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Site debate just part of arena study

Demand for an additional sports facility in Fort Wayne, specifically one to serve the needs of those with disabilities, is undisputed. But questions about the best place to build it, who should run it and how to pay for it remain significant barriers. A local non-profit’s downtown arena study is a needed step toward removing those obstacles and fulfilling the city’s potential as a center for sports and recreation for people with physical and intellectual disabilities.

“There are a lot of amenities for people with disabilities in this community,” said Nancy Louraine, executive director of Turnstone Center for Disabled Children and Adults. “The advantages we have are the great services, but also we are a friendly community that really cares about people.”

She said demand from clients has allowed Turnstone to create the fourth-largest paralympic sports club in the U.S. “We don’t have any room to grow, and we want to take this and really make Fort Wayne a center for parasports,” Louraine said. “We want to grow this not only to highlight the abilities of people with disabilities but also to highlight Fort Wayne.”

For more than two years Turnstone has been working on plans to expand its campus on North Clinton Street, including a sports arena, as well as a capital campaign to pay for it.

The AWS Foundation, formerly Anthony Wayne Services, is paying Utah-based consultants Victus Advisors $25,000 to study the feasibility of a downtown arena. The vision is a facility that would serve many area groups, including AWS, Turnstone and the League for the Blind and Disabled. Proponents also want to invite the Fort Wayne Mad Ants to make it their home court.

“We put our quiet campaign on hold to see what the study shows us,” said Tracy Shellabarger, retired CFO of Steel Dynamics and chairman of Turnstone’s capital campaign. “We’re just so darn excited about having a facility that would be for people with disabilities first. Our preference would be to expand on the North Clinton campus, but we don’t have the money to do it right now. So, this is a close second for us.”

The idea is to have a fieldhouse seating from 3,000 to 3,500 spectators that can be used for many different sports.

“It will be a very flexible facility so that we can use it in multiple ways,” said Don Steininger, a local developer and AWS Foundation board member.

The study is needed to sort out complicated questions, including how much an arena will cost and how to pay for it.

“It’s got a long way to go, but I think it stands a good chance of success because we have the right people in favor of it and I think the money will come in,” Steininger said. “We don’t know how much it’s going to cost because we have to design it from the inside out to make it useful for all people with disabilities.”

The study should help determine whether the arena should be downtown or on the Turnstone campus.

“I feel pretty strongly that the best location for the city and for the users is the block west of Parkview Field,” Steininger said. “We have to come up with a good story and a good reason for putting it there. And I think we can do that.”

Louraine said the most important thing is that it gets built. “If it’s downtown, people might just come to watch wheelchair basketball or a power soccer game. It’s just amazing to see the excitement and athleticism displayed,” she said.

It could be a win-win if the arena ends up downtown, as long as the study finds that downtown has the amenities to accommodate the differently abled participants and fans the venue will attract.