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Sunday Centerpiece

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      Editor’s note: Journal Gazette photographer Rachel Von lives and works in downtown Fort Wayne.
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Illustration by Gregg Bender | The Journal Gazette

Packed full of fun

City’s destination reputation on sharp upswing

Fort Wayne has never suffered the indignity of an “India-no-place” moniker, but its stature seemingly dwindled as the Circle City prospered and shed its own unwelcome name. With nearly 2,000 Hoosier visitors here this weekend for the state GOP convention, officials hope the city will begin to draw some of the same attention Indianapolis enjoys.

“If there’s a similar reaction to what we saw after the state Democratic convention, it will be ‘Wow! I had no idea Fort Wayne was this much of a destination,’ ” said Dan O’Connell, president and CEO of Visit Fort Wayne. “They’ve driven by on I-69 and missed what was going on here.”

The distance from interstate to the heart of the city likely has kept some from discovering Fort Wayne’s emerging arts scene, new sports venues, downtown renaissance and more. It’s not unusual for visitors to express surprise at all they find here.

Steve Shine, Allen County Republican chairman, made sure GOP convention-goers wouldn’t miss the city this time around. Scheduled activities included a private event Friday at Parkview Field, featuring area bands and food from local restaurants. Saturday, there were free shuttle-bus visits to the Children’s Zoo, Science Central, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center and more. A Kenny Loggins concert scheduled at the historic Embassy Theatre was intended to cap off the day’s schedule, which Shine hoped would entice delegates to stay past the convention’s end.

“This is really an effort to showcase the jewel of the Midwest, which is Fort Wayne and Allen County,” he boasted. “It’s definitely important for people who have not been north of Indianapolis to see what their counterparts have accomplished here.”

Shine said the Allen County GOP and its contributors, who pitched in $250,000 to provide for convention-related activities, wanted to entice convention-goers to see more of the city than the Grand Wayne Center.

“We wanted to do more than invite them to see what we have here,” he said. “We wanted to show them.”

For other recent visitors, Fort Wayne clearly left an impression. Jacob Greene, who gave the keynote address at a Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana event in April, said he sensed the excitement of downtown revitalization when he was here. The Los Angeles-based speaker, an expert on millenials in the workplace, noted Parkview Field, downtown galleries and “a pretty great Irish pub I went to.”

“I don’t know who is responsible for the tourism stuff, but the city is set up very well for festivals, for baseball. It’s so walkable – it’s got great potential.”

Connie Reed, a Midwest-based travel writer, probably isn’t alone in learning she was mistaken about the Children’s Zoo until visiting this spring.

“I thought the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo might be a small petting zoo. But a petting zoo couldn’t be 40 acres in size with over 1,000 animals, including lions, tigers, zebras, and giraffes,” she wrote at her blog, Midwest Wanderer. “I quickly discovered the zoo isn’t just for kids. It’s as fun for adults as for children.”

O’Connell said the Visit Fort Wayne staff frequently receives comments from surprised first-time visitors. Now in his 25th year leading the city’s tourism efforts, O’Connell said the job is made easier as the number and scope of the city’s amenities increase. The convention center and Memorial Coliseum have seen improvements designed to accommodate more events. Nine new hotels have been built since 2006, including the addition of the Courtyard by Marriott adjacent to the Grand Wayne Center.

“Adding the ballpark was important,” O’Connell said. “Almost every group wants to know if the TinCaps are playing. Some will even change their start from a Friday to a Thursday to catch a game.”

He said Fort Wayne residents often are unaware of how many visitors are in the city for youth sports tournaments, meetings and more, noting that residents benefit not only in economic terms, but also in civic pride.

“We look at Indy envy a lot,” O’Connell said. “They decided 25 years ago to be the amateur sports capital. They developed a sense of pride – ‘let’s build a mall downtown.’ … The attitude we need is, ‘let’s host people here’ You’re not giving things away to visitors – you’re bringing more to your own community. Just look to your state capital to see how it’s worked.”

Mayor Tom Henry believes Fort Wayne can meet visitors’ expectations.

“We have a fantastic blend of sports, restaurants, hotels, shopping centers, family entertainment and cultural arts,” he said. “We have a safe, clean and walkable downtown. There is no question our city is awesome.”

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor, has worked at The Journal Gazette since 2000 and for Indiana newspapers since 1982. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by email,