It started off with a trio of songs from the Fort Wayne Children’s Choir.
The kids sang as a huge crowd of residents – event coordinators stopped counting at 415 – packed the Anthony Wayne Ballroom for the final public meeting of the riverfront study process.
"I think I’m as excited as all of you are as to what’s going to happen tonight," Mayor Tom Henry told the crowd.
Henry thanked SWA Group for its work in developing the riverfront designs.
"They did exactly what we asked them to do, and that is take the time to do it right," he said. "If you’re going to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars upfront, and ultimately millions of dollars in making once an enemy to the city of Fort Wayne a friend … we wanted to make sure the study was done right."
Kinder Baumgardner, president of SWA Group, the city’s riverfront consultant, said building an attractive, functional waterfront promenade should be a major focus of the first phase of the project.
"This sort of waterfront promenade is the thing that has always risen to the top," he said.
The first sections of the promenade could run along both the south and north sides of the St. Marys River, starting at the Wells Street Bridge and stretching east toward Harrison Street.
"The idea here is taking the Wells Street Bridge and really celebrating that as kind of the centerpiece," Baumgardner said.
The north side of the river could be more community-friendly, with open space for activities, a place for residents to come to relax and have a good time.
The other side, Baumgardner said, would be more development-friendly, with shops, restaurants or residential spaces.
"We want to keep these balances, we don’t want this all about one thing," he said.
Along with an attractive promenade, SWA Group’s vision for the riverfront includes Headwaters Junction, a rail-themed attraction that would house the 765 steam locomotive on the north side of the St. Marys River east of Wells Street, and expansions to turn Lawton Park into an adventure area for all ages, with possibilities for an improved skate park, boat dock, a rock wall and water features.
Residents were largely supportive of the designs presented Wednesday.
"I love it, absolutely loved it," Fort Wayne resident Jackie Isaacs said of Wednesday’s presentation. "I’m just so excited. I’m ready to go for it."
Isaacs said she particularly liked how the plan incorporates the Wells Street Bridge. She’s seen the way other cities have beautified their rivers, she said, and is excited to see something similar planned for Fort Wayne’s future.
Resident Dean Bobay said he was impressed by Wednesday’s presentation and thinks an improved riverfront could be a boon for the city.
"I think certainly the thing we have to take from (the presentation) is that for this to happen, the city has to grow," he said. "It’s going to take a lot of money to make it happen, but it can be a really good thing for the city if we can get through all the different government agencies, get it approved and make progress."
Councilman Geoff Paddock, D-5th, who represents much of downtown Fort Wayne, said the concepts presented Wednesday show a lot of vision for the future of the riverfront.
"There’s been a lot of thought as far as what can happen to the downtown area, and I’m also pleased that a lot of what they presented reflects off of what we’ve already done at Headwaters Park," he said.
"It shows there’s a lot of connection there."
City officials have said everything presented by SWA Group so far is purely conceptual. Potential projects to develop the riverfront will be undertaken in phases spanning decades into the future and will depend largely on public-private partnerships.
SWA Group is expected to present the city with a final report within the next several weeks, which staff from various city departments will review and use to begin developing ways to implement the plans.
Pam Holocher, the city’s planning and policy director, said the city will focus on three areas – programming, maintenance and development.
"One of the first things we can do is open up views of the downtown riverfront by removing invasive plant species, dead trees, debris and trash," she said.
"We can also begin by pruning trees and shrubs and working to control erosion."