John Martin | Evansville Courier & Press
FORT WAYNE, IN – Officials in Indiana’s second-largest city say a healthy dose of public and private investments are transforming their once-sleepy downtown area into a more vibrant place for locals and guests.
At the center of it all is the Grand Wayne Center, a 28-year-old meeting facility that saw a $42 million renovation and expansion in 2005. It has two adjacent hotels — a 246-room Hilton that opened with the convention center in 1985, and a 250-room Marriott Courtyard completed in 2010.
The area is drawing an eclectic mix of visitors. One week last month, about 1,500 people interested in genealogy research invaded Fort Wayne’s downtown. Within days of that convention, a smaller group from across the country brought collections of antique beer cans and steins to show and trade.
This weekend, fans of The Four Freshmen — a male vocal act with Indiana roots dating to the late 1940s — are having their annual convention in Fort Wayne as the group plays a show there.
The Hilton and Marriott are reaping the benefits. Visitation to Downtown Fort Wayne has been so strong, in fact, that Mayor Tom Henry wonders if the hotel room inventory needs to be bumped even higher. There are times convention guests must be bused to suburban properties — a problem, since many conventioneers want walkable access to the meeting site.
“(Commuting) takes valuable time,” Henry said.
The Indiana Democratic Party had its statewide convention in Fort Wayne in 2011. “They absolutely loved it,” Henry said. “They want to come back. But our hotels were overflowing. And now the Republican convention is coming next year, and they’re going to have the same problem. There’s not enough hotel rooms downtown.”
Henry said the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns is another example of a group demanding a large bloc of rooms — 400 or so.
“It’s a business balance,” Henry said in his office recently. “Do we have volume to build another hotel, or do we say well, these (larger conventions) don’t happen often enough to justify it? There have been developers here talking to us about a new hotel. But it’s a very tough business decision.”
Fort Wayne has 254,555 residents, and it’s the seat of Allen County, with a population of 360,412. Evansville has 120,235 residents and Vanderburgh County 180,858. Evansville officials, in pushing for a publicly supported, 253-room convention hotel and infrastructure development, have pointed to the larger community’s investment in its downtown and the city’s results.
In total, 55 conventions have come to Fort Wayne this year, said Dan O’Connell, CEO of Visit Fort Wayne, the city’s tourism bureau. He defined a convention as an event generating at least 250 room nights — requiring both hotels.
Some other observers in Evansville, though, say Fort Wayne’s Downtown shift came at the expense of other properties. They point to reports about a recent foreclosure on an older Marriott hotel and overall occupancy rates which have seemed flat. O’Connell said the total rate runs 55-59 percent.
To Henry — a Democrat who narrowly won a second term in 2011 — there’s no question the city’s moves to boost downtown are paying dividends.
The Marriott Courtyard was one plank in a larger downtown endeavor known as Harrison Square. In addition to the hotel, it included Parkview Field, which is home of the Fort Wayne TinCaps minor league baseball team, a parking garage with about 700 spaces, a 43-unit apartment complex with balconies overlooking the baseball field, and retail and restaurant space.
“Before 2008, our downtown was struggling, Henry said. “It was rather dormant. We had a conservatory and a rather nice theater district, but there wasn’t really anything to excite people to come downtown and stay. That’s when the decision was made to build Harrison Square.”
It was a controversial endeavor at the time among elected officials and local residents. Parkway Field cost $31 million to build, including $25 million in public funds. Fort Wayne’s former ballpark, in another part of the city, wasn’t that old — it opened in 1993.
But city officials said it aged quickly, and besides, downtown needed some zest. Over the objection of some residents, the older ballpark met the wrecking ball.
Henry and O’Connell say Parkview Field is the jewel they envisioned. The TinCaps, a Class A affiliate of the San Diego Padres, have drawn 2 million fans since Parkview Field’s first game in 2009. The city-owned property is used for non-baseball functions, and its concourses are open daily for walkers.
The city and the TinCaps have an incentive arrangement stating that if attendance goals are reached, some ticket revenue returns to the city and is placed in a repairs account. Fort Wayne’s previous ballpark had a string of maintenance woes.
“It’s been a tremendous success,” Henry said of the ballpark. “That really brought an excitement.”
The parking garage was a $14.5 million city investment, and it accommodates baseball and convention traffic. A network of publicly-funded sky bridges connects the two Downtown hotels to the Grand Wayne Center and the decades-old Embassy Theatre, which houses The Fort Wayne Philharmonic and a Broadway series.
