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Fort Wayne to the forefront

What caused the Indiana Music Educators Association to move its annual convention from Indianapolis to Fort Wayne, Ind., in 2011, 2012 and 2013?

Daniel O’Connell attributes the coup to a series of “synergistic” projects that have unfolded in the last five years in Indiana’s second-largest city, two hours from Indianapolis, the state’s largest city. O’Connell is president and CEO of the Fort Wayne/Allen County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Fort Wayne tripled the size of the Grand Wayne, its downtown convention center; expanded a public library renowned for its genealogy collection; and built a new baseball stadium for its long-time minor league baseball team, now called the TinCaps. It also built a 900-space parking garage that serves the ballpark and the center.

And the city is not done. A 250-room Marriott, linked to the Grand Wayne by skywalks, opens next summer. More development is proposed along the St. Mary’s riverfront, home to Headwaters Park, a popular festival site.

None of the developments happened without discussion, debate and even derision, but now doubters are starting to see the difference that a clump of interconnected facilities aimed at tourists and meeting goers can make.

Fifteen conventions said they would consider Fort Wayne if the Grand Wayne expanded; a third of them have already met in the city. For 2010, a half-dozen groups that have never met in Fort Wayne have booked meetings there.

The Grand Wayne maintained valued alliances through its expansion.

“The expansion has allowed us to garner new business and retain those that were outgrowing us,” said O’Connell. “We grew with them.”

Other evidence of the impact of downtown’s additions is the TinCaps’ 2009 season, the first in its new home. The team set a record for attendance among minor league baseball teams at all levels. The TinCaps, perhaps motivated by fan support, also won the Midwest League Championship. “That was the frosting on the cake,” said O’Connell.

The ballpark also demonstrated that it is more than a sports venue. The Gold Wing Road Riders had a tailgate party there and the Do It Best Corp. had a casino night in the park’s 1,500-square-foot meeting room and returned the next night for a ballgame.

Fort Wayne’s downtown layout is among its selling points. The Grand Wayne is adjacent to the 244-room Hilton Fort Wayne at the Grand Wayne and is linked by skywalk to the Embassy Theatre, a vaudeville-era showplace across the street.

The new urban-style Courtyard, with 6,000 square feet of meeting space, is bordered by the Grand Wayne, the baseball stadium, the parking garage and the Embassy Theatre. The addition of the Courtyard will give Fort Wayne almost 700 guest rooms downtown.

Genealogy and library groups are expanding niche markets. Fort Wayne’s Allen County Library has the largest public genealogical center in the country, and since the library completed an expansion three years ago, it has seen an uptick in meetings.

The Federation of Genealogical Societies returns in 2013 and 2017; the International Black Genealogy Summit and the Indiana Library Federation came to Fort Wayne this fall.

The public library even played into the IMEA’s decision to meet in Fort Wayne. The group needed rehearsal and performance spaces, and it found several near the Grand Wayne, including the public library’s auditorium and the Embassy Theatre.

Downtown developments, as well as mainstays like Club Soda and newcomers like J.K. O’Donnell’s Irish Pub, have turned downtown from a “retail and government area to an entertainment and gathering area,” said O’Connell.
Part of downtown Fort Wayne’s new energy can be attributed to downtown merchants, who have banded together to promote downtown events. They have created new festivals — the city now has 20 a year.  “They have focused their energy on creating downtown as a place to go,” O’Connell said.

Of course, downtown is not the only place to go in Fort Wayne. Outlying areas have also seen changes. Fifteen hotels, many of them limited-service, have opened in the past decade, adding 600 rooms.

About 300,000 youth compete in basketball games each year at Spiece Fieldhouse, home to the GymRats program. A new $14 million ice center, with three sheets of ice, is expected to help the city draw more skating and hockey competitions.

Fort Wayne has made the far future its focus, and the successes it has seen as result have quieted the inevitable outcry about budgets. “We are building for the next 20 years, not next year,” said O’Connell.

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