FORT WAYNE – After a month garnering national attention and quite a few laughs, Harry Baals’ limelight appears ready to dim.
Mayor Tom Henry is expected to announce the name for the new city and county government building this week, and it is not likely to honor one of the city’s longest tenured – and humorously named – mayors.
A preliminary vote among community leaders, city employees and members of the City Council show support for fairly conservative community-themed names.
Names such as Three Rivers Government Center, Fort Wayne-Allen County Government Center and the current title, Renaissance Square, dominated the public favorite – Harry Baals – in the internal questioning.
Henry said he plans to make an announcement by Wednesday regarding the name but said late last week a decision had not been made. While he was careful not to give away his favorites, he said the same 20 or so names – out of more than 100 submitted – consistently rose to the top, regardless of the group asked.
Of the 10 finalists he has selected, he said he would be pleased with any of them.
On Jan. 20, Henry announced he would ask residents to submit suggestions to name the new government building at 200 E. Berry St.
Within hours a favorite emerged: The Harry Baals Government Center, named after the mayor who was elected to four terms as mayor between 1934 and 1954, when he died in office.
The late mayor stayed at the top with a comfortable, if not overwhelming, lead in online voting for weeks. This changed after a story in The Journal Gazette reported the city would not use the name, despite its online popularity.
That story was picked up across the state, then the country and the world. Within days, Harry Baals – and of course his wife, Minnie – was being discussed everywhere from Jimmy Kimmel to Rush Limbaugh.
In 48 hours, the name’s vote total jumped from 882 to nearly 10,000, with people across the globe going to the city’s website to cast votes in support.
We don’t have enough money in our city budget to pay for that kind of advertising, Henry said.
The city closed its online voting forum Feb. 11, and the Harry Baals Government Center led with 23,867 votes. Thunder Dome finished second with 2,221 votes in the public voting, but the Mad Max movie-related moniker received no support from community leaders.
Joining the fun
Instead of shrinking from what some might consider an embarrassing story, Henry did his best to embrace it.
He sent letters to Limbaugh, Kimmel and other national news outlets thanking them for their coverage and inviting them to visit the city to find out what else it has to offer.
The people of Fort Wayne are still chuckling about your send-up of our community, our former mayor, Harry Baals, and our search for a name for our new local government center. We love the joke, the letter said. Still, we feel that you overlooked a whole lot that’s wonderful about Fort Wayne, Indiana.
The letter was accompanied by a T-shirt that read: You Already Know Fort Wayne Has Baals. Come See Our Other Assets.
Henry said the shirts were custom made but have become so popular that the city has received numerous requests for copies.
Limbaugh responded to the gesture on air, calling it a great effort by the city and even thanked the Democratic mayor for the gift.
Henry said it might seem as if the attention is unwanted, but he has received few comments from people upset at the city’s odd source of fame.
Instead, he said he received numerous calls praising the city’s reaction – including a few from other mayors wishing they had a humorously named former executive.
Narrowing the field
But Henry said selecting a name honoring just one person would be problematic. Although Harry Baals did numerous good things for the city, so did other mayors. Although Ronald Reagan was a prominent president, so was John Kennedy.
It’s very difficult to pick a person, Henry said.
That didn’t stop several other elected officials from supporting past leaders. Council members Karen Goldner, D-2nd, and Tim Pape, D-5th, both listed Lincoln Municipal Center as their top choice. Councilmen Tom Smith, R-1st, and Marty Bender, R-at large, supported the Anthony Wayne Government Center.
Smith said the Anthony Wayne name was something people are familiar with and would recognize as representing Fort Wayne.
After learning the new government building sits directly across from the existing Anthony Wayne Building, Smith began to doubt whether that name should be used.
That may indeed be Anthony Wayne overkill, he said.
When discussing the topic at neighborhood meetings, Smith said he did not find many people supporting Harry Baals for the name.
Smith also supported the Three Rivers Government Center option.
The voting list, provided to The Journal Gazette after a public information request, does not include all the favorites contemplated by the mayor, but it does represent a cross section of city leaders’ ideas.
Most of the support was for names with fewer entendres than Mayor Baals, but the popular online choice did receive some support – selected as the preferred choice by a few city employees and business owners.
Even Henry couldn’t help himself in supporting the former mayor, if only subconsciously.
We’re having a ball with it, the mayor said. Or was it, We’re having a Baal with it?