When Fort Wayne Mayor Graham Richard proposed a downtown ballpark a decade ago, the response was swift and angry.
"A tragic waste of my taxpayer money," one letter writer complained. "Throwing away Memorial Stadium is a disgusting decision," wrote another. Posts on local blogs were even harsher, prompting one investor to drop plans for a restaurant at what is now The Harrison, the mixed-use development north of the ballpark.
But Richard’s BaseballPLUS committee had done its homework. Not even an economic downturn could keep a sound idea from becoming a catalyst for downtown redevelopment. The TinCaps draw crowds unlike anything the Wizards saw at Memorial Stadium, and the ballpark development has turned a once-struggling area of downtown into a busy, attractive corridor.
Monday, the 19-member committee Mayor Tom Henry charged with reviewing the feasibility of a downtown arena recommended the city of Fort Wayne and Allen County government join forces to pursue the plan – an idea that first surfaced more than 15 years ago.
Before dismissing the downtown arena proposal out of hand, consider the criticism that met Parkview Field’s development. Note the arena idea is one with staying power, and it now resurfaces as a logical next step in downtown’s revival, not as a proposal to kick-start it.
The mayor set up a first-rate panel to review the arena idea, led by Chuck Surack, founder and president of Sweetwater. Surack said Monday the vote was unanimous, although the panel chose not to specify the size of the arena.
"Let’s find out what we really want to build first," he said. "I don’t know if it’s 4,500 seats or 6,000 seats, but I suspect it will be in that range."
Some will see the proposal as a direct threat to Memorial Coliseum. But just as the Coliseum’s newly expanded conference center space complements the downtown Grand Wayne Center, the proposed arena gives northeast Indiana the opportunity to attract different artists, events and audiences. The Allen County commissioners endorsed the proposal in a statement released after the announcement, noting the Coliseum’s board of trustees had been consulted.
Aside from a clear directive that no property taxes will be used, details remain to be settled, but the proposal for the city and county to collaborate as government partners in the development is an approach likely to stem conflict and foster cooperation.
Keep an open mind as the proposal is unfolding. Fort Wayne and northeast Indiana officials and business leaders have learned much in recent years about how such projects can work. If you don’t believe it, the TinCaps’ home opener is two weeks from Saturday. But hurry – tickets are going fast.