Fort Wayne is known for many things. But there are just some things that are so well-known that they have had a hand in putting the city, and the area, on the map.
Whether it's Vera Bradley, Sweetwater or Fort Wayne Children's Zoo, people outside Fort Wayne have heard about them and make it a point to come visit the city for those businesses or to see what else Fort Wayne has to offer.
“It's a great thing in our community that people find these businesses valuable and want to come to Fort Wayne to visit them,” says Jessa Campbell, marketing and communications coordinator with Visit Fort Wayne. “(It's) a great pride in our community.”
For events such as the annual Vera Bradley outlet sale, Campbell says Visit Fort Wayne starts to receive calls as early as January. The sale, which happens in April, brings people from all over the country. “It just goes to show that there are fans out there,” she says.
It's a similar experience with Fort Wayne Children's Zoo, which has earned several accolades, including being named one of the top 10 best zoos by Trip Advisor.
Campbell says the zoo is a great entry for visitors who hear about it and then come and experience what else Fort Wayne has to offer.
Anything that puts Fort Wayne favorably on the map is great for the city, says John Urbahns, president and CEO of Greater Fort Wayne.
“It's great that Sweetwater is known nationally; Vera Bradley is a major company that is known around the world. We have had that (before) with International Harvester and GE that put (Fort Wayne) on the map,” he says.
Urbahns says the biggest boost for Fort Wayne “is everything we have going on. ... It creates a great interest and buzz.”
The community sells itself, he says. “It's easy to pitch something you believe in and lives up to what you talk about.”
Here are some of the businesses, organizations and individuals that have given Fort Wayne, and the area, a little bit of prominence.
It started with quilted cotton handbags in floral patterns that grew to become a must-have accessory for women worldwide.
Vera Bradley was launched in 1982 by Barbara Bradley Baekgaard and Patricia R. Miller, who were disappointed at the absence of beautiful luggage in airports and decided to create their own. Named for Baekgaard's mother, the company soon became a powerhouse with distribution sites globally.
It now sells not only handbags and luggage but fragrances and other accessories.
The company's annual outlet sale, held every April, has become a draw – both locally and nationally – boosting the number of visitors to Fort Wayne. More than 50,000 shoppers, both women and men, flock to the sale and the city, to buy the famed handbags and accessories.
In addition, the company created the Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer, raising millions of dollars each year for research through its fundraising events of golf, yoga and pickleball.
If you are into music, sound systems and instruments, chances are we don't have to tell you about Sweetwater Sound. And based on its national reputation, which includes bringing in well-known musicians and band members to hold workshops, perform concerts and test equipment, there are a lot of people outside Fort Wayne who know the company well.
The Sweetwater campus, on U.S. 30 west of the city, has become its own musical mecca.
It is a self-contained superstore that offers not only instruments, such as pianos and guitars, but also equipment, service and repair, studios that offer production and musician assistance, a recording studio, academy of music that offers music lessons, a diner, a cafe, the Crescendo Club where musicians can perform onstage, a health clinic for employees, a salon and spa, a fitness center, arcade and game area, a performance pavilion and a giant metal slide.
Whew! There's no doubt a customer can spend hours here, and employees may not want to go home.
Sweetwater was founded by Chuck Surack, who in 1979 had a four-track recording studio in the back of his Volkswagen bus.
Sweetwater is also known for its annual GearFest, which takes place in June and brings thousands of people to the campus for two days of a musical festival full of concerts, workshops, vendors and hot new gear.
Surack and his wife, Lisa, have been big supporters of and contributors to community projects and events, including the recent $9 million rebirth of the Clyde Theatre as a music venue in the city.
After winning Miss Fort Wayne, Lydia Tremaine became the first pageant winner from Fort Wayne to win Miss Indiana in 34 years.
The Kendallville resident competed in the Miss America pageant and placed in the top 15. The 21-year-old, who ended her reign June 15, says being Miss Indiana has been a whirlwind.
She traveled the state – 35,000 miles, to be exact – representing Miss Indiana.
“Everyone knows where Fort Wayne is,” she laughs. “Everyone from the state has heard of us.”
And while the same can be said for her fellow contestants from such Midwest states as Michigan, Illinois and Ohio, it took some explaining in such places as California and New York.
But Tremaine helped alter that with her national attention in the Miss America pageant.
She also in the last year has been making appearances and speaking about her platform, ActNow, which helps keep the arts alive.
“The arts really saved my life,” says Tremaine, who says she had social anxiety in school and growing up. “They helped me gain confidence.”
Now she talks to other students and children about music and the arts.
“I'm so thankful that in Fort Wayne, the No. 1 thing growing is our arts community,” she says. “It honestly is a wonderful way for the community to bond together. ... We're pretty cool, if I do say so myself.”
Fort Wayne Children's Zoo
Not many cities can boast having a zoo in their backyard, let alone one that has been touted as being one of the best zoos to visit in the country. Fort Wayne Children's Zoo, which opened in 1965, has grown over the years and sees thousands of visitors each year – many from other areas or states.
The zoo has a variety of animals, including lions, giraffes, zebra, birds, reptiles and sea lions, as well as rides and activities.
DeBrand Fine Chocolates
It's one of Fort Wayne's sweeter claims to fame. Cathy Brand-Beere started DeBrand Fine Chocolates in 1987. What started out as one store in Fort Wayne has grown to four retail shops in the city and one in Indianapolis, and a mail-order department that ships all over the world.
Walking into a DeBrand store is a chocolate lover's dream. There is a little something for everyone and something to make a perfect gift when you don't know what to give.
Addison Agen and Christiana Danielle
Fort Wayne was all abuzz when Addison Agen made it on the popular TV singing show “The Voice” during the 2017 season, but when the city saw another native, Christiana Danielle, secure a spot on the show in the next season, it let the nation know that Fort Wayne has some talent.
Agen, now 18, made it to the final two on the show, coached by Adam Levine, and ended her run as the runner-up.
Christiana Danielle, a 2013 Snider High School graduate, was coached by Alicia Keys and made it to the top 10 before being cut.
Both women have continued their education and singing careers, appearing in various events and concerts.
The Genealogy Center, in the Allen County Public Library downtown, is considered among the nation's premier genealogical research sites, often mentioned along with the Mormon Church's Family History Library in Salt Lake City and the National Archives and the Library of Congress, both in Washington, D.C.
The Fort Wayne center attracts about 65,000 visitors a year, most from outside Allen County, including from other countries. Many people come to Fort Wayne and spend a few days or even a few months poring over the center's printed materials, spools of microfilm containing census information, family histories, military records, church documents, newspapers and more.