On a patch of grass in the heart of downtown Fort Wayne, a dozen or so women who work at Vera Bradley spread out blankets (Vera Bradley-designed, of course) for a picnic lunch.
The women – joined by many others – came out for the Lunch on the Square on Thursday, even though the event was canceled because rain was forecast.
This year’s weekly Lunch on the Square has attracted record crowds, and apparently not even bad weather can deter participants.
“Our numbers have doubled over last year,” said Bill Brown, director of the Fort Wayne Downtown Improvement District, which sponsors the event. “We average about 200 people in the square every week,” he said.
Thursday’s event at 1 Summit Square was almost rained out for the first time this season, prompting officials to cancel the live entertainment and extend the event through Sept. 5.
But many ignored the forecast and lined up to order take-out lunches from one of the five food concessions parked along Wayne Street, while on the sidewalks of nearby restaurants people dined alfresco beneath cloudy skies.
On the Vera Bradley blankets, Vicki Redding was enjoying her first Lunch on the Square. She and others were invited by co-worker Janielle Gregory, who had previously attended the event.
“It’s just nice to get out and come downtown,” said Gregory, who along with the others, drove downtown from the Vera Bradley facility southwest of Fort Wayne.
On a nearby bench, three retired teachers who taught math at a school in Van Wert, Ohio, finished their lunches, but stayed to visit with one another and people watch.
Gail McKinnon, who lives in Fort Wayne, commuted to Van Wert when she was teaching. Earlier in the year, McKinnon had invited her Van Wert friends, Lois Haller and Cindy Thomas, to join her at Lunch on the Square.
“It was so much fun, we decided to pick a Thursday and meet here every time we got together,” Haller said.
On the plaza, Harry Becker sat and strummed his guitar for passers-by.
Although Becker was the lone musician for the event, street performers will be in abundance this weekend at Busker Square for Taste of the Arts, another downtown event rapidly gaining in popularity.
The art of various street performers or buskers will be showcased at Freimann Square from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. Saturday.
The event – which debuted in 2011 – continues to draw crowds, Brown said.
This year’s performers will include jugglers, magicians, living statues, dancers, musicians and pyrotechnic performers, he said.
The downtown is not the same downtown of just a decade ago, Brown said.
Gone are the days when a visitor was hard-pressed to find anything open or going on after business hours in downtown Fort Wayne.
There is now a plethora of restaurants and things to see and do, he said.
In addition to new hotels and a ballpark, there are several downtown parks, historical buildings and museums and an array of walking and cycling trails.
And there are more venues in the works, Brown said.
Event 360 – a center for weddings, receptions and other events – will soon open on the 25th and 26th floors of the PNC Bank building, Brown said. The windowed center – formerly the Summit Club – will offer breathtaking views of the city.
Red Rok, a new restaurant, recently opened on Columbia Street. Another new one – Main Street Martini and Bistro – is in the works on the first floor of the 1st Source Bank building at Barr and Main streets.
Pembroke Bakery & Café in the Auer Center for Arts and Culture on Main Street recently opened a second downtown location in the Star Bank building at 127 W. Berry St.
A new restaurant to be inside Cottage Flowers on Wayne Street is on the way, Brown said.
Downtown has also seen an increase in retail stores as well as apartments and condominiums, with more planned, Brown said.
The upper level of a historic building at 817-819 S. Calhoun St. was recently renovated into apartments, and the ground floor will house a business, probably a restaurant, Brown said.
Another building at Pearl and Harrison streets will be converted into apartments, Brown said.
“The community has an appetite for urban living,” Brown said.
“The new Harrison Square is now 100 percent residentially leased,” he said, “and we are getting close to being fully leased on the Anthony Wayne building condos” under construction at Clinton and Berry streets.
An area just west of Parkview Field is the proposed site of new urban townhomes.
There are more commercial and residential opportunities planned that are “significant in scale,” Brown said.
The Downtown Improvement District was formed by downtown property owners in 1996. Brown has been director for the past year.
It takes multiple elements to create a vibrant city, Brown said.
“It takes the community coming together with the private sector, not-for-profit organizations, government officials and good leadership to make this happen,” Brown said.
The interest in urban lifestyles is a trend that will not go away, he said.
“The younger generation expects a vibrant downtown core.”