buildings represent our tangible culture,” said Scott Ford, South Bend’s community development director. “Reanimating those buildings enables us to participate in that continuum of history. It reinforces a sense of place.”

Efforts to rebrand and revive post-industrial cities along the rust belt rarely seem as inspired as those underway in South Bend. The town was long defined by two key businesses: Notre Dame University and Studebaker automobiles.

“They built this town,” Easley said. “When Studebaker went out of business it deflated the economy.” But Smith and company hope to flip Studebaker’s defunct plant into a home base for the city’s growing technology industry.

Chicago’s Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill are consulting on Smith’s energy masterplan. Gill said the project’s larger vision for South Bend’s energy infrastructure attracted his firm’s attention. “I think this is a great and necessary lesson for other cities in the U.S. which may be struggling with the burden of their operational costs as well as untapped infrastructure and building stock,” he said. “It’s a genuinely comprehensive approach to solving all aspects of sustaining cities—not just energy, but economic sustainability and a sustained quality of life for living and working.”

Its supporters hope the Renaissance District, located just south of downtown, could spur development. Ford notes the city needs more multi-family housing and 24-hour neighborhoods. If Smith’s Ivy Tower becomes a hub for progressive energy technology as he hopes, it could attract research and development dollars from Notre Dame, as well as budding entrepreneurs.

“Good architecture creates an environment,” Smith said. “It creates an ecosystem, opportunities.” Likewise the Renaissance District is an opportunity for an often over-looked city to renew its industrial legacy, according to Ford and Smith, with an emerging urban campus that defies the tendency to write off this former company town as a city in decline.

“There’s a lot of entrepreneurial spirit,” Easley said. “Nobody here feels like they’re in a dying city.”