The Marriott Courtyard cost about $25 million to build, according to Fort Wayne officials. It includes a sports-themed restaurant and bar, and it has a meeting space. The hotel deal included stipulations that it be physically connected to the convention center, and that the ballpark and parking garage also be built.
Developer White Lodging put up some of the hotel’s construction costs. To fund the rest, the city had to get creative.
“We brought in a number of banks in Fort Wayne (seven in all),” Henry said. “My argument to them was that Fort Wayne has been very good to all of you, and we need you to step up for the city. The $14 million we needed, several banks took a piece of that. Nobody was at great financial risk. That’s how we put it together.”
City officials say the final component of Harrison Square — the 43 apartments, a law office, a credit union and an Irish pub — cost $18.5 million of mostly private investment. All of the apartments were rented as of late August. Monthly rent ranges from $905 to $2,150.
Henry’s office said the total public debt owed on the Harrison Square project is about $40 million. Those costs, along with that of the 2005 convention center expansion, are being paid from innkeeper taxes, tax increment financing and other sources. Fort Wayne does not have a casino.
O’Connell, the city’s top tourism official, said Harrison Square’s success is having a spillover effect. Increased foot traffic spurred new restaurant options along with downtown events aimed at local residents, such as noon concerts on a plaza area every summer Thursday. Condominium projects are under development.
Fort Wayne has a Downtown Improvement District which steers overall planning for the area and has its own website. It’s also the point organization for small business loans and Facade Grants, both of which are aimed at generating new commerce.
The city is investigating another major downtown development possibility — a specialized sports arena for individuals with disabilities. A feasibility study is being done.
“They’re looking at this for special needs people to have their own athletic facility, and again, they’ve come to the city saying we want to put this downtown. That’s where the action is,” O’Connell said.
He said conventions, though, will continue to be critical to maintaining downtown’s momentum and filling its hotel rooms. Like his counterparts in Evansville and elsewhere, O’Connell is Fort Wayne’s point person for marketing the city. He said the Grand Wayne Center, post-renovation, has re-emerged as an important chip.
With a glass facade and a sidewalk waterfall, the Grand Wayne includes 250,000 square feet of usable space, with a main hall of 100,000 square feet and 13 breakout rooms. Landing the state Democratic and Republican conventions within a four-year period was a coup for Fort Wayne. Neither meeting had ever been outside Indianapolis.
It didn’t bother Henry, O’Connell or Bart Shaw, the Grand Wayne’s general manager, that the neighboring Marriott Courtyard was built with about 6,000 square feet of its own meeting space. The Hilton’s space is about 2,000 square feet. Some in Evansville have said a conference space planned in the proposed Hilton DoubleTree would compete with The Centre — the convention center which the new hotel is supposed to benefit.
Fort Wayne officials argue the opposite.
“It’s a complement to us (the convention center),” O’Connell said. “Weddings, banquets and receptions, that’s not a client for a convention center. (The hotel) needs to make money. It’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing for the hotel, which you want to be successful. Secondly, we have used (the hotel meeting space) for use for board meetings before a big convention. Sometimes the Courtyard has had a reception for its board, and there’s 1,500 people next door at the convention center.”
O’Connell said that in today’s competitive convention market, cities will always struggle without having hotel rooms in easily walkable distances of convention centers.
“The package for conventions, both the regional ones and the national ones we talk to is, you have to have the sleeping accommodations attached. I mean, you’re just not in consideration (without them).”
As Fort Wayne officials contemplate whether they need even more hotel rooms downtown, they acknowledged some competition exists between downtown and outlying hotels. But they said quality properties are doing OK, in part because of highway traffic and a bevy of sports tournaments.
“The community’s not ignoring them. We’re addressing their marketplace too,” O’Connell said.
The city’s first Marriott hotel, a 219-room property, had foreclosure paperwork filed because its owner wasn’t able to repay a $14 million loan issued in 2005, the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette reported last week. O’Connell said the property dates to the 1960s, and its guest rooms have outdoor entrances.
“It was tired,” O’Connell said of the property, adding that Fort Wayne has added a new hotel each year for the past decade.
Henry said outlying areas of Fort Wayne aren’t being ignored, but the city’s two major investments in Downtown — the Grand Wayne Center’s 2005 and the Harrison Square Project of 2009-10 — have been game-changers.
“We’re having a lot of fun right now, because there is momentum, something we haven’t experienced in quite some time,” he said.