FORT WAYNE – Fort Wayne and Allen County might be known as a Republican stronghold, but Democrats found it a welcoming home, at least for a weekend.
Thousands of delegates streamed through the Summit City’s downtown Saturday, conducting official business, eating lunches and seeing the sights of the city.
The Indiana Democratic Party conducted its convention at Grand Wayne Center, the first time the party has held its event outside of Indianapolis in nearly a century.
Mayor Tom Henry, who served as the chairman for the convention, said he heard rave reviews from attendees, many of whom did not know what to expect when visiting Fort Wayne for the first time. He said many guests took tours of the community, including going to the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory or checking out the new Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge on Clinton Street.
I think they left with a real great feeling about the city, Henry said.
Lori Wright, a delegate from Indianapolis, said the city had done an amazing job in putting the convention together. While she had been to Fort Wayne years ago, she said she was impressed by the improvements the city had made to its infrastructure and downtown. She enjoyed the ample downtown parking and the ability to walk between almost all downtown destinations.
From talking to people on the street to having to stop and ask for directions, Wright said everyone was incredibly helpful and pleasant.
That says a lot about your city, she said.
Dave Gochenour, a delegate from Fort Wayne, said it was wonderful his hometown could host the party convention this year. He said early estimates of attendees were too low, noting he believed there were at least 3,000 people at this year’s event.
He credited people’s willingness to drive to Fort Wayne to the numerous unofficial events coinciding with the convention.
That’s what’s really drawing a lot of people here, he said.
There were officially 1,409 delegates at the convention, but Henry said many brought family members to enjoy a weekend in Fort Wayne. Guests began arriving Thursday and were invited to numerous events including BBQ Ribfest and one that features many of the the products made in northeast Indiana.
The events related to the convention were estimated to have a local economic development effect of nearly $500,000, according to the party.
Carmen Darland, chairwoman of the 3rd Congressional District Democrats, played a pivotal role in bringing the convention to Fort Wayne and organizing the event. She said she was ecstatic with how the event ran and with the positive response from all of the guests.
She said she thinks Fort Wayne will try to get another such convention but noted other communities will likely see the excitement of the event and want it themselves. But the event clearly showed the convention can be a success outside Indianapolis, Darland said.
We demonstrated it can be done, she said.
Rachel Stephen, a delegate from Fulton County, said while this was her first Democratic convention, she has heard only compliments about Fort Wayne from other delegates.
For example, many people were grateful that Fort Wayne’s hotel room rates were so much more affordable than Indianapolis’, some as much as one fourth the cost.
She said it was an excellent decision by the state party to move the convention out of the state capital if only to show people from that area that there are intelligent, involved Democrats across the state.
There’s more to Indiana than just Indianapolis, she said. It’s sometimes hard for people to realize there’s more out there, and we’re not all bumpkins.