It was just last week when the Downtown Improvement District hosted a "Celebrate Downtown" gathering for residents who wanted to … well … celebrate downtown. Those who attended were encouraged to cite positive aspects of downtown Fort Wayne, as well as share ideas as to what could be improved.
People were encouraged to complete a form that read, "What I’d like to see downtown is …," then fill in the blank. On the form, however, the DID took it upon itself to address an anticipated issue before it was broached: "…and a grocery store."
"You’ll probably hear this from other downtowners, but the only negative is that you can’t even get a carton of milk down here," says retired attorney Leonard Helfrich, 62, who owns a 2,100-square-foot condo on the 15th floor of the Anthony Wayne Building. "There’s no grocery store."
Even though the lack of a nearby grocery was the common complaint among downtown residents, the overall attitude from several was nearly unanimous: Yes, they love living in the heart of their city.
Riding the tidal wave of downtown redevelopment, millennials, baby boomers and some even older have chosen to opt for multistory apartment buildings and condos over more traditional homes.
"It’s definitely from suburbia to downtown, which is what I kind of grew up in," says Sam Hartman, who lives in a 650-square-foot condo in Midtowne Crossing. "It’s a totally different lifestyle. You can’t even compare the two."
Hartman may be considered the prototype among downtown residents. The 30-year-old Realtor is single and, even though he lived two years in the West Central neighborhood, moved several blocks east to Midtowne Crossing to suit his lifestyle.
"Being younger and single, I wanted to have something with less responsibility. I wanted to practice what I preach and own something," he says. "But I wanted low-maintenance living, easy to clean. The condo is 650 square feet, and it feels gigantic because all I do is come home, shower, throw my bag on the floor and I’m out the door to a bar or to a ballgame or something like that.
"What I love about it is you’re living your life outside of your four walls. You’re not living in a 4,000-square-foot house you have to keep clean and you have to keep updating. You have simple amenities in your living arrangement, so that you can enjoy all the external amenities like the Farmers Market on a Saturday or a ballgame on a Thursday, or just a bar for drinks after work."
From the expansion of Grand Wayne Center in 2005 to Parkview Field that opened in 2009 to the recently completed Ash Skyline Plaza, Fort Wayne’s downtown revival has been well-documented and equally received. Housing units have flourished, with an estimated 1,600 condos and apartments currently available. That number is expected to increase significantly over the next few years.
Skyline Tower will add 124 apartments above the Ash Brokerage offices. Ground was broken in September 2015 for Cityscape Flats across from Parkview Field. The project will include 118 one-bedroom and 40 two-bedroom apartments and 14 row houses. Randall Lofts at Pearl and Harrison streets, and Superior Lofts, at Superior and Calhoun streets, have 110 combined units.
Emily Baransy grew up near Lima, Ohio, and moved to Fort Wayne after graduating from college. She found work, wound up in a small studio at Three Rivers Apartments but recently settled into her one-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor of The Harrison.
"I thought it was a really cool concept," says Baransy, 28, projects manager with Aging and In Home Services. "I thought at the time I’m never going to have this experience again. The restaurants they have at the bottom of the building are really great. I go to the stores that are below the little boutique there, and you can go to those restaurants easily. That, combined with the great view and the great apartment was enough to make the decision (to move)."
From her balcony that overlooks Parkview Field, Baransy can watch the TinCaps’ baseball games during the spring and summer.
And yes, she’s quite popular during the season.
"That’s fine. I don’t mind," she says. "That’s part of the reason I live there – to be able to share it with people and share it with people who don’t come to downtown Fort Wayne. So being able to share that, and the excitement and the good qualities of downtown, is good to be able to do."
Because she works near a grocery store and can easily stop there before returning home, the ongoing issue of downtown not having one doesn’t bother her. But there are other downsides of downtown.
"I miss my yard," says Baransy. "I had a great yard at the duplex; just sit outside and have space and spread out and get a cornhole game going or whatever out in the yard."
And there’s the noise.
"It’s always noisy," she says. "There’s always something going on. I’d say that would be one thing, especially when you have the lights of the baseball field and you’re trying to sleep. I can’t say I can complain about it, though. It’s not that big of a deal. I chose it."
From atop the Anthony Wayne Building, Helfrich’s days are more serene. His large windows give him a panorama of downtown, including the Allen County Courthouse nearly below.
It’s been three years since he moved from his 4,000-square-foot home, where he cleared snow in the winter and tended to his lawn in the warmer months. But much of his social life took him downtown. He would meet with friends for dinner. His meetings as a volunteer were often downtown. And when he heard that a condo was opening in the Anthony Wayne Building, he jumped at the opportunity to buy it.
He admits he doesn’t cook much, if at all, since he, too, is single. "I typically eat at home about twice a month," he says. "I just don’t enjoy cooking for one."
So he has his favorite haunts: The Hoppy Gnome, just downstairs; the Dash-In Cafe for lunch; The Golden; Club Soda.
"The one thing I like is I have a ready access to a gym in my building," Helfrich says. "I can take my bike easily up to the Rivergreenway. Then, of course in the summertime, you’ve got a festival outside your door every weekend."
Helfrich’s overall assessment of downtown living: "I love it."
Hartman admits the secret is out; that the millennials and empty nesters may join what he calls the "downtown community."
"You talk about it, and they say, ‘Man, I had a chance to buy those condos 10 years ago for $30,000. I wish I would’ve bought them,’ " Hartman says. "And I was like, ‘Yeah, but 10 years ago everyone would’ve been calling you an idiot for buying them at that price.’ No one was living downtown. Nothing was happening downtown."
These days, he says, there is a bit of a community spirit among those who live downtown. And if there is to be more, he says, so be it.
"The demand is there," he says. "I know it is. It’s exciting. I’m not in any way upset about it. The more people you can bring downtown, the closer you get to having more amenities."
A nearby grocery store, he said, would be one.