About 70 years ago, Fort Wayne's civic leaders thought it would be a good idea to build not just an arena as a tribute to those who had served their country in the military, but that arena would be the first of a three-phased project with a giant swimming pool and a 3,500-seat auditorium.
The arena got built – and stands today as Allen County War Memorial Coliseum. Phases 2 and 3 – well, those ideas fell by the wayside, and it turned out it wasn't a bad thing that they did.
Randy Brown, the Coliseum's executive vice president and general manager, shared that tidbit of insider information Monday during a luncheon meeting of the Fort Wayne Rotary Club.
Although he didn't mention the recent stalling of plans for a proposed downtown arena, he did stress the ways the Coliseum has had to change to maintain its success – and some challenges the venue faces.
“A lot of facilities of our type are fiscally challenged,” he said, noting other regional venues lose $100,000 or even millions of dollars annually.
“At the Coliseum, we don't have a large amount of profit, but we did have $42,000 last year. ... We are maintaining ourselves as a self-supporting entity.”
Brown said the reason includes everything from the flexible design of building expansions – for example, making the ceiling in one addition high enough to accommodate volleyball tournaments – to adding a tasting station where those considering the Coliseum for an event can sample menu offerings and design their event's plating. That feature has led to a 90-percent conversion rate – from prospective client to actual client, Brown said.
Other projects to keep the facility competitive include a new state-of-the-art scoreboard coming this summer; a way to provide better cellphone access in the busy building; reinvigorated locker rooms, suites and dressing rooms; LED lighting that maintains energy costs despite a bigger space and new security facilities.
The facility now is posting numbers some other venue operators envy, Brown said – with more than last year's 1,031,134 visitors posted by Nov. 30, and a double-digit rise in use days.
Over the last 10 years, the Coliseum has brought more than $1 billion in economic impact to Fort Wayne, with about two-thirds of visitors from outside Allen County.
“You look at these numbers and you see the Coliseum is big business,” Brown said.
But market conditions remain in constant flux. Concert promoters now ask to share promotion expenses, with the local venue putting more than $1 million at risk for more than one recent major headliner, Brown said.
It's getting more competitive to book acts, he added – it takes talking with promoters of 10 concerts just to get one sure date. And, with more regional venues, including a soon-to-open casino in South Bend, acts or venues are getting noncompete clauses that disallow other appearances within a certain number of miles.
“In fact, we just lost a ZZ Top date because of that,” Brown said, adding many performers in top-drawing acts of the past are now in their 60s and 70s.
It remains unclear who will replace them on the rock and pop music scene, he said.
After the meeting, Brown said several new event venues locally, including Clyde Theatre, mean there's more competition for the consumer's leisure time and dollar.
It's not like years ago when the Coliseum was one of a handful of arenas in the state, he said.
The consultant's report on the downtown arena accurately reflected the state of the market when it pointed out economic difficulties the proposed arena and other area venues would likely face, said Brown. He has previously expressed reservations about the project.
If the arena had been given the go-ahead, “We as a community would have to make some decisions about our expectations,” Brown said.
“We would have to expect to run losses,” he said. “There's more competition than ever before.”