FORT WAYNE – A local nonprofit is paying a Utah-based consulting firm $25,000 to study the feasibility of building a downtown arena with a special purpose.
The proposed midsize sports facility’s mission would be inclusion for people with intellectual and physical disabilities, officials said Tuesday.
Programs would allow them to participate in adaptive sports such as wheelchair basketball, wheelchair soccer and sled hockey.
The multimillion-dollar arena – which would not compete with Memorial Coliseum – would be designed to make it easier for families to attend events with members who are in wheelchairs or have other special needs, said Patti Hayes, chairwoman of the AWS Foundation, formerly Anthony Wayne Services.
The foundation supports organizations and programs that help children and adults with intellectual and physical disabilities “live as independently as possible, be included in the community and function at their highest potential.”
Since 2009, AWS Foundation has awarded almost $3 million in grants.
But, Hayes said, board members have been considering a large-scale project that would put Fort Wayne on the map as a destination that welcomes individuals and families with disabilities.
Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry, who participated in the announcement in Grand Wayne Center, supports the project and pledged to do whatever he can to make it a reality.
“My hope, my desire, is to make this a one-of-a-kind facility,” he said.
At this point, Hayes and Henry aren’t sure where such an arena would be built. That’s one of the questions the study being performed by Victus Advisors is supposed to address, the mayor said.
Another question: Where should the necessary millions come from?
The study will also formally identify funding sources, Henry said. But some pots of money immediately come to mind, including Legacy funds designated for sports-related projects, he said.
In fact, the Fort Wayne Legacy Task Force recommended that a portion of the $75 million received from the lease and sale of the city’s old electric utility be spent on a sports-related project to help attract more visitors and residents to Fort Wayne. Those funds are still available.
Another source of money for a downtown arena could be food and beverage taxes collected by the Capital Improvement Board, Henry said. The AWS Foundation has some money it could contribute, Hayes said.
Officials expect the report will be completed by the end of the year. No taxpayer money is being spent on the study.
Fort Wayne’s Turnstone Center for Children and Adults with Disabilities is already considered a national leader in recreational programs for children and adults with disabilities.
The nonprofit’s athletic teams included about 200 local students as of this spring. They participated in wheelchair basketball, power soccer, tennis, sled hockey, fencing, kayaking, archery, bocce ball and rowing.
Some events have gained even greater visibility.
Lutheran Health SportsCenter in February hosted the Fifth Annual Bob Chase Frostbite Classic and Third Annual Silver Stick Sled Hockey Finals. Sled hockey allows those with physical disabilities to play hockey by sitting in a sled and propelling themselves with two specially designed sticks. Able-bodied people can compete on an equal level with those with disabilities.
“We already draw in athletes from six or seven states,” Henry said. “Why not make it bigger?”
Enthusiasm aside, the report might show that northeast Indiana can’t support such a facility. But the project’s supporters doubt that will happen.
Don Steininger, a local developer and AWS Foundation board member, thinks the study will confirm what officials already know in their guts. The demand, he said, is there.
“This isn’t a blind shot, believe me,” he said.
Ian Rolland, another board member, supports the project. But he knows it could be an uphill battle after two previous attempts to generate support for a larger downtown arena failed.
This project is more broad-based and usable than previous proposals, Rolland said. And the success of Parkview Field might have changed some minds about downtown development, he added.
Even so, he said, “You can’t assume that everybody is in favor of this.”
This month, local officials unveiled the results of Vision Fort Wayne 2013, a study of the downtown performed by Ball State University architectural students.
Among the group’s findings was that the downtown might be about to support a midsize venue with a capacity of 3,000 to 5,000. Memorial Coliseum and Embassy Theatre now accommodate crowds much larger or smaller than that niche.
That $30,000 project was paid for by the city, the Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance, the Downtown Improvement District and various architecture firms and businesses that donated space and furniture for the Ball State students to use